Land Mines Are War Crimes

 Just ask New York Times photographer Joao Silva.

View a slide show of Joao Silva's warzone photographs.

The land mine that took Joao Silva's feet worked perfectly.

Silva, a brilliant and courageous photojournalist on contract to the New York Times -- and, in the eyes of many colleagues, one of the finest combat photographers of his generation -- suffered grievous injuries Saturday after stepping on a mine while embedded with U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. Three nearby American soldiers suffered concussions from the blast. This suggests that the device was a miniature antipersonnel mine -- the difficult-to-detect plastic type that are usually no larger than a cosmetics jar, or a can of tuna. Silva didn't die because he wasn't supposed to. The weapon's maker -- given its location, probably an old Soviet arms manufacturer -- had calculated the exact formula of explosives and shrapnel required to maim, shredding tissue and smashing bones, but not to kill. Thus, its agonized victim must be carried off the battlefield by comrades, tying down even more manpower. Force multiplication, the military calls it.  

Silva knows the risks of mines better than most journalists. He has covered virtually every war, natural disaster, and social upheaval worthy of a headline over the past 15 years. He got his start in his native South Africa as one of a quartet of fearless young photographers dubbed the "Bang Bang Club" who documented the internecine violence in black townships as apartheid crumbled. Membership in that small band of brothers has exacted high costs. Ken Oosterbroek was shot dead in a township firefight in 1994, and Kevin Carter committed suicide -- after earning a Pulitzer for work in famine-struck Sudan -- that same year. Another of the group's Pulitzer winners, Greg Marinovich, saw the light years ago, and foreswore war zones after being wounded so often that other conflict journalists only half-jokingly branded him a "bullet magnet" and began avoiding him on assignment.

Silva was the only unscathed survivor until Sunday, when both of his legs were amputated below the knee at a U.S. military hospital in Germany. He is known among the international press corps as a careful, modest, and exceedingly generous man -- a married father of two who has managed to keep his humanity intact doing a dangerous and sometimes emotionally atrophying job.

"Those of you who know Joao will not be surprised to learn that throughout this ordeal he continued to shoot pictures," Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, reassured the paper's staff in a memo. Indeed, Silva had photographed his friend Oosterbroek's death and at least two of Marinovich's near-fatal shootings. His unblinking devotion to exposing human cruelty on film invites comparisons to the most fabled war photographer of the last century, Robert Capa, who died after stepping on a land mine in a place that would come to be known as Vietnam. And Silva's grave injuries focus attention, in the selfish way that harm to one's own tribe always does, on the enduring horrors of -- and largely forgotten crusade against -- land mines.

It seems such a 1990s issue: Princess Di in an African hospital, comforting a child with bandaged stumps. Today, the notoriety of land mines has been at least partly eclipsed by the bane of more modern, equally sinister weapons, such as cluster bombs and remotely triggered improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. But according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the coalition of NGOs that pulled off a diplomatic coup by shaming more than 150 nations into signing a Mine Ban Treaty that took effect in 1999, thousands of people continue to be killed or horribly wounded by mines every year in active and former war zones across the planet. This toll is a fraction of what it used to be, thanks to the activists' efforts. But the ICBL tally of mine victims over the past decade still exceeds 73,500 worldwide -- a bleak figure that's made worse by the fact that most of the dead and mutilated didn't wear uniforms. Estimates of the civilian proportion of land mine casualties range from 60 to 85 percent. This represents a mountain of severed feet, legs, toes, fingers, and arms, most of them blown from the bodies of farmers plowing their fields in Cambodia, women drawing water from wells in Iraqi Kurdistan, and children playing soccer in Bosnia. Some of the most recent human shards to join that grisly pile happen to belong to hundreds of U.S. troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and, a few days ago, to a war journalist.

The United States is among the remaining 20 percent of the world's countries who refuse to sign the land mine ban. Washington keeps company in this altogether more unsavory version of the Bang Bang Club with authoritarian states such as Iran, Russia, Burma, and China. The excuse is mostly tactical: The Pentagon says it can't dispense with the gargantuan mine fields required to defend South Korea from an invasion by Pyongyang. Anti-mine campaigners grant that the United States is in de facto compliance with the treaty. It stopped producing the weapons in 1997, has upgraded designs to render its mines inert after a period of time, and has donated millions to international de-mining efforts. But some 10 million American antipersonnel devices -- and more than 7 million antivehicular mines -- remain stockpiled, like malevolent eggs, for future use if needed. First Bill Clinton, then George Bush, and now, to the disgust of human rights groups, Barack Obama have all repudiated the treaty. Last November the administration threw a sop to its humanitarian critics by promising that a policy review was continuing.

