A ONCE-IMMOVABLE obstacle to eliminating the scourge of land mines has shifted. Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has ordered a review of current US military policy regarding mines. Moreover, he has said he's inclined to forgo this destructive and indiscriminate class of weapons.
To date, the US military, particularly the Army and Marine Corps, has argued for retaining land mines as a means of protecting territory. Doubtless, this argument has some tactical weight. But it doesn't outweigh the grotesque harm caused by the proliferation of mines in Angola, Mozambique, Cambodia, Bosnia, and other far-flung battlegrounds.
The estimated 100 million land mines planted in some 62 countries block commerce and food production long after fighting has stopped. Thousands of civilians trip these devices each year, resulting in death or maiming. Mine-clearing is a drawn-out, meticulous operation that takes more expertise and technology than war-torn nations can muster on their own.
Many countries, including the US, produce land mines. But a move toward stopping production and sale would greatly strengthen the momentum behind a worldwide ban on these munitions. Already, about a dozen countries have agreed to a ban.
The opinion piece in today's Monitor (Page 18) by J. Brian Atwood, US Agency for International Development administrator, makes a strong case for such a ban. That case is bolstered by the experience of American soldiers in mine-strewn Bosnia, by the findings of Washington's UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, recently returned from Angola, and by the outspoken stands taken by such congressional anti-mine activists as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont.
General Shalikashvili's decision should signal that the world's premier military power is ready to move to the front ranks in the campaign to ban an inhuman weapon.