- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

As a former Special Forces officer who has been in minefields and who works to eradicate the impact of land mines on civilians around the world, I take issue with several of the points Ernest W. Lefever made in his March 15 Commentary column, “Land mine myopia.”

In his discussion of the inherent destructiveness of land mines, Mr. Lefever suggests that land mines are weapons like bombs (which are dropped by humans) and tanks (the main guns of which are fired by humans). They are not. The weapons he compares with mines require a “man in the loop” to drop, fire or otherwise operate the system to achieve the desired effect. Not so land mines. Once in place, they are dangerous to anyone who steps on them for years or decades after a conflict has ended. Most often, the victims of land mines are civilians.

Mr. Lefever suggests that the impact of land mines, like that of tanks and bombs, is dependent upon how they are employed. Again, the impact of tanks and bombs is at the time of use. Even if land mines were employed with some regard to military doctrine, these considerations are irrelevant many years later to the civilians men, women and children who have replaced the warring armies around the minefields and who unwittingly wander through them. There is no man in the loop to prevent these civilians from being victimized.

Mr. Lefever states that “[i]n its failed conquest of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union used mines to kill and maim Afghan children and farmers.” Unfortunately, more than a decade after that war ended and more than a decade after the state that initiated that war ceased to exist, the weapons Soviet soldiers employed continue to kill and maim Afghan children and also American soldiers trying to do what is right and just in the war on terror. Without a man in the loop without intent and direction tanks do not continue decades later to do the job for which they were intended. Tanks require an intelligent actor to aim and operate. Land mines do not. They are victim-initiated and heedless of the victim's origin or allegiance. They act regardless of whether the victim is an al Qaeda operative on the run, a U.S. soldier on his tail or an Afghan farmer trying to get out of their way.

Mr. Lefever touts the “precise location of all U.S. mines in South Korea.” Yes, the United States and a few allies may adhere to the military discipline required to map minefields and remove the mines when the war has ended. However, most militaries do not have the discipline of these few NATO members. I have walked around minefields laid by “modern” militaries around the world, and even if the conflicts ended years earlier, the mines are still dangerous. The militaries that put in these minefields apparently forgot to remove them once the conflict was over. The children and farmers living around these minefields, because they do not have access to the rare maps that once might have been available, continue to step on mines and die. In Afghanistan, various factions that continued fighting after the Soviet Union withdrew disassembled some of these “orderly” minefields and used the mines again in ways that were not mapped, marked or controlled. Land mines are weapons that keep on giving.

A final point Mr. Lefever should ponder in his analysis of the “zealous advocates of banning land mines” who are “shout[ing]” about the need for the United States to sign the treaty: Many of us performing the difficult tasks of locating, marking, mapping and removing land mines are former military personnel. Certainly, the vast majority of international deminers who actually do the demining or train local nationals to do it are from the forces of a NATO member. We aren't weak-kneed, hand-wringing types, and based on our broad experience doing hard jobs in harder places, we tend to have a realistic worldview.

My personal experience in several countries that have been engaged in conflict as recently as months before my arrival has shown me that these countries can and do abide by the treaties they have ratified. I have been present for the destruction of national stockpiles. Keep in mind that these countries don't have the “smart” weapons and high technology that the United States does. They certainly would have a stronger argument than the United States for keeping land mines in their meager arsenals. The difference is that citizens and leaders of these countries have actually experienced the damage that land mines inflict upon innocents. In their eyes, the damage outweighed politically and morally the tactical and strategic value of retaining these weapons. The United States might want to remember this as we fight a just war against terror. We might want to remember that land mines directly terrorize more people each year 26,000, as Mr. Lefever noted than all other forms of terror combined.


JOSEPH DONAHUE

Operations officer

Mine Action Program

Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation

Washington


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