Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A few words in defense of land mines

I want to be careful here. But I also keep in mind that writing a good blog is not a popularity contest. FP ran a terrific column the other day about land mines, provoked by the nasty little one that ripped off Joao Silva’s feet in Afghanistan the other day. He is the legendary New ...

globalsecurity.org
globalsecurity.org
globalsecurity.org

I want to be careful here. But I also keep in mind that writing a good blog is not a popularity contest. FP ran a terrific column the other day about land mines, provoked by the nasty little one that ripped off Joao Silva's feet in Afghanistan the other day. He is the legendary New York Times photographer.

Land mines are awful little things, as this article shows so well. Especially evil are the simple little ones, no bigger than a can of tuna fish, last for decades, and blow up kids, dogs, sheep and photographers. Once, while studying the Soviet war in Afghanistan, I read an article about the secondary and tertiary damage done by land mines. It turns out that not only do they maim intentionally, rather than kill, they also punish the organs -- liver, kidneys, heart -- but especially the brain. People who step on land mines are likely to have years of lingering agony from these invisible blast effects. That medical study came to my mind when in the spring of 2002, while wandering around the neighborhood in Kabul in which I'd lived for two years as a teenager, I wound up in what my driver tardily said appeared to be a minefield. (And thanks to the U.S. Army Europe for the mine-awareness course they made me take before I embedded in Bosnia in 1995. Their lessons came in handy that day, especially in re-tracing my steps as I exited that overgrown, animal-less field in the middle of a city.)

So why do I have even one good word to say about land mines? Because those that are built to self-destruct after a set period -- say six months -- can still be useful. For example, if Pakistan descended into total chaos, it might be a very good idea to air-drop land mines around the bunkers holding its nuclear warheads, just to keep them from falling into terrorist hands while the situation is sorted out. Considering that the alternative could be a nuclear 9/11, in New York, Bombay, Madrid, Paris, or London, suddenly land mines don't seem so bad. This is of course an extreme situation, but it tells me there are some instances where an argument can be made for certain kinds of land mines.

I want to be careful here. But I also keep in mind that writing a good blog is not a popularity contest. FP ran a terrific column the other day about land mines, provoked by the nasty little one that ripped off Joao Silva’s feet in Afghanistan the other day. He is the legendary New York Times photographer.

Land mines are awful little things, as this article shows so well. Especially evil are the simple little ones, no bigger than a can of tuna fish, last for decades, and blow up kids, dogs, sheep and photographers. Once, while studying the Soviet war in Afghanistan, I read an article about the secondary and tertiary damage done by land mines. It turns out that not only do they maim intentionally, rather than kill, they also punish the organs — liver, kidneys, heart — but especially the brain. People who step on land mines are likely to have years of lingering agony from these invisible blast effects. That medical study came to my mind when in the spring of 2002, while wandering around the neighborhood in Kabul in which I’d lived for two years as a teenager, I wound up in what my driver tardily said appeared to be a minefield. (And thanks to the U.S. Army Europe for the mine-awareness course they made me take before I embedded in Bosnia in 1995. Their lessons came in handy that day, especially in re-tracing my steps as I exited that overgrown, animal-less field in the middle of a city.)

So why do I have even one good word to say about land mines? Because those that are built to self-destruct after a set period — say six months — can still be useful. For example, if Pakistan descended into total chaos, it might be a very good idea to air-drop land mines around the bunkers holding its nuclear warheads, just to keep them from falling into terrorist hands while the situation is sorted out. Considering that the alternative could be a nuclear 9/11, in New York, Bombay, Madrid, Paris, or London, suddenly land mines don’t seem so bad. This is of course an extreme situation, but it tells me there are some instances where an argument can be made for certain kinds of land mines.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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