ONE of the most enduring images of the First World War was a photograph of a line of blinded soldiers being led from the battlefield after being exposed to phosgene gas.
The inhumanity and cruelty of chemical warfare presented by the photo helped produce an outcry of world public opinion that is often credited with the adoption of the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical and biological weapons.
Now a new weapon - the antipersonnel laser - may cause similar horror on future battlefields unless our country supports the call for an international prohibition on the use of lasers to intentionally blind as a method of warfare.
In the next few weeks, Secretary of Defense William Perry will decide whether to support a prohibition. The decision comes at a time when laser weapons have achieved new sophistication.
Recent developments in laser technology have made the proliferation of these weapons - many as small as a rifle - a real possibility. The Department of Defense (DoD) recently approved for limited production the Laser Countermeasures System, a man-portable weapon designed to disrupt enemy sensors and targeting systems. While the DoD claims the weapon would only be used as a countermeasure, Human Rights Watch has raised serious concerns that it could be used to blind personnel. The United States won't be the only country possessing this capability. Without an international prohibition, we can't control how other nations employ the weapon. At world arms bazaars, China is hawking a laser system specifically billed to destroy eyesight.
Because there are no known foolproof countermeasures to blinding laser weapons, the varying wavelengths make protective optical devices useless and impossible to devise. That means our own forces will be vulnerable to the proliferation of weapons that could permanently blind hundreds of soldiers. Civilians could also be at risk because as the weapons proliferate, it would be difficult to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists and criminals.
Given these grave dangers, we need an international ban on intentional blinding. The best hope for an international agreement will occur in September when the Review Conference to the 1980 Conventional Weapons Convention meets to seek further limits on the uses of specific conventional weapons.
Unfortunately, our nation's delegation to the conference has resisted a Swedish proposal to prohibit the use of laser weapons to intentionally blind. The DoD is insisting on this position despite the fact the proposal allows the use of laser weapons against optical and electrical sensors and exempts collateral blinding if lasers are used in legitimate manner.
The US is nearly alone in its objections to a protocol. Most of our NATO allies along with the rest of the world support a ban on intentional blinding. The Pentagon argues that using lasers to blind is not in violation of international law. The prospects of blinded veterans filling the wards of veterans hospitals is a chilling thought. Blinding on a large scale would easily overtax our resources to provide quality care. The Veterans' Administration can now only handle 1,000 blinded veterans at a time, with a waiting list now approaching close to 1,500 patients.
We must seize the opportunity to prevent the suffering and horror of these weapons by stopping their proliferation and use. We should not condemn our fighting men and women to a future of darkness and disability. If Secretary Perry supports a prohibition, generation of veterans may have him to thank for their eyesight.