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No. 1108:
100 Million Land Mines

Today, land mines tell us about modern war. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

As armies perfect weapons and defenses, it's getting more dangerous to be a civilian than a soldier. Steven Ashley offers horrifying statistics in a recent issue of Mechanical Engineering:

A hundred million land mines now litter Earth's surface. And they linger long after war -- 30 years or more. Old mines kill or maim 26,000 people a year. The UN spent 70 million dollars to remove 100,000 of them in 1993. That's just a drop in the bucket.

It'd take 60 billion dollars and decades to finish the job if we could freeze the present situation. But the situation won't be frozen. It'll get worse because mines are cheap and effective. The big exporters of mines -- the Eastern Bloc, China, and Italy -- sell them to the technologically poor countries. They, in turn, use them to hold better-equipped countries in check.

Most common are small antipersonnel mines with about an ounce of explosive -- enough to kill or maim one person. They can be deployed by air and they contain little detectable metal. Other mines are large enough to stop a tank and kill everyone in it.

Of course no one keeps track of the locations of all that potential death and dismemberment. And very few mines actually serve the armies that deploy them. Most linger for decades, maiming and killing children and other innocents, long after the cause of war is forgotten.

Meanwhile, engineers struggle to create means for locating the damnable things. Conventional magnetic metal detectors become useless against increasingly innovative plastic construction. So we try to find them with X-ray backscatter devices, ultrasound, infrared, and more. We develop techniques of aerial detection.

A terrible Catch-22 lurks in all this: Research into mine detection may benefit civilians. But improved detection also serves soldiers on the battlefield. So the old equation of offense versus defense comes into play. As fast as better detection systems come into being, they'll be matched by mines that are harder to detect.

And land mines will keep savaging civilians. It's become the way of modern war. The whole terrorist movement is nothing more than cynical acknowledgment of a simple truth: War is no longer about soldiers going after other soldiers. It has turned into a matter of taking pain and death straight to noncombatants.

As the globe shrinks, civilians can no longer place armies between themselves and the enemy. That became clear as both sides tried to crush one another by bombing civilians in WW-II. Like terrorism, that never worked. But strategists still expect it to. And until they can be convinced, the true death toll of war will keep reaching far beyond armies. Now, with land mines, it'll keep reaching beyond the very time of war -- as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Ashley, S., Searching for Land Mines. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 118, No. 4, April, 1996, pp. 62-67.