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." With landmines supplied by China, the Khmer Rouge subsequently mined rice paddies and country paths used by Cambodian peasants to punish and starve them.
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. 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.
Read other articles in the series by author Patricia Hynes on the environmental impact of US militarism.
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." 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