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Butterflies and Bouncing Bettys


Modern war does not end when the troops stop shooting and go home. The carnage continues for 20 or 30 years as men and women working the land or walking on old trails step on land mines or children pick up small mines that look like stones or even toys.

One-legged men and children without hands are the enduring symbols of the technical savagery of today's battlefields and the people who must live on them after a war is over -- in Afghanistan, in Cambodia and Laos, and now in Kuwait and Iraq. There are believed to be as many as 1 million land mines buried in the sands along the border between Kuwait and Iraq. They will not all be found and detonated or removed after the war, not at all.

There will be no maps of the fields of death after the war -- as there are no maps of the mines in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan. Many of the devices were just dropped from planes. The newer ones are mostly plastic, defying the metal detectors that were used in World War II and are still used by beachcombers searching for the metallic flotsam and jetsam of ocean holidays.

If those numbers seem exaggerated -- millions? -- consider the fact that Americans building a road near the border between Cambodia and Thailand two months ago found more than 6,000 anti-personnel mines in a one-kilometer (6/10ths of a mile) stretch of roadway. The whole purpose of the road, in fact, was to try to build a safe pathway through mine fields laid in that jungle over the past 20 years.

"No one remembers who put them there or why," said one of the road builders, supervising detonation operations, basically running bulldozers back and forth over the terrain.

Mines are cheap, small and vicious. The Soviets' standard PMN, probably the most common mine used in the world today, is only 4 1/2 inches in diameter and weighs less than a pound and a half. Many anti-personnel mines, mass-produced all over the world, are designed not to kill but to maim. A man or a woman with one leg, a child with one hand or a smashed face, is a walking reminder of the price of resistance to invaders or guerrillas. More often than not, mines are weapons of intimidation or terror. Visiting displaced-person camps in Cambodia, camps ringed with mines, it is impossible to know whether the things are out there to keep invaders out or people in.

"If I had the power to do one thing in life, it would be to outlaw mines," said Dawn Calabia of the U.S. Catholic Conference, who chaired a delegation from the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children visiting Cambodia in January. She had just come from another small clinic-factory making primitive prosthetic devices for mine victims -- as many as 500 a month in that tortured country now. In Laos, steel and aluminum from American planes downed 25 years ago are used to make artificial limbs for the dozen or so reported mine victims in that country each month.

There are mines for all seasons, all reasons, a grim tribute to the ingenuity of men trying to destroy each other. Some anti-tank mines can toss a 60-ton tank into the air like a toy. "Butterfly" mines, dropped thousands at a time from Soviet airplanes over Afghanistan, weigh only a few ounces, just enough to take a hand or a foot. "Bouncing Bettys" are smaller than a soup can, but they spring into the air and explode at waist level, at the level of vital organs. They're designed to kill, but to do it slowly so that the enemy has the logistical and morale problems of dealing with the blood and noise of suffering compatriots.

No one, including the United States, is innocent in this business, a very profitable one, but most of the mines I have seen around the world were Soviet-made or Chinese copies of Soviet mines. Countries as small as Chile and Singapore also make the things. A tiny Chilean directional mine is popular. It can be strapped to a tree -- it's 8 inches by 3 inches by 1 inch -- and, triggered by a ground sensor, explodes at chest level, killing anything within 50 feet.

War, despite the videotapes of smart bombs and the cool, reassuring talk of modern military men, is what it has always been: War is hell. And, like hell, it tortures forever in parts of the world abandoned after famous victories and defeats, leaving the landscape carelessly littered with death and pain.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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