Tug of war over land-mine issue Controversy: A retired general argues they are a deadly nuisance. But another counters they are necessary to halt enemy encroachment and thus save U.S. lives.

Sun Journal

September 08, 1997|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- During his four decades in the military, Army Gen. James F. Hollingsworth says, he learned firsthand that land mines could be a deadly nuisance, maiming and killing U.S. soldiers, from World War II battlefields in France to jungle trails in Vietnam.

And those were the mines the U.S. military had laid to protect its troops.

"We lost a lot of people from our own mines," recalls Hollingsworth, a grizzled 79-year-old retired combat veteran with a slew of medals. "I think they ought to go. I don't think they add much to the defense of our country."

But retired Gen. Carl Mundy, a former Marine Corps commandant and a decorated combat veteran, sees anti-personnel mines as a necessary tool that can prevent an enemy from penetrating a perimeter around U.S.-held territory and thus save the lives of American troops.

"We've got to give the 28-year-old captain the ability to defend his position," Mundy says. "And you do that with mines."

Those two views are at the heart of an international dispute that has split the retired community of soldiers and pitted the United States against some close allies. With the United States and more than 100 other nations meeting in Oslo, Norway, to decide whether to endorse a treaty to ban land mines, Mundy's view is being embraced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by U.S. negotiators.

The United States wants exceptions included in any treaty, to permit its military to continue using land mines in the demilitarized zone in Korea. It also wants to mingle "smart" mines -- which can self-destruct or de-activate by timer -- with anti-tank mines, which the treaty would not bar.

The three-week conference opened last week with a moment of silence for Diana, Princess of Wales, whose campaign to ban land mines took her to Bosnia-Herzegovina just weeks before she was killed in a Paris car crash.

Both sides of the debate suggest that Diana's death will heighten the pressure on the United States and other opponents to back the treaty, much as President John F. Kennedy's assassination spurred some in Congress to endorse civil rights legislation that Kennedy had advocated.

"To be sure, there will be people arguing that [the treaty] has to be a living legacy, a monument," says Frank Gaffney, director of the Center for Security Policy, a conservative public policy center.

Gaffney dismisses the treaty as unenforceable and ineffective. The leading producers of mines -- including Russia and China -- are not taking part, he points out.

France, England, Germany, Italy and Canada all support the treaty, which would ban the production, storage, use or export of anti-personnel mines. Nations would have to destroy their stockpiles within three years. The call by U.S. negotiators for exceptions, though endorsed by Japan and Australia, are likely to be voted down, and the treaty is expected to be approved by December.

Public pressure arising from such land-mine opponents as Diana and retired Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf led President Clinton to decide to enter the Oslo conference just three weeks ago. There are also 60 senators behind a bill to ban the use of anti-personnel mines after the year 2000.

The campaign to ban land mines began in 1991, when humanitarian groups that were caring for the survivors of land-mine explosions decided to push for a total ban. An estimated 100 million land mines are peppered throughout the world. Each year, they kill up to 26,000 civilians.

But the Pentagon sees land mines as an integral part of its arsenal, particularly in the demilitarized zone in Korea, where 37,000 U.S. troops and 550,000 South Korean troops are massed against a 900,000-strong North Korean army that is within artillery range of the South Korean capital. Tens of thousands of land mines are scattered in the DMZ.

"Those mines are integral to the defensive structure," Gen. John Tilelli, commander of U.S. and South Korean troops, said last week. "Protecting the lives of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- and the civilians -- is humanitarian."

Anti-personnel mines are also woven into the Pentagon's war-fighting plans. Commanders typically learn how to defend a position against a larger enemy through a variety of mine-field designs that resemble a football playbook.

"There is a tremendous military utility to mines," says Mundy, the former Marine commandant, who was among 24 retired senior officers who wrote to Clinton in July, opposing a blanket ban on all anti-personnel mines. "Minefields are designed to slow down an enemy to channel him where you want him to go."

By forcing the enemy into a circumscribed area, Mundy says, a commander can concentrate artillery or small-weapons fire on opposing forces.

Mundy and other advocates also note that the new generation of "smart" mines can use timers to deactivate or self-destruct, unlike earlier ones produced by the United States that led to accidents from World War II to Vietnam.

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