Veterans Day, World War I, Land Mine Legacy

Mines_warning_sign.jpgToday is Veterans Day. The day started as a way to honor the end of World War I and those who fought in it and now honors all veterans. World War I ended almost 90 years ago. Nonetheless, as NPR reports people in France still encounter unexploded, active mines some with mustard gas and sometimes deminers die trying to remove the dangers. The story focuses on the Western Front. People living in the area near places like where the Battle of the Somme occurred still find remnants of the war: “There’s not many places you can’t walk out … and pick up old rifles, munitions, shells of all types, grenades, [and] bodies. Sadly, we’re still digging up a lot of bodies.” Perhaps most amazing is the following:

“About 1.5 billion shells were fired during the war here on the Western Front. Colin and his colleagues bring in between 50,000 and 75,000 tons of them a year. At that rate, they’ll have enough work to keep them busy for the next 500 years.”

Using the law to limit the effects of war poses odd questions. The idea of a law of war that seeks to have humanitarian limits on conflict can appear oxymoronic. Still, considering the lasting effect of World War I in just one area, the idea behind the U.N. efforts and treaties to eliminate old mines and end the use of them in the future offers the possibility that if conflict occurs societies can try and maintain some semblance of mitigating effects on civilians.

Given the use of homemade mines in Iraq and the possibility that the United States will face similar encounters in the future the United States’ position on mines is ironic.

image source and license information: wikicommons


In 1997 the United States moved towards a ban the U.S. military using anti-personnel mines with “15 retired generals and admirals, including Army General Norman Schwarkopf, U.S. commander in the Persian Gulf, and Air Force General David Jones, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff” stating “Given the wide range of weaponry available to military forces today, anti-personnel land mines are not essential.” President Clinton did not sign the 1997 treaty but “set in motion a policy aimed at bringing the country into broad compliance by 2006.” In 2004, however, President Bush moved away from that policy and endorsed the use of mines that can be automatically disabled as well as asserting that any other mine should not be used for anti-personnel or anti-vehicle purposes.

Although the U.S. policy goes to the heart of the issue at one level – protecting civilians from left-over mines (the U.S. also spends a large sum on helping eliminate old mines) – few have the technology for the automatically disabling mines. A mine policy that allows only some to use special ones may not have the same force as saying no one should use mines at all and as a New York Times piece put it may give “an American imprimatur on the ongoing use of land mines.”

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3 Responses

  1. Thaddeus Hoffmeister says:

    N. Korea, not Iraq, is the reason the U.S. did not sign the Ottawa convention on land mines. Furthermore, signing Ottawa would not stop insurgents/terrorists/freedom fighters from using land mines in the future. However, signing Ottawa would place a lot of American service members on the DMZ in unnecessary danger.

  2. Deven says:

    Thaddeus, You are correct. Korea and the DMZ were reasons behind Clinton’s original position. Note that the administration took an approach that was in line with your thoughts, I think: We will not sign; military find a way to solve the problem; by 2006 we will essentially be in line with the treaty.

    Others who know the details may be able to provide more on the background but that is how the articles seemed to explain the events.

    As for the more general issue Conservatarian and you bring up, I think I need to clarify. First, the amount of left over mines from such an old war is astonishing. Given the harms caused, finding ways to minimize the impact on civilians during and after a war has merit. Second, I see that the post seems to conflate guerilla style war and traditional war. My apologies. The irony I was trying to note is that the treaties do not seem to apply to these situations. The NY Times piece I think captures a different point: even for signatories having the U.S. say use mines but only if they are like ours changes the analysis. Put differently, is the question all mines are bad? Or is it: mines that harm civilians and remain active long after a war are bad?

    In any event, as always thanks to you both for engaging and asking great questions.

    -Deven