Earlier this month, the contributors to ScienceBlogs were asked to blog on the question:
If you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?
I came upon this via Orac's post on the topic and followed his link to Pharyngula's. The latter linked to a fair number of responses from other ScienceBloggers, one of which in particular gave me pause, namely John Lynch's post at Stranger Fruit. Lynch writes:
[M]y first impulse was to answer "cell phones" and [...] I then realized that it wasn't the phones but the idiots who use them (loudly) in public or when they should be concentrating on something else (driving, child care, listening to people ...).
That seems fair enough; after all, one cannot hold the technology responsible for the fact that people may abuse it. So having read the aforegoing, I was rather surprised, not so much by Lynch's final answer—landmines—but by the fact that he thought the answer "required no justification." It's the latter item with which I disagree; I think there's a good case to be made against landmines, and anti-personnel (AP) mines in particular, but it does need to be made. As any lawyer will tell you, there are two sides to every story (at the very least), and to make a convincing case against landmines, we have to properly understand the case in favor.
The first thing to acknowledge is that landmines can serve a legitimate military purpose, and can be used to do so in a comparatively ethical manner, provided certain restrictions and safeguards are observed. My service in the RNLA occurred five years before the entry into force of the "Ottawa Treaty," when Dutch troops were still being instructed in the principles of AP mine deployment. As far as the RNLA was concerned, while the purpose of mines as such was to render enemy personnel or materiel hors de combat by means of an explosion, their tactical application was to be laid in minefields, the purpose of which was not so much to inflict casualties as to rely on the threat of damage to personnel and equipment to force an enemy to slow or halt his advance into a given area, or to divert him away from that area. (As the astute reader will by now have deduced, landmines are by their static nature best suited for defensive warfare.) Because of this reliance on the threat of harm to deter the enemy (or at least give him pause), rather than actual harm, there is no impediment to clearly marking a minefield as such, for as long as the individual mines within the field are hidden, the enemy still has to either slow his advance to clear paths through the minefield, or risk incurring casualties if he presses on. Marking minefields has the added advantage of alerting non-combatants, and ideally one would also cordon off the field with barbed wire so as to make it inaccessible to all but those determined to enter the area. In addition, RNLA doctrine (and that of any army which pays a least lip service to the laws of warfare) required that minefields be laid in locations under observation by (and within firing range of) friendly units, and that any unit laying a minefield record the location and number of mines laid in the field, and that it submit that record to the higher echelon, in order to facilitate the clearing of the field at a later date.
If restrictions and safeguards similar to the ones I've described are used, the use of landmines can be as legitimate as that of any other weapon. Indeed, they are arguably the most humane method of deterring international conflict, for a clearly demarcated minefield in principle threatens to harm only an aggressor's armed forces, whereas something like a nuclear deterrent almost inevitably involves inflicting non-combatant casualties. So why all the fuss?
The short answer, of course, is that the legitimate applications for landmines are very limited, and even then it takes a lot of care and effort to prevent them from becoming a hazard to non-combatants, possibly for decades to come, long after the hostilities have ceased. If we introduce gross negligence or wilful malice into the mix, this possibility all too easily becomes a near certainty. A fundamental principle of the laws of warfare, both customary and codified, is proportionality. That is to say, the justifiability of any given action or method of warfare depends on whether the military advantage gained is in reasonable proportion to the amount of damage inflicted as a result. Because landmines remain a threat for so long, there is no way to accurately assess at the time of its being laid how much damage it might potentially do if left uncleared. This is not limited to physical harm to human beings, but also to wild or domestic animals, and there is an economic cost if the mined area is suitable for growing crops or grazing livestock and is rendered unusable. And, of course, one can cite numerous examples, such as Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan, where mines were laid (often by the simple expedient of scattering them from aircraft) for this very purpose.
To sum up, then, landmines have legitimate uses, but their benefits are far outweighed (especially in the case of AP mines) by the harm caused by negligent or malicious employment. So on balance, I do agree with John Lynch (and the parties to the Ottawa Treaty) that the world would be better off without them. On balance. Still, it deserves mention that the problem lies not with the technology itself, but with the people willing to put it to bad use. The only difference between landmines and cellular phones, morally speaking, is that the benefits of cel phones outweigh the drawbacks.