Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Bouncing Bettys

Just noticed this interesting piece on landmines and efforts to ban them over at Armchair Generalist. Much food for thought.

I have mixed views on the issue. As far as I have been able to discern, the USA opposes most anti-landmine legislation for three reasons:

  1. Operational reasons
  2. "Slippery slope" (see below)
  3. The legislation is largely a nonsense


I have not insignificant sympathy for all three lines of reasoning. The US Army is deployed in various areas - most notably South Korea - where the deployment of landmine belts can act as a powerful force multiplier. Without mines, I'm not sure (Mark? Michael? Anybody?) whether the current model of US deployment south of the DMZ would be tenable in the face of a North Korean conventional assault. The second reason, "slippery slope" revolves around the notion that once landmine campaigners have got through with landmines, they are going to turn their attention to submunitions, which in some cases have a similar detonation failure rate to landmines. This could potentially put weapon systems like the MLRS and various airborne "cluster bombs" used for target saturation and airfield runway destruction under the spotlight.

The third objection, and one can put this down to sheer cussedness though I personally sympathise, is that while the US (and Israel) tend to be the brunt of most of the criticism over refusing to sign up to landmine bans, the fact of that matter is that there are numerous other countries that produce far more (and far more unreliable) landmines, not only for personal use but for export, who seem to get a free pass. The most obvious examples are Russia and China. Either one of these countries signing up would do far more in practical terms than the USA coming on board. Both are major exporters of landmines (in fact, pretty much the only major landmine producer to play the role of turkey voting for Christmas is Italy), whereas the US isn't. But once again we are faced with the notion that the US should "lead the way" and that all that is wrong in the world stems from the refusal of the Americans to play the game. Is this stance entirely unreasonable? Perhaps not, I think it can be argued that if the US signed up it would give the movement something of a boost (though not an earth shattering one). But the fact remains that even taken individually, each of the three main US objections has merit and when taken as a whole it seems to me that the degree of shrill condemnation that is often directed Washington's way would be better focused elsewhere.

On the other hand, the misery brought to civilians by landmines is very real and given the fact that landmines can have such lasting effects once a conflict is long over I'm not 100 per cent convinced that "war is hell" is really a sufficient closing statement on this. In large parts of Africa and Asia country dwellers regularly fall victim to landmines, many of them Western deployed. Various Western nations have provided help - financial, logistical and manpower - to clear the mines they planted in the past but it is fairly clear that this is not enough. In his "Landmines and Unexploded Ordnance: A Resource Book", Rae McGrath provides a compelling examination of the impact unexploded landmines can have in the third world, especially among rural subsistance peasantry. The maiming of a single able bodied son can have a seismic knock-on effect, not merely in terms of the ability of the family to put food on the table but in terms of the ability to spare family members for education and non-subsistence work. In development terms, landmines are a very real issue. McGrath, who has played a lead role in developing the entirely creditable Post War Recovery programme at York University, is unapologetically activist in his approach to the topic (a former Royal Engineers sapper, he founded the Mines Advisory Group) and I would hesitate to endorse all his policy positions, but his treatment of the practical impact of landmines on third world communities is pretty unimpeachable.

None of this, of course, means that that banning landmines outright is the way to deal with the problem.

5 Comments:

Blogger Josh Jasper said...

Pretty much any munition or tool of invasion that contains a contaminant is a potential problem in that respect. If "war is hell" is a good reason to keep selling land mines, why not nerve gas or biological weapons? Why not agent orange?

3:59 PM  
Blogger J. said...

Hear, hear. I absolutely agree Josh, would love to see professional military analysts stop scowling at CB weapons as if they were somehow "less clean" than other military weapons and openly discuss the pros and cons of CB weapons employment. Fact is that many CB weapons can be used in a careful and discriminate fashion against military forces without excess noncombatant casualties, but the perception of these weapons, caused by Halabjah, etc, will never allow that discussion. Plus there's that whole CWC/BWC treaty thing.

For the record, the use of herbicides in Vietnam was largely successful in dramatically reducing casualties caused by ambushes around US firebases and in the Delta. The military commanders in country WANTED this stuff and used it for a reason. Yeah the dioxin thing was a bitch, who knew in the 1960s that a very small percentage could cause such lasting environmental and human genetic damage? Our bad.

I am not unsympathetic to the plight of noncombatants in third world countries that have to deal with the aftermath of war, but (1) they're not US mines, (2) these casualties do not make the tactical use of mines irrelevant, and (3) small US forces facing larger adversaries need combat multipliers like mines. If the US government supports demining operations and "smart mines" that lessen the chance of post-conflict casualties, sounds like a win-win proposition.

Stop by the Armchair Generalist and see longer discussions on the issue...

9:26 AM  
Blogger Josh Jasper said...

Nonlethal CB weapons *ought* to be more used IMO. Lethal ones or ones with potential long term toxoc effects on the other hand, have the capacit of poisoning our troops. From a pragmatic standpoint, poisoning our own troops is (a) bad for morals and (b) likley to lead to lawsuits.

11:35 AM  
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