Adam Serwer’s “The Cruelty Is the Point” is a well-worn reference in the Trump era, but it’s one that’s hard not to return to in light of reports like those from CNN on Thursday, detailing the administration’s pending effort to loosen restrictions on the military’s use of landmines.
The weapons, banned by 160 countries, are anti-personnel explosive devices used to destroy or disable enemy combatants or vehicles. Translated from military-industrial language, mines designed for the human body explode skyward, tearing off legs and pulverizing bone, which is shot upward to cause infection and shrapnel wounds higher on the body. According to CNN, proponents within the Department of Defense posit that easing restrictions would “ensure US forces are not outflanked or overrun during an attack and can help influence the enemy’s direction of movement in a manner to give US troops the advantage.”
However, mines cause disproportionate civilian casualties: According to the United Nations, 80 percent of the 15,000 to 20,000 deaths caused by mines annually are civilians. Explosives outlive their intended conflict by decades: Since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, over 40,000 Vietnamese civilians have been killed by unexploded ordnance. In Egypt, the country afflicted with most landmines of any country — about 20 percent of the global total — civilians are still uncovering landmines from World War II. And though mines are inexpensive to make, costing between $3 and $30, the cost balloons when they are taken out of the ground: the price of demining ranges from $300 to $1,000 per unit. Since 1993, the United States has spent $3.6 billion on mine removal efforts, though the military has not implemented any since 1991, when aircraft dropped 118,000 landmines in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
Like many White House decisions, the expected rollback is an about-face of Obama administration policy, as CNN explains:
The move represents a major reversal from the approach of the Obama administration which in 2014 committed the US to largely adhering to the 1997 Ottawa Convention, the international agreement which banned the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. The Obama policy committed to replacing landmines in the US stockpile after they expire and directed the destruction of stockpiles not required for the defense of South Korea.
In an exception to the Ottawa convention, the Obama policy allowed the US military to continue to use landmines on the Korean Peninsula where some 28,000 US troops are stationed across the de-militarized zone from North Korea’s military of one million troops. That exception was criticized by some non-government organizations …
One of the drivers of the change in policy is greater concern about the prospect of a major conflict with a “great power” adversary like Russia or China where denying conventional enemy forces access to critical terrain would be seen as a more urgent need than it has been in recent years where the US has focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. Moscow and Beijing are not parties to the treaty.
The policy recommended by the DOD will likely permit the use of landmines if they have a 30-day self-deactivation, though the fact that the U.S. has not developed any new landmine systems since the Bush administration means that no such weapons would be ready by the time the plan is rolled out in the coming weeks. The Pentagon states that the number of landmines in U.S. armories is classified.