Whenever I write on any of the treaties beloved of the left—whether it’s the treaty on land mines, on cluster munitions, or on conventional arms—I’m sure that, somewhere, I’m outraging a progressive. This time, Michael Moore, a campaigner at Landmines in Africa—and presumably no more than an ideological relative of the film propagandist of that name—takes exception to a piece on land mines I wrote before Christmas.
Moore offers his homemade military assessment that land mines are irrelevant to the defense of South Korea. I place more value on the conclusions of every U.S. administration since the end of the Korean War, including the current one, as well as the government of South Korea and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all of whom differ from Moore. It may be that they know more about it than he does.
I am, though, slightly appalled by the easy way Moore discusses the threat, and the value, of a U.S. nuclear first strike against North Korea. It takes a lot of gumption to be outraged about land mines in Korea while being blasé about nuclear war.
If land mines can make any contribution at all to preventing a conflict that Moore is certain would immediately go nuclear, resulting in the deaths of millions of people in Korea, and perhaps Japan or even the United States, then surely using land mines is the right call. Nor does Moore show any understanding of the complicated interaction of conventional and nuclear deterrence, which he waves away blithely.
Moore argues that U.S. land mines are killing civilians in Angola, though he admits he can’t prove this. In fact, the major suppliers of land mines to Angola were from the Communist bloc, including the USSR, Cuba, and East Germany, though it’s clear that some U.S.-made land mines were supplied to rebel forces.
But I have no idea what Angola has to do with the land mines ban today. Presumably, Moore’s hope is that the treaty will prevent future Angolas. Yet the treaty has not stopped Russia from laying land mines in Crimea, and it definitely has not stopped the rise of modern Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), which frequently qualify, legally, as land mines.
In any case, the land mines in Angola are there, and they will be there no matter what the U.S. does or doesn’t do by way of policy now. The question is whether what the U.S. is doing today is responsible, and the evidence supports the conclusion that it is.
Naturally, Moore disagrees. His argument is that if only the U.S. saw the light on land mines, so would Cuba and Georgia. It says a lot about Moore that he lumps those two nations together.
Cuba is a Communist dictatorship that loves to blame its deeds, or misdeeds, on the U.S., and Moore falls hook, line, and sinker for this typical rhetorical trick, which works well on those who are already ideologically inclined to blame the United States.
Georgia, on the other hand, is a fragile democracy that suffered waves of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Russian and allied forces in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a Russian war of aggression in 2008. Russia has failed to respect the terms of the resulting cease-fire. Over the last year, Russia has continued a stealthy advance and is now only a few hundred feet from Georgia’s main east-west highway. A new war would undoubtedly be followed by more ethnic cleansing at the hands of the Russians.
This is precisely the kind of situation where land mines are useful: They are there to protect the civilians and the territory of a smaller democratic nation against a larger, aggressive, and dictatorial power that has a substantial, if not overwhelming, conventional superiority. I am not in the slightest bit sorry if U.S. policy has encouraged Georgia to employ land mines to deter the Russians. In fact, I am proud of it.
Moore argues that there is no evidence that land mines can protect U.S. forces and points to the First Gulf War of 1990-91. But in that war, U.S. forces first built up and then attacked; they were never in the position of having to defend positions from sustained conventional or guerrilla assaults. Moore is apparently confident that the U.S. will never face such assaults, and that we will get to fight the First Gulf War over and over again. Looking at the years since 9/11, I cannot share his confidence.
Nor do I understand it. His own work testifies to the rise of the IED, and thus to the need for the kind of force protection against insurgents that land mines can help provide. Even the Obama administration admits that ending the use of land mines poses risks to U.S. forces.
But the land mine ban proponents use IED casualties only to swell the number of casualties they attribute to land mines. They do not take IEDs seriously as weapons that require U.S. countermeasures. Nor do they place anything like as much blame on IEDs as they do on conventional land mines in general, or the U.S. in particular, in spite of the fact that—by their own numbers—IEDs cause many more casualties.
Moore asks why I don’t applaud the U.S. leadership in clearing old land mine fields. The answer is simple: I do applaud it. Indeed, I did so in the very piece that Moore attacks so enthusiastically. And I have done so in previous papers: In 2010, for example, I described the U.S. program as “well conceived” and “genuinely humanitarian.” Even though he linked to both pieces, Moore is evidently so outraged by my arguments that he can’t process the fact that we agree about this.
Moore closes with an allegation that I am corrupt and can write what I do only because I have been bought. Insinuations of this sort are the stock in trade of those with a weak case. They also reflect Moore’s assurance that he is right and that everyone who disagrees with him is evil or on the take. That is precisely the kind of all-or-nothing spirit embodied in the land mines ban.
But what matters is not the weapon; it is how it is designed, how it is used, and in what cause it is employed. My view is that the U.S. should use land mines responsibly, seeking military utility while respecting its humanitarian obligations in accordance with the traditional understanding of the laws of war. That is why I reject Moore’s point of view. It is also why I oppose the land mines ban.