A NECESSARY EVIL?
AUGUST 7, 1997
The debate over U.S. involvement in a land mine ban continues, with strong opinions on the usefulness of mines on each side. Do mines still have a place in the present-day arsenal?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next, the debate over American land mines. We'll begin with this backgrounder by Kwame Holman.
KWAME HOLMAN: It is estimated that 26,000 people around the world--many of them children--are killed or maimed every year by anti-personnel land mines. In heavily mined countries, such as Bosnia and Croatia, and throughout Southeast Asia, children playing in fields that once were battlefields step on the mines, or mistake them for toys and try to pick them up.
Today, it's believed 100 million antipersonnel land mines are scattered across parts of 70 countries. They've been called the atom bomb of the poor because they are so cheap. At about $3 apiece, land mines are a cost effective way for poorly financed armies and militias to fight a war. But removing land mines is not cheap. According to the United Nations, it costs from three hundred to a thousand dollars to remove each device, and the process is painstakingly slow.
The United States no longer sells land mines to other countries and has committed to destroying millions of stockpiled mines that are outmoded. In a 1994 speech to the United Nations President Clinton first called for the eventual elimination of land mines.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I ask all nations to join with us and conclude an agreement to reduce the number and availability of those mines. Ridding the world of those often hidden weapons will help to save the lives of tens of thousands of men and women and innocent children in the years to come.
KWAME HOLMAN: One current anti-landmine effort is sponsored by Canada and has attracted the support of some 100 countries. It's known as the Ottawa process and would ban the use, export, transfer, and production of all anti-personnel land mines. Detailed language of an agreement to accomplish that still is being drafted, but nations are expected to begin signing onto a formal treaty by December.
So far, the United States has declined to join the Ottawa talks. The Clinton administration says it prefers to negotiate a landmine through the United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. Meanwhile, the United States reserves the right to use land mines.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Because of the continued and unique threat of aggression in the Korean Peninsula, I have therefore decided that in any negotiations on a ban, the United States will and must protect our rights to use the mines. We will do so until the threat is ended, or until alternatives to land mines become available.
KWAME HOLMAN: The United Nations talks have moved slowly, but momentum has been building for the Canadian-led landmine ban, both around the world and in the United States. Fifteen retired generals and admirals, including former Persian Gulf Commander General Norman Schwarzkopf and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman David Jones, have sent an open letter to President Clinton calling for a landmine ban. And recently, the Vietnam Veterans of America began running this television appeal.
SPOKESMAN: One hundred million active land mines remain buried, waiting for a farmer, a family, or children at play.
KWAME HOLMAN: Support for a ban on land mines is building in Congress as well. Some 60 members of the Senate now back legislation that would ban U.S. use of land mines everywhere except on the Korean Peninsula. And now the President is expected to announce within days whether the U.S. will reverse course and join the land mines talks in Ottawa. ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Charles Krause takes the story from there.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Joining us now is the army's vice chief of staff, General Ronald Griffith, and retired Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, who's written extensively on the landmine issue and is currently president of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. Gentlemen, welcome.
Gen. Griffith, tell me, this issue is being discussed at the very highest levels of the government here in Washington right now. Has the Pentagon taken a position on whether or not the U.S. should join in this Ottawa process?
GENERAL RONALD GRIFFITH, Army Vice Chief of Staff: Obviously, our Secretary of Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are providing advice to the President, and we are, of course, primarily concerned, as we address this issue that the ban on land mines be one that's comprehensive; that's global. We have been the moral leader on this issue, and so we think it's fundamental that other nations also show the same responsibility that we believe we have shown.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Now, you use the word "comprehensive" and "global." And those two words describe the U.N. negotiations because they include all the members of the United Nations, including Russia, China, Iran, Iraq. Is that what the problem is from the Pentagon's point of view with regard to Ottawa?
GENERAL RONALD GRIFFITH: We believe that very much is a problem because if you look at the places where young people are being maimed and killed. They're suffering. It is not from land mines that have been planted by U.S. forces because long ago we started destroying those mines.
We have removed 3 million of those mines from our inventories. We're in the process of destroying those mines. 1.3 million have been destroyed. The mines that we use are self-destructing mines. Their life is very short. They would be used only in situations where we're protecting the lives of American forces, and we believe that is a very, very important issue for those of us who are charged with the well-being of America's youth.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Sure. But critics have the Pentagon in this issue would say that these land mines really, and they're marginal at best. And given the fact that thousands of people every year are being civilians, innocent people are being killed; that really the time has come to say, all right, we'll use other weapons, but these really are beyond the pale, so to speak. How do you respond to that kind of argument?
GENERAL RONALD GRIFFITH: Well, again, as the President said, we are looking for substitutes for--as a way of protecting our troops. We do not use mines indiscriminately, and we believe, however, that we have a critical need to maintain a capability until substitutes that will enable us to provide protection to our soldiers on the battlefield are there, that we simply must to continue to provide that capability.
But I believe, again, it's important to state that we've been the moral leader on this. We have removed three million of the types of mines that we are seeing, causing death and maiming of people around the world. We have removed those from our inventory. They are being destroyed. Again, 1.3 million have been destroyed, and the rest will be destroyed by 1999.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Well, are you saying then that by 1999, the Pentagon would be prepared to agree to agree to a ban worldwide?
