Pentagon Pollution, 6: Weapons of mass destruction in slow motion

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During and after the Pentagon’s wars, landmines and cluster bombs kill and maim, while blocking resettlement and agriculture in the poorest regions

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H. Patricia Hynes, a former  professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, now directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. She has kindly given permission for Climate & Capitalism to repost these articles, which were originally published in Truthout in 2011.


by H. Patricia Hynes

Searching for land mines in Croatia

Searching for land mines in Croatia

Every 20 minutes, a landmine explodes and 50 to 100 grams of TNT blast into the victim’s foot, leg and other parts of the body. One in 230 people have lost a leg, or more, to landmines in Cambodia, a country plagued with an estimated four million mines — one of the 20th century’s worst human-induced environmental disasters.

The United States  devised a class of extremely lightweight antipersonnel (that is, intended to injure or kill persons) mines to block the flow of materials and soldiers from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.Landmines were dropped so routinely and in such high numbers that the US pilots referred to the them as “garbage.”[2] With landmines supplied by China, the Khmer Rouge subsequently mined rice paddies and country paths used by Cambodian peasants to punish and starve them.[3]

In the 1980’s war between Iraq and Iran, thousands of landmines were planted in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region between the two countries, at the rate of three for every inhabitant as the warring countries retreated.[4] The epidemic of landmine use in armed conflict was largely ignored until the late 1980’s, when relief workers publicized the tragic plight of thousands of limbless landmine victims in Cambodia, as well as in and Afghanistan, where victims were injured from landmines Soviet troops placed in grazing areas, on roads, and in mosques and abandoned houses.[5]

Landmines were first used widely in the Second World War and have been used intensively in every conflict since. More than 110 million antipersonnel landmines were dispersed in fields, roadways, pasture, farmlands, irrigation channels, forests, deserts, and near borders in 90 countries throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Regular armies as well as insurgents used landmines because they are cheap, easily employed, lightweight, durable and effective in slowing the movement of the enemy and sapping their morale. Sometimes called “the poor man’s bomb,” landmines and automatic rifles became the weapons of choice for guerrilla and government armies since the 1970’s.

Antipersonnel mines were initially targeted for military defense of encampments and strategic structures, and also to maim, not kill the enemy, so as to tie up their battlefield resources in saving the wounded. Later, mines were increasingly used as weapons of terror to displace communities and to cause maximum harm to civilians in order to “create a state of military, political, social and economic imbalance in war-torn countries.”[6] In the early 20th century, 80 percent of landmine victims were soldiers; by the late 20th century, 80 percent of the maimed and dead were civilians.

The full scale of global hazard from landmines is difficult to define because so many have been scattered randomly from airplanes in unmapped rural areas, and they lie deadly intact for decades until triggered by a person, vehicle or animal. Modern mines are small and lightweight, so a combatant can carry and scatter many at a time. Further compounding their deadliness, mines have plastic, camouflaged casings, making metal and visual detection nearly impossible. Landmines pose a major threat to food security, particularly if placed in the breeding areas of insect pests, such as the desert locust. If mines make pest control too dangerous and the desert locusts are able to breed to plague levels, they can ravage crops at the rate of 150 to 200 kilometers per day. Controlling a plague of this scale could require four to five years, a period of time that could endanger the food supply of one-tenth of the world’s population, according to United Nations (UN)-affiliated researchers.

Injustices of Landmines
Socioeconomic costs to victims and communities

A criminal inequity lies in the nexus of landmine manufacture, use, cleanup, victim harm and community loss. Manufacturing antipersonnel mines is relatively easy and inexpensive, at the cost of US $3-30 each. Detecting and neutralizing them is dangerous for the de-miner, slow and expensive, at US $300-1000 per mine destroyed. The UN estimates that, at the current rate of removal and cost, it will take 1,100 years to clear all remaining landmines — provided no new ones are used — and cost approximately $33 billion. Many warring groups have not mapped or kept records of where they placed landmines, creating serious difficulties for mine removal and crippling the ability of resettlement, agriculture and tourism in former war-ridden countries. The average total cost of a prosthesis for a survivor of a landmine explosion (excluding hospital stay) is estimated at $1,000, an amount that would take most typical victims ten years of income to afford. Most people disabled by landmines will never receive the comprehensive health services they need.

