Land Mines Still Waiting to Explode; There Is a Growing Dispute between Those Who Believe Mines Are Vital to Legitimate Defenses and Those Who See Them as Cruel Weapons That Kill Long after Wars Are over. (Nation: Military Weapons)

Article excerpt

You could march through Afghanistan without ever setting foot on the ground because of all the military debris that has accumulated from centuries of warfare. But chances are you wouldn't get too far. The land, covered with more mines per square meter than anywhere else on Earth, presents the classic dilemma of unexploded ordnance--locating and safely removing the antipersonnel land mine.

A billion-dollar industry, removing unexploded ordnance engages economic and logistical complications for which neither bureaucratic indiscretion nor military indifference are entirely responsible. This is dangerous, labor-intensive work. There are millions of land mines and no magic wand for removing them.

These are terror weapons. Concealed and indiscriminate, a Khmer Rouge general described them as "the perfect soldier: ever courageous, never sleeping, never missing." More than 2,000 types are designed not to kill but to maim. "Bouncing Bettys" rise from the ground to crotch level and then detonate. "Toe poppers" do just what their name suggests.

But what makes mines effective also makes them problematic. They neither stop attacking when war is over nor discriminate between soldiers and civilians. The Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, an antimine organization, has fitted hundreds of thousands of prosthetics during postwar projects, mostly for civilians. They report that children are 20 percent more likely to die or suffer severe limb damage from a detonated mine. Abandoned minefields only rarely are marked or mapped and, even when they are, many children can't read posted warnings. Baseball mines and other configurations even resemble toys.

The Center for Security Policy states that where there are U.S. mines, civilians would have to climb fences to enter the minefields. The organization also says that "of the mines causing problems, none are made by the U.S." The center insists there is responsible and irresponsible mining. That is, the United States makes maps of minefields, while terrorists and rogue regimes rarely do so. Never mind that unstable antipersonnel ordnance frequently is dropped indiscriminately from aircraft.

Despite the flourishing of tremendous political opposition during the last decade, mines have remained a part of military strategies and operations. Some say they are necessary evils. Former president Bill Clinton never quite outgrew the antimilitary prejudices of his Vietnam-era youth, his critics say, but when even he ordered a ban on only "the most dangerous types of mines," some were surprised. Clinton argued that "high-tech smart mines ... will be needed for a few more years to protect troops."

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is of the opinion that a mine is a terrible thing to waste. "A complete ban will cripple legitimate defense against invasion, terrorism and nuclear weapons," a senior Pentagon official tells INSIGHT. He cites South Korea, where potential invasion routes from the north are heavily mined, and names Colombia, where "we need to protect small forward bases in the drug war; otherwise they would be overrun." Insecure Russian nuclear facilities also are cited as in need of such protection. In any case, the United States, Russia and China, to name a few, have refused to sign the 1997 Ottawa Treaty outlawing land mines.

The International Red Cross produced a report in 1997 by military professionals on the effectiveness of mines as weapons in warfare, examining 26 conflicts since 1940. The report concluded that "mine use has rarely been consistent with international law.... Even when used on a massive scale, they have usually had little or no effect on the outcome of hostilities ... and often overlooked are the cost and dangers for forces employing antipersonnel mines." The report also claimed "self-destructing and self-deactivating" smart mines "are considered unlikely to significantly reduce civilian casualties. …

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