A Database of Every Bomb the U.S. Military Has Dropped Since WWI

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The history of war, as told from the perspective of the weapons themselves

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Shutterstock/Ivan Cholakov

For the past six years, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jenns Robertson has been compiling a database of the bombs the U.S. military has dropped since World War I. Every. Single. Bomb.

The project -- which began as a hobby and has since become Robertson's full-time job -- finds Robertson searching through papers and other documents, combing them for records of deployed ordnance. In his efforts, Robertson has so far discovered around 1,000 original raid reports from World War I, all of them entered by hand. He has also scanned a reported 10,000 pages of bombing records -- both typed and hand-written -- from World War II. He has scoured more than a million records from Vietnam.

The project -- official name: "THOR: Theater History of Operations Reports" -- isn't merely useful as a kind of meta-historical database, a weapons-eye view of 20th-century warfare. It's also a living document, the Boston Globe reports. Its data are up-to-date. Robertson uses the tool to keep track of ordnance used in the United States's ongoing wars -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- which can in turn be used as evidence for investigations into the many civilian deaths associated with those wars.

The most immediate use of the database, though, is the saving of lives rather than the recording of death. Through THOR, the military is able to track, much more readily than it otherwise might be able to, the locations of unexploded ordnance. An examination of records from the Vietnam war era, for example, revealed that, between October 1965 and May 1975, at least 456,365 cluster bombs were dropped on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. And yet not all of those bombs actually detonated. The database offers a blueprint for the governments of Southeast Asian countries, as well as NGOs from the U.S. and elsewhere, to work from as they try to locate as-yet-unexploded ordnance -- thus preventing further injuries and deaths. 

Beyond its direct uses, though, the database is also powerful as a political and historical statement. It allows its users, Yahoo News puts it, to "point and click to nearly any location on the globe and receive a near-instantaneous assessment of when and where U.S. bombs were dropped over the past century." The database, in other words, provides a perspective on warfare that is telling and true to warfare itself: It takes aim at the weapons that take people's lives.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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