Unexploded landmines cripple the delivery of aid during war and obstruct redevelopment efforts and recovery from war, thus extending the morbidity of war for decades after hostilities cease. Consider the life-sapping impacts found in a study investigating the social costs of landmines in four countries — Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia and Mozambique. Households with a landmine victim had more difficulty in providing food for the family. Without landmines, agriculture production could increase as much as 200 percent in Afghanistan and 135 percent in Cambodia. Landmine victims went into debt and sold assets to pay for their multiple medical treatments. Tens of thousands of domestic animals were killed by landmines, with a minimum loss of $200 per affected household. Relationships within the family were negatively affected for one in four victims through neglect, ostracism, abandonment and violence. Thus, acutely disabled landmine victims further suffer the compounded life crises of food insecurity and hunger, debt and poverty, loss of agricultural animals, and loss of family relations.

The plight of women landmine victims

Up to 20,000 people are maimed or killed each year by these “weapons of mass destruction in slow motion,” as landmines have been called by human rights activists. Women and children are the most common casualties in agrarian and subsistence-farming societies, where landmines were deliberately placed in agricultural fields and along routes to water sources and markets to starve a people by killing its farmers.[7] In Bajaur, Pakistan, thousands of landmines were scattered on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by the Soviet military during their war against Afghanistan. Women and girls constitute almost 35 percent of mine victims there, injured while fetching fodder for animals, crossing agricultural fields and carrying out their daily activities. Yet mine awareness sessions in the conservative tribal society are provided in mosques and schools to men and boys who are then relied upon to educate women and girls at home.[8]

A vast network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), coordinated by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, is working with mine-affected states and has enabled mine-clearing to evolve from a military clearance activity to a humanitarian and developmental initiative. Even so, the plight of women amputees is particularly grave. Nearly one-half of land in Cambodia is unsafe for cultivation and human use.  As the recovery from war continues, it is likely that an even greater percent of those injured and killed by landmines will be women and children as they return to peacetime sustenance activities such as collecting firewood and water, tending animals, and farming.[9] Women make up a larger percentage of farmers than men in Asia and Africa and are responsible for up to 80 percent of food produced in many parts of Africa.  When maimed, they lose the ability to farm and feed their families and their husbands often abandon them, leaving them to beg on the streets. While women care for mine-disabled husbands, husbands abandon mine-disabled wives, a phenomenon documented in many countries.[10]

In addressing a UN panel, “Gender Perspectives on Disarmament,” Martin Barber, chief of the UN Mine Action Service, stated that, even without accurate data on the percentage of women landmine victims, “We do know that women suffer more when they become victims of landmines … Fewer women receive mobility aid, such as artificial limbs, and they may receive less attention in the case of emergency, right after the landmine blast.” He cited a landmine impact survey in Yemen that revealed that women have a sizably higher fatality rate from landmine injuries than men do because “men are more likely to have quick access to emergency care, like first aid, than women.”

Gender inequality – social, political, sexual and economic – lies at the core of why women suffer more from landmines than men do. Having less education, less mobility, receiving less respect for their human rights, fewer economic resources, less leisure time – in sum, less power over their lives – women living in land-mined countries and disabled by mines must be a central focus of mine awareness, de-mining and rehabilitation programs. The following questions should always guide the design, implementation and evaluation of landmine victim assistance and de-mining programs to ensure equal protection for women. What are the social and economic supports for landmine-injured women? Are women the primary caretakers of amputees and others injured? If so, do they receive adequate assistance, given their other household responsibilities? Are women and girls equally educated with men and boys in landmine awareness and included in landmine clearing training and work opportunities?

Cluster Bombs

Cluster bombs contain several dozen to thousands of bomblets or submunitions capable of injuring and killing people and shattering solid objects. They have been employed through air-dropping and ground-launching in astoundingly high numbers since the 1970’s. Between 5 and 30 percent are duds and don’t explode; of these unexploded submunitions scattered throughout conflict areas, about 50 percent detonate when jolted.[11] Cluster bombs, which are used as antipersonnel and anti-tank weapons, to wreck runway surfaces, destroy electric transmission lines, and for incendiary purposes, are particularly dangerous to civilians because of their wide target area – the size of a football field. Handicap International reported that 98 percent of more than 13,000 casualties from cluster munitions recorded with the organization are civilians, of which 27 percent are children returning home after conflict or doing normal daily tasks to survive.

Cluster bombs were initially developed and used by Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War.  The United States undertook the first massive use of these munitions during the Vietnam War, inaugurating their extensive use in subsequent armed conflicts. Between 1961 and 1975, the United States dropped 1.5 million cluster bombs with 750 million bomblets in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, both as antipersonnel weapons and to deny Viet Cong access to areas. By 1975, 294 cluster munitions per square kilometer had been air-dropped in Vietnam – approximately two cluster submunitions per person.[12] During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, 60,000 cluster bombs with 30 million antipersonnel and antitank submunitions were dropped by the United States in Kuwait and Iraq over one month.[13] With flagrant disregard for international humanitarian law, the United States and British forces dropped cluster bombs in urban areas, including Baghdad, Basra, Hillah, Kirkuk, Mosul, and Nasiriyah, during March and April 2003 of the second Gulf war. The British group Landmine Action estimates that at least one million cluster submunitions were dropped by coalition forces in Iraq, leaving 50,000 live bomblets to maim and kill civilians, assuming a failure rate of five percent.