Weighing one war crime against another is a bit like counting the demons that dance on the head of a pin. What, exactly, makes chemical or biological weapons more monstrous than millions of low-tech explosives that cost as little as $3 apiece, are activated by 20 pounds of pressure on a crude firing pin, and which linger in the soil like some invisible toxin, ruining lives for generations? How is targeting specific innocent populations for elimination -- genocide -- immeasurably more heinous than eliminating innocent populations piecemeal, essentially at random? And isn't the latter a classic definition of terrorism?

Twice in my travels I have witnessed land mines doing what they are meant to do. Not incidentally both cases were in Afghanistan, the world's land mine poster child, where an estimated 10 million explosives lie blurred in the ground, many dating from the 1979 Soviet invasion: roughly one calamitous device for every three Afghan citizens. The first incident was a statistical rarity, involving as it did a bona fide combatant. He was a young, eagle-faced soldier with the Northern Alliance whose feet were scythed off by the loud, brown pop of an antipersonnel mine planted by the Taliban on the approaches to Kabul. (Again, that effective engineering.) Three grim-faced colleagues hauled him unconscious to my car, obliging my horrified driver, at gunpoint, to speed him to a hospital. I got ditched on the battlefield. When the driver finally returned, he waved his hands in choked sadness over the steering wheel and the car's floorboards sloshed with blood. I have no idea if the soldier survived.

The second casualty, by contrast, was more typical. He was a trucker on the road to Bamian, the famed valley of the Buddha monoliths. He had been driving point in a column of civilian vehicles, the first to penetrate territory recently ceded by the Taliban, when a mine blew off his right front tire. I watched him climb unsteadily from the truck's smoking cab and stagger back through the terrified caravan, past my open car window, with a look of blank shock on his face. He was an old man, bleeding from his ears, and where he was proposing to walk was anyone's guess. Maybe clear out of Afghanistan. Two children ran laughing after the shattered tire, which had bounced down a hill, probably into another mine field. These anecdotes point up a problem with the global landmine ban: Guerrillas and insurgents generally don't sign international conventions. (Though some irregular forces have agreed, in fact, to hew to the ban's prohibitions.)

What one usually sees in troubled parts of the world, of course, aren't mine explosions but the even uglier human aftermath of encounters with land mines. In Ethiopia, legless veterans of the war with Eritrea paddle about destitute towns on homemade skateboards. Many are social outcasts. In Angola, another land mine hell, women and children bang their stumps on car windows in the capital Luanda, begging for alms they sometimes can't even carry away for want of hands. These unsightly "mutilados" have been repeatedly swept out of the downtown since the advent of the peacetime oil boom. Land mines continue destroying lives like this for a long time -- decades -- after ceasefires. Locating and deactivating a single device can cost hundreds of dollars. Their effects on entire societies are by now depressingly well known: Shattered children drop out of school, cementing their families into poverty, and fearful adults avoid once productive land, stunting national economies.

Joao Silva, who is 44 and nothing if not a survivor, will doubtless overcome his injuries. News articles report that he awoke from sedation Monday. And the Times expects him to eventually return to duty. His colleague Michael Kamber interviewed him last December in Baghdad for a book on war photography. "You might not necessarily change the world with your images -- in fact, I don't think I've seen one image that's changed the world," Silva said of his witness to the rituals of killing, "but if you've changed one single person's mind, I think you've accomplished something." He later added, "When my daughter was born, I made a promise to myself that if it didn't feel good, if it didn't feel right, I would walk away from it." He can still do that, of course, with the aid of prosthetics.

