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.