Like landmines, unexploded cluster submunitions make recovery from war much more difficult: farming, herding, forestry and accessing water sources all become hazardous. Tourism is impossible. Generations are set back in their capacity to pursue economic, human and community development by the “fatal footprints” of this scourge of war.

Landmine and Cluster Bomb Conventions

International landmine and cluster bomb conventions are cited as one of the few successes in curbing one of the worst of modern weapon threats. Of 196 countries, 156 have signed the 1997 UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (known as the Ottawa Treaty), and the 2008 UN Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 109 countries as of March 2011. The older landmine convention, the result of immense international NGO organizing through the leadership of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), has resulted in remarkable consequences. None of the treaty states to the Ottawa Treaty produces landmines; global trade in antipersonnel mines has almost halted; 86 countries have completed the destruction of the landmine stockpiles, effectively destroying over 45 million antipersonnel mines; and in 2010 only one government was identified as laying landmines, Burma.  According to the ICBL’s global landmine review for 2009-2010, the number of casualties from landmines and other explosive remnants of war is at the lowest level since ICBL began monitoring in 1999 and mine action programs cleared the highest amount of acreage recorded.

The first report on cluster munitions actions was released in August 2010 by the ICBL. Among the report highlights, six signatory states have destroyed all of their cluster munitions stockpiles. Investors and financial institutions have taken steps to end investment in cluster munitions industries in at least 13 countries.  Since December 2008, when the Convention on Cluster Munitions was opened for signature, only one serious allegation of cluster munitions has been made. According to Amnesty International, the United States fired “at least one cruise missile with submunitions to attack an alleged al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen in December 2009.”

Despite these remarkable gains, the three countries with the largest militaries – the United States, Russia, and China – as well as those engaged in or threatening hostilities, such as Pakistan and India, North and South Korea, and Israel and Iran, have not signed either convention. Further, the daily threat of tens of millions of hidden landmines and unexploded cluster-bomb parts in more than 60 countries makes these lying-in-wait weapons more threatening to environmental health than most.

The postwar detritus of unexploded landmines and cluster-bomb parts is a singularly grave and intractable crisis, particularly for the rural poor of war-torn countries. The sadistic technical perfection of mine and cluster-bomb emplacement, camouflage and longevity under extreme environmental conditions, coupled with their intensive use over large areas, makes these weapons an ongoing singular and “silent terrorism”[14] for civilians returning to their homes after the organized and overt terrorism of armed conflict ends. Those countries that refuse to destroy their stockpiles and hold out for use of these indiscriminate weapons that mainly kill the innocent; those manufacturers, financial institutions and investors who profit from the deaths and disability of this terrorism; and the pilots, soldiers and insurgents who scatter them with impunity bear responsibility for the inhumanity of their holdout against the clear march of history – to ban forever landmines and cluster munitions.

Continued in Part 7: The military assault on global climate

Resources for Information and Action


1. Eric Stover, James C. Cobey, and Jonathan Fine. (2000). “The public health effects of land mines: Long-term consequences for civilians.” In Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel (Eds.), War and Public Health. Washington, DC. American Public Health Association.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Gino Strada. (2004). Green Parrots: A War Surgeon’s Diary. Milan: Edizioni Charta.

5. See note 1.

6. “Landmines.” Canadian Landmine Association.

7. Jack Geiger (2000). “The impact of war on human rights.” In Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel (Eds.), War and Public Health. Washington, DC. American Public Health Association.

8. Fayyaz, Faiz Muhammed (2003). “Pakistan: The landmine problem in federally administered tribal areas.” Journal of Mine Action, 5.1.

9. Ashford, Mary-Wynne, & Huet-Vaughn, Yolanda (2000). “The impact of war on women.” In Barry S. Levy, & Victor W. Sidel (Eds.), War and Public Health. Washington, DC American Public Health Association.

10. Gender Perspectives on Landmines (March 2001). The Department for Disarmament Affairs and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations – Mine Action Service in Collaboration with the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and the Advancement of Women. United Nations.

11. Arthur Westing (2002). “Conventional warfare and the human environment.” In Illka Taipale et al. (Eds.). War or Health: A Reader.

12. “Circle of Impact: The Fatal Footprint of Cluster Munitions on People and Communities.” (May 2007). Executive summary.

13. Ibid

14. Howard Zinn. Introduction to Green Parrots: A War Surgeon’s Diary. See Note 4.