Silva's home, South Africa, ceased land mine production in the late 1990s, and it is a signatory to the global ban. The country's literature, haunted by the long nightmare of apartheid, often grapples with the moral scars of expedient mass violence -- not unlike the sort that shears off thousands of people's limbs indiscriminately. In a novel titled Waiting for the Barbarians by the Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee, the broken narrator questions his torturer, with genuine wonder, about his ability to rejoin society after doing unspeakable things to other human beings:

Do you find it easy to take food afterwards? I have imagined that one would want to wash one's hands. But no ordinary washing would be enough, one would require priestly intervention, a ceremonial of cleansing, don't you think? Some kind of purging of one's soul too -- that is how I have imagined it. Otherwise how would it be possible to return to everyday life -- to sit down at table, for instance, and break bread with one's family or one's comrades.

It is tempting to ask these same questions of the men, of whatever army or guerrilla faction, who still find it admissible to sow land mines along village footpaths. It could be asked of the dwindling number of governments that continue to hoard the weapons in their bunkers. And it should be asked, too, of the ordinary souls who assemble the things, for a living wage, in some well-lit and suitably bland manufacturing plant.


Robert Kaplan's New Global Geography

In Monsoon, our latter-day Kipling makes the case that America can't rule the whole world alone.

Is Robert Kaplan becoming a starry-eyed optimist?

For the last three decades, the globe-trotting journalist and essayist has chronicled many of the darkest corners of the planet, from the tribal badlands of Yemen and Pakistan to the killing fields of Sierra Leone, Eritrea, and the Balkans. Along the way, he has developed a uniquely pessimistic, contrarian view of the world: more Fyodor Dostoyevsky than Thomas Friedman, with a little Sun Tzu thrown in for good measure. He speaks often of the need for a "tragic" view of history -- recognition of the limits of power when faced with the more determinative forces of geography and culture.

In that sense, Kaplan's writing has often been a useful corrective to the techno-utopianism that characterizes much commentary on U.S. foreign policy -- the overweening aura of cultural and institutional superiority that trips up both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives alike -- even if he has been generally wrong about a world that has gotten dramatically better over the last few decades, not more chaotic and violent. "The best guide to foreign policy is to think tragically to avoid tragedy," he once wrote.

Sometimes, Kaplan's healthy cynicism can lead to rhetorical overreach, a penchant for seeing monsters under every bed. For instance, in a 2000 essay called "The Dangers of Peace," Kaplan saw peril even in post-Cold War stability, writing: "A long period of peace in an advanced technological society like ours could lead to great evils, and the ideal of a world permanently at peace and governed benignly by a world organization is not an optimistic view of the future but a dark one."

He has also attracted his fair share of critics, from the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan, who has accused Kaplan of indulging in "cheap pessimism," to a much less polite David Rieff, who ripped Kaplan's 2005 book Imperial Grunts as "boneheaded nonsense" in a vicious cover story for the New Republic. Coming just as the American empire seemed to be meeting its Waterloo in Iraq, Kaplan's paean to the troops landed with a thud in public, even if it proved more influential among generals and Special Forces operators.

Kaplan has always been at his best when channeling the anxieties of the developing world, not the fears of the U.S. military. And if Surrender or Starve and The Coming Anarchy represented Kaplan at his darkest, Monsoon, his newest work, finds the author waxing positively giddy about the rise of Asia. As he told Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks, "This is my most optimistic and -- hopefully, that is -- nuanced work."

Indeed it is. In a sweeping narrative that traces Kaplan's journeys along the Indian Ocean littoral -- the coastline of the world's third-largest body of water, which stretches from Africa in the west to Indonesia and Malaysia in the east -- he deftly weaves history, reportage, and grand strategy cobbled together from several previously published essays into a coherent portrait of an undercovered region whose importance will only grow in the decades to come. "No image," he writes, "epitomizes the spirit of our borderless world, with its civilizational competition on one hand and intense, inarticulate yearning for unity on the other, as much as the Indian Ocean map."

Kaplan's main point is one that he makes often in other contexts: Our mental maps are fast becoming obsolete. Whereas the West tends to think about the Middle East and Asia as separate entities, Kaplan sees them as turning increasingly toward one another in a shift reminiscent of bygone eras when Omani dhows, Portuguese men of war, Chinese treasure fleets, and Dutch merchant ships rode the monsoon winds from Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz: "Rudyard Kipling's turn of phrase 'east of Suez' -- from the 1890 poem 'Mandalay,' which begins in Moulmein in Burma, on the Bay of Bengal -- applies more than ever, though few may realize it."

