538: Declassified

538: Declassified

538: Declassified


I’m Ada Limón and this is The Slowdown.

I’ve often wondered how people expect others to heal if the harm hasn’t even been named or validated. I think about it with my own life, and I think about it with the country I call home. We have yet to come to terms with our own history.

When people talk about the effects of war, it’s often about the damage to soldiers and innocent people whose lives have been directly impacted by warfare. But there is so much we still don’t know about the effects of war on the land, on transgenerational trauma, or the effects of the poisons that were poured on the environment. The scars of war go way beyond those who served on either side. Like any massive wound, war never seems to end.

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than 260 million cluster bombs on Laos during what was called the Secret War. There’s an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs still in Laos scattered around the country, making the Secret War a war that is truly endless.

In addition to being the most bombed country per capita in history, Laos and the Hmong people also experienced what was believed to be a biological weapon dropped from planes called Yellow Rain. The Hmong watched plants and animals die and then, with violent symptoms, friends and family members died as well. In what seems like an improbable story of gaslighting, the Hmong were told it was “harmless bee feces.” The Yellow Rain was explained away by the story of the Asian honeybees defecating en masse.

Like most repercussions of war, the secrecy, the denial, and the covering up of the truth, add to piling on of lasting trauma. How can you begin to heal if you cannot even be believed in the first place? One of the great gifts of poetry is that it can contend with history in a way that recenters what matters. It can search for the truth while still honoring the humans who suffered.

Today’s poem is a reckoning. It is not only an interrogation but a resurrection and an incantation. The incantation is to bring forth the truth, for what is secret to not be secret anymore.

by Mai Der Vang

May the dead      be ever-evidenced

            May their clandestine names
bellow from the mouth           of an August

   monsoon      May they coax the truth
                            from every storm

        Long ago
               there lived a jungle
   whose only cloth was           camouflage

All those who came to it
                 learned the burden of hiding

                           Long ago       we memorized
the refrains of wild birds

       stitched them underneath
                                    our evacuated skins

Then man      Then soldier  Then vividness

           of saffron and canary
                      arriving as small showers

                 divulging its anatomy
                                  to the ecosystem

To keep the covert buried is not
how this story bends

                  The insects have always known
Their lineage of pollen          and the children
                                           of insects know too

May this Secret War 	its author of poisons

        its professor of counterfeit treaties
kidnapper of honeybees         each iota

of its polluted doing

         may it all burn and blister
                  under its own nakedness

"Declassified" by Mai Der Vang from YELLOW RAIN, copyright © 2021 Mai Der Vang. Used by permission of Graywolf Press.