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A World of Hurt

By William H. McMichael
8/28/2017 • Military History Magazine

Long-forgotten explosives continue to wreak havoc around the globe.

The farm workers had spent a long, hot day harvesting chili peppers in Battambang province, hard against Cambodia’s border with Thailand. They were riding home on a koyun (Khmer for “ox machine”), a homemade tractor-cart transport; the passengers included eight women, three men, a 4-year-old boy and an infant girl. At about 5:15 p.m. the koyun struck a buried antitank mine. The driver survived the explosion, but all 13 passengers died.

The mine that killed them was probably laid by Vietnamese forces that invaded Cambodia in 1978, drove the Khmer Rouge and tens of thousands of Cambodian noncombatants into Thailand and, in an effort to keep them out, mined the entire 500-mile border. Then again, Cambodian forces might have placed the mine.

The November 2010 tragedy is an all-too-common occurrence in Cambodia and, on a daily basis, worldwide. And land mines aren’t the only hazard. From French fields seeded with World War I artillery shells to British and German cities rebuilt atop buried World War II aerial bombs, to vast swaths of Africa and Asia strewn with cluster bomblets, all types of still-lethal munitions— collectively referred to as unexploded ordnance, or UXO— continue to claim victims and disrupt life worldwide. The problem isn’t limited to current or former war zones, or such recurring ones as Lebanon or Afghanistan; UXO has turned up at former U.S. military facilities in the Philippines, Hawaii and even Washington, D.C.

The danger posed by UXO is long-term. The munitions can remain volatile for decades, and each type presents its own particular risks.

Though we generally regard land mines as a modern scourge, their use as defensive weapons dates to antiquity, according to author Mike Croll’s 2008 book Landmines in War and Peace. Roman leader Julius Caesar used hidden traps in a layered, minefield-like defensive belt to protect his surrounded troops during a 52 BC campaign in Gaul. Explosive mines saw use during the American Civil War— mostly by Confederate forces—and into the late 19th century. Virtually all combatant nations in both world wars employed mines. As mines are cheap, easy to deploy and effective, they became a weapon of choice for post–World War II revolutionaries and cash-strapped militaries around the globe.

Today perhaps as many as 110 million unexploded mines remain buried in and around former and current fields of conflict. In 10 districts of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, for example, an estimated half-million mines remain from the Sri Lankan army’s 26-year civil war against the separatist militant Tamil Tigers, a conflict that ended in 2009. And scattered along Iraq’s borders are some 20 million mines, many of them left from the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War and from civil conflict in the northern Kurdish region.

The United Nations estimates that land mines kill 15,000 to 20,000 people worldwide annually. Also according to the U.N., far more are planted each year than can be cleared, and 20 mines are laid for each one removed. Croll, a prominent land mine researcher and former British army Royal Engineers bomb-disposal officer, believes the problem isn’t nearly as widespread as claimed by the U.N. He says the worldwide total is more like 5 million mines, citing only anecdotal “deminers working in the field” for that figure but also acknowledging that all such figures are contentious.

Five million mines still present a huge potential for widespread tragedy and heartbreak. In Cambodia, for example, more than 63,500 mine-related casualties have been recorded since 1979, according to the HALO Trust, a leading nongovernmental UXO-clearing group. The explosions have resulted in more than 25,000 amputees. HALO estimates the Soviet Union laid about 250,000 mines during its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, and after the Soviets withdrew, the Afghan government continued laying them. In Colombia, where 40 years of civil war and narcoterrorism have created widespread UXO contamination, the armed forces have acknowledged planting about 20,000 antipersonnel mines to counter the paramilitary threat. According to Observatorio Mines de Colombia, mines and other exploded remnants of war claimed at least 1,892 victims between 1990 and 2003.

Land mines are hardly the only such problem. According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor initiative, cluster munitions killed or wounded at least 16,921 people worldwide through the end of 2010. So many go unreported, however, that the group believes the actual total is far higher—as many as 54,000 casualties. There were 60 confirmed deaths in seven countries and two other areas in 2010, the group says.

Unlike mines, cluster munitions—first used in World War II—are typically offensive weapons. The bomblets dispersed from larger munitions are among the cheapest air-delivered weapons available, each costing as little as $50. They are not generally intended to remain active like mines, but those that fail to detonate are capable of exploding if touched, and they continue to threaten local populations. In Laos alone as many as 25 million bomblets remain on the ground, threatening a quarter of all Laotian villages, according to UXO Lao. Also bedeviling the country are countless artillery shells, hand grenades and mortar rounds that date to Japan’s World War II occupation.

The mountains of munitions deployed or fired across Western Europe during both world wars continue to threaten the former combatant countries. A recent study estimated that as many as 21,000 sites across Britain may contain unexploded bombs dating from the Nazi Blitz. Each year in the Ardennes region of France munitions specialists recover some 900 tons of UXO, including World War I chemical weapons. Teams in Belgium recover some 250 tons a year, and bombs dropped by American and British aircraft during World War II also keep German bomb-disposal squads busy. Indeed, in 2011 the discovery of a 2-ton British Blockbuster bomb in the Rhine River at Koblenz led to Germany’s largest UXO-related evacuation since 1945. Experts successfully defused that bomb.