Kaplan is hardly the first to point out this massive shift, but he makes a compelling case, grounded in history and geography, for its importance. Rather than spurning the West for the riches of the rising East, the Persian Gulf's monarchies are simply returning to their trading roots, with oil and cheap Chinese consumer goods taking the place of medieval gold and spices. And all these new commercial ties are coming with major geopolitical implications.

"After all," declares Kaplan, "this is a world where raw materials from Indonesia are manufactured into component parts in Vietnam and supplied with software from Singapore, financed by the United Arab Emirates: a process dependent on safe sea-lanes that are defended by the U.S. and various naval coalitions."

But the growing battle for primacy between the United States and China, or India and China, won't necessarily play out in the open, Kaplan argues. "Instead of the hardened military bases of the Cold War and earlier epochs, there will be dual-use civilian-military facilities where basing arrangements will be implicit rather than explicit, and completely dependent on the health of the bilateral relationship in question."

At times, Kaplan can seem too enamored of his own geostrategic logic, tending to see dubious infrastructure projects like a proposed canal across Thailand as "Great Game"-style masterstrokes in a world where human capital and institutional development have become the real drivers of societal success. Writing of Gwadar, the Chinese-sponsored Pakistani port that for years he has been touting as a global game-changer, Kaplan says it has the potential to be "the pulsing hub of a new silk route, both land and maritime: a mega-project and gateway to landlocked, hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia -- an exotic twenty-first-century place name."

And yet here too is the new, more nuanced Kaplan, who recognizes that there's less here than meets the eye: "When I got to Gwadar, it was the pitfalls that impressed me as much as the dreams." The ambitious project has barely gotten off the ground, hampered by unrest in the surrounding province of Baluchistan and corruption in Islamabad. A Karachi businessman tells him: "Come back in a decade or two and this place will look like Dubai." But Kaplan is skeptical. "The Gulf states did not just happen; it was not destiny," he avers. "It was the product of good government under ideal conditions, which Pakistan singularly lacked."

Kaplan's policy prescriptions are generally sensible, even modest. In an age of soaring budget deficits, he's no longer banging the drum for an unaffordable U.S. naval buildup. Describing several hush-hush meetings with Christian missionaries (complete with colorful pseudonyms like "Father of the White Monkey" and "The Bull That Swims") who run covert ops involving heavily armed Burmese hill tribes, and want American support, he concludes that the current U.S. policy of ineffectual moral condemnation of Burma's ruling junta is probably the wiser course of action. As for the scourge of Somali piracy, he says it's a "nuisance" to be dealt with comprehensively and primarily on land, echoing the sage advice of organizations like the International Crisis Group.

Most striking of all is Kaplan's seeming about-face on China. In the past, his chronicling of Beijing's burgeoning influence across maritime Asia has been accompanied by dangerous alarmism, as with his 2005 Atlantic essay, "How We Would Fight China," which describes China as "the principal conventional threat to America's liberal imperium" and unabashedly advocates a "second Cold War" in the Pacific.

As before, he views the rise of the Chinese military as "wholly legitimate" -- the product of growing commercial realities, not a drive for conquest. "If you governed China, with the responsibility of lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese into an energy-ravenous, middle-class lifestyle," he writes, "you, too, would seek a credible navy in order to protect your merchant fleet across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific."

But now, rather than stressing the need for deterrence, he argues, "Strong American-Chinese bilateral relations going forward is not only plausible, but might be the best-case scenario for the global system in the twenty-first century, allowing for true world governance to take shape" -- the latter a phrase Kaplan would once have written with dripping disdain. Instead, he highlights opportunities to cooperate with China, for instance in fighting piracy and terrorism, or providing relief after natural disasters. And there's even a potential "bright side" to piracy, in that "it offers up a common enemy -- the very symbol of anarchy, in fact -- which rival powers can then come into agreement to jointly oppose."

Rather than an adversary to be contained, he sees a potential partner to be wooed: "Given America's civilizational tensions with radical Islam, and its at times quarrelsome relationship with Europe, as well as with a bitter and truculent Russia, the United States must do all that it can to find commonality with China," he concludes. "It cannot take on the whole world by itself."