GENERAL RONALD GRIFFITH: I think we're prepared again to give up a capability that we find important when we have a reasonable substitute. The fundamental issue for those of us in uniform today is to maintain a capability. We have a small army. There are those situations where we may have to put soldiers and Marines in harm's way. Land mines are a capability that a commander has to help protect these soldiers or these Marines on the battlefield.
And we simply believe until we have a reasonable substitute, an acceptable substitute, we need to maintain that capability. But I want to continue to press on the notion that those mines are very short-lived. They self-destruct. 95 percent of the mines that we have in our inventory would self-destruct within 48 hours after they're deployed. And the reliability of that self-destruction is very, very high--99.99 percent plus.
CHARLES KRAUSE: I think I should probably say at this point we're having some audio difficulty, and Gen. Gard, who is in California, isn't hearing our conversation. So we're going to have to continue on, the two of us here.
I think one of the points that Gen. Gard would probably make--if he--when he joins us, if he does--is that even though what you're saying sounds good, that we've taken the moral leadership or we're destroying mines, et cetera, at the same time he has said that the Pentagon is, in fact, pressure President Clinton strongly not to join the Ottawa process because that would mean a ban on these land mines very soon, as soon as December or early next year, and that the Pentagon really opposes that, that prospect, is that correct?
GENERAL RONALD GRIFFITH: I think it is important to say that we are, in fact, supportive of a comprehensive global ban. Whatever forum that's achieved is fine, but I would also say that we have as long as the--our commander-in-chief is seeking advice--we have an obligation to provide that advice.
And it was mentioned, of course that there was a letter sent by a number of general officers who've retired to give advice on this issue to the President. I might note that there was another letter written by, I believe, 24 general officers to include our former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Vessey, Gen. Haig was one of those advising the President to try to maintain the capability that we have now again to protect our soldiers with.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Gen. Gard is now able to hear us, I believe. General, can you hear me?
LT. GEN. ROBERT GARD (Ret.), Monterey Institute: (Salinas) I just heard the last few sentences.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. If I could sum up, I think Gen. Griffith has said that in his view, in the Pentagon's view, the United States has taken the moral leadership on the destruction of land mines and that there is, though, some reluctance to join in a process that would ban the use of all land mines until an alternative is found. Do you think--you've written about this--do you think the United States first of all has taken the leadership on this issue?
LT. GEN. ROBERT GARD (Ret.): Well, I believe we started out taking a leadership when the President on 16 May 1996 said that he would do everything he could to achieve an international agreement to ban all anti-personnel land mines. But what's happened since is that we have taken it to the Conference on Disarmament, which is a long process.
The recent chemical weapons convention took a 13 years. We're killing and maiming 26,000 innocent people a year. We just can't afford to wait 13 years. We need to get moving on this, and I think we need to join the Ottawa process.
CHARLES KRAUSE: So you're saying that the United Nations process, the one the United States is in at the moment, you're afraid will just take forever, in effect?
LT. GEN. ROBERT GARD (Ret.): Yes, because under that particular process any participating nation--and there are 61 of them--has the right of veto. You have to get a total consensus to proceed, and it just takes, as history has shown us, an inordinate amount of time to reach an agreement in that forum.
And that's why some 100 nations, understanding the urgency of this problem, have made the decision to go to Ottawa in December and to sign a treaty banning all anti-personnel land mines.
CHARLES KRAUSE: How do you respond to Gen. Griffith's point that these land mines, at least the self-destructive land mines, are necessary to protect U.S. troops in various situations around the world, and, therefore, until an alternative is found, the United States can't give them up?
LT. GEN. ROBERT GARD (Ret.): Well, I certainly understand why Gen. Griffith would take that position. After all, our military are brought up with the objective of destroying the enemy's armed force with the fewest possible friendly casualties. We cannot expect the uniformed military to voluntarily give up a weapon that may under some circumstances save the life of an American soldier.
Trying to balance military necessity against the humanitarian effects is the job of elected civilian leadership. Our forefathers made the President of the United States the commander in chief. In the case of banning chemical warfare in 1925, the military was strongly opposed. They said that chemicals were one of the most effective weapons ever known; they were an absolutely critical offensive weapon, and that we would never be able in time of war to give up a weapon that is militarily effective. And they said that the treaty was impractical, unenforcible, and ineffective.
However, the Presidents--all the way from Harding to FDR--took a leadership role understanding that we had passed the point where you could justify by military necessity the residual casualties and suffering was caused to innocent civilians.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. General--well, let me ask Gen. Griffith to respond. We're close to running out of time here, but the point being that are you just dragging your feet because you don't see the need for change, or just don't like the idea of change.
GENERAL RONALD GRIFFITH: No, I don't think at all. I think that we've demonstrated. We did give up tactical nuclear weapons willingly. We did give up chemical munitions willingly. They--but again, as Gen. Gard said, we have an obligation to the citizens of this nation to ensure that when we take their sons and daughters on the battlefield, we provide the greatest protection possible.
The self-destructing anti-personnel mines, which are used rarely I would add, give us that capability. When they're needed, I would also emphasize, they're usually needed very badly. And it is a protection capability that I think we should hold onto until we can find a suitable replacement.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Well, clearly, it's a difficult decision. The President is going to have to make it, and I thank you both for joining us.