Southwest Asia is also a major UXO danger zone. Azeri and Armenian forces used mines and cluster bomblets during their 1988–94 conflict in the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, and according to the HALO Trust, that region suffers one of the world’s highest per-capita human accident rates from UXO.

Nor is the United States immune. At the former Waikoloa Maneuver Area on Hawaii’s Big Island—where Marines trained for the World War II invasion of Iwo Jima— developers built tracts of single-family homes on land that had never been adequately cleared of UXO. Since 2004 contractors managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have located and destroyed more than 2,000 munitions; there had been six deaths and 12 serious injuries attributable to the UXO at the time of writing, according to the corps’ Honolulu District. Elsewhere, UXO on 31 closed military installations—referred to as Formerly Used Defense Sites, or FUDS—in the continental United States, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico killed 37 people and injured 47 more, according to QuantiTech, which developed a database for ordnance-related civilian accidents at FUDS with data supplied by the Corps of Engineers.

Another aspect of the UXO problem—the release of toxic substances, including heavy metals, into the soil and groundwater—is clearly evident in the affluent Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Between 1917 and 1919 the U.S. Army tested munitions and chemical weapons on this land; arsenic remains the primary contaminant of concern. In the ongoing cleanup effort the Corps of Engineers’ Baltimore District has sampled most of the neighborhood’s 1,632 properties for arsenic and removed hundreds of munitions and thousands of tons of contaminated soil.

Given the injuries, deaths and other potential consequences resulting from UXO, we might assume that governments worldwide are working nonstop to remove the threat. But cleanup efforts take significant time and money. In the United States the Corps of Engineers estimates that 2,700 of the nearly 10,000 FUDS nationwide require some type of cleanup. In a 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Department of Defense estimated that cleanup of known hazards at more than 4,700 FUDS transferred to other owners before October 1986 would require more than 50 years and cost about $18 billion—a figure that doesn’t include any additional needed cleanup of emerging contaminants.

Things are equally challenging overseas: In a 2008 report the group Norwegian People’s Aid estimated that it would take 23 years and millions of dollars to completely clear the estimated 2,547 cluster bomblets remaining in the Republic of Serbia following NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 to push Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

Despite the obstacles, international agencies and charitable nongovernmental organizations worldwide are engaged in large-scale efforts to eradicate UXO. More than 8,000 specialists within the HALO Trust are working to clear UXO in 10 countries. In 2011 alone the United Nations Mine Action Service—which oversees the U.N.’s 14 departments, agencies, programs and funds involved in UXO eradication— helped coordinate the funding of 238 clearance projects in 29 countries at an estimated cost of $498 million. Among the countries is Somalia, where multiple projects by international and national specialist groups cost more than $5 million.

Also in 2011 UNMAS’s Mine Coordination Center oversaw the destruction of more than 7,000 pieces of UXO—primarily bombs and artillery shells—in the Western Sahara, a territory that has seen more than three decades of conflict between Morocco and Frente Polisario rebels. While the Danish Demining Group concentrates on UXO in African and Middle Eastern conflict zones, Norwegian People’s Aid has been clearing Russian- and Uzbek-emplaced mines at border locations in several nations including Tajikistan, where Russian forces laid mines in 1993. Since 1989 the U.K.-based Mines Advisory Group has worked in more than 35 countries. MAG has removed more than 100,000 items of UXO from Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, including some 2,500 land mines.

Some observers believe the UXO problem is solvable, pointing to how much of the ordnance left from World War II—including what Croll described as “remark-  ably durable” German land mines—was cleared from Europe in just a few years. “It often boils down to a lack of determination to get the job done,” HALO co-founder Guy Willoughby said in a November 2004 speech marking the five-year anniversary of the Ottawa Treaty, a ban on antipersonnel mines signed by 160 party states. “Mine clearance is not difficult—it has been described as a mix of gardening and archaeology. In fact not really much more difficult than digging up potatoes or cassava— just more dangerous and requiring strict but simple procedures.”

Locating and neutralizing UXO often requires devices ranging from electromagnetic sensors and ground-penetrating radar to robotic detection systems and heavily armored tracked vehicles fitted with extended flails, plows or rollers designed to detonate mines and other explosives. The widespread use of plastic-bodied mines containing only small amounts of metal can make remote detection difficult, however. And while mine-detecting dogs have proven effective, they can become confused in dense minefields, leaving removal personnel to resort to manual probing and disarmament.

Private companies—largely backed by government funding— continue to improve technology-based methods to detect and remove UXO worldwide. “The process is slow but systematic and reliable,” said Jack Foley, vice president of technology at Sky Research, a company that collaborates on UXO removal with the Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District. “The technologies are rapidly improving, and there’s lots of room for improvement, but I’m optimistic this problem will be addressed.”


For further reading Bill McMichael recommends Landmines in War and Peace: From Their Origin to the Present Day, by Mike Croll.

Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.

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