A Surgeon's Touch
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, September
As I write this, the frightening violence
in Iraq continues, England and the United States are in a state
of fear about suicide bombs, and the Senate is about to confirm
a new, conservative Supreme Court justice. So it may seem peculiar
to bring up a subject that is either at the far edge of all our
attention, or over the edge and invisible. But here I go.
On August 3, Human Rights Watch announced
that the Bush Administration "appears poised to resume the
production of anti-personnel mines" for the first time since
1997. It noted that "the Pentagon has requested a total of
$1.3 billion" for a new type of land mine.
This registered with me because I had
just read Dr. Gino Strada's Green Parrots: A War Surgeon's Diary.
The book tells of his fifteen years performing surgery in Afghanistan,
Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Eritrea, Cambodia, and other places, on
victims of land mines and other products of our technological
expertise. The "green parrots" are land mines with tiny
wings, which look like toys to children, who then pick them up-with
Strada writes: "The countries, the
names, the skin colors change, but the story of these wretched
ones is tragically similar. There is the one who is walking in
the meadow, the one who is playing in the backyard or who is shepherding
goats, the one who tills the ground or who gathers its fruits.
Then the blast . . . . Djamila felt a metallic click under her
foot and had a fraction of a second to think before her left leg
disintegrated . . . . Many others like Esfandyar do not remember
a thing. A deafening noise and they are hurled on the ground.
They wrapped Esfandyar in a big sheet,
and they loaded him in the back of a farm truck. Esfandyar did
not complain-the father told us - not of the pain, nor of the
uneven roads. It was as if he were sleeping. And he was still
in that drowsy state when he arrived at the emergency room of
our hospital . . . . He woke up different, Esfandyar, without
an arm and a leg, and he will remain different, a young disabled
person in a country so poor that it cannot afford to care for
Since the early 1990s, when the movement
to ban land mines became widespread, forty mine-producing countries
stopped producing, and millions of land mines have been destroyed,
the result being that the casualty rates dropped from 26,000 people
a year to between 15,000 and 20,000. But fifteen countries still
insist on producing land mines.
The United States maintains a stockpile
of more than ten million land mines and insists on the right to
produce more and to use them when it sees fit. Both Democratic
and Republican Administrations consider the land mines strewn
on the border between North and South Korea to be sacrosanct.
The Clinton Administration made small
steps in the direction of banning land mines but insisted it must
continue using "dumb mines" (which do not self-destruct
after a period of time) until the year 2006, safely beyond Clinton's
Presidency. Bush has moved the year of eliminating these "dumb"
mines to 2010, several years beyond the end of his own Administration.
The U.S. will continue to develop mines, but they will be "smart"
mines, or, as the Administration terms them, "nonpersistent"
It should be noted that "smart"
nines, according to the briefing paper delivered at an international
conference in Nairobi by the director of Human Rights Watch's
arms division, are far from safe. These mines often fail to self-destruct,
and "are usually used in great numbers, and spread over huge
areas, impossible to map or mark; while active, they are indiscriminate,
just like dumb mines."
The Bush Administration bluntly explained
why it would not sign the mine ban treaty. "The United States
will not join . . . because its terms would have required us to
give up a needed military capability," the Administration
said in a fact sheet it released announcing its new policy. "Land
mines still have a valid and essential role protecting United
States forces in military operations."
Though 145 nations have signed the land
mine treaty, we certainly cannot expect that this war-hungry and
militarized government, whose slogan seems to be "Leave No
Deadly Weapon Behind," will follow suit on its own accord.
Nor can we expect it to realize the recklessness of resuming production
of land mines. Only a national citizens' campaign encompassing
Republicans as well as Democrats, with people on all sides of
the political spectrum (for who can defend the use of weapons
whose inevitable result is the mutilations of children?), could
bring about a change in land mine policy.
The experience of Italy may be instructive.
In the 1980s, Italy sold millions of land mines to Iraq and Iran,
which were then at war. Gino Strada's group, Emergency, played
a key role in launching a national campaign against the land mines.
It culminated in 1997, with Italian citizens sending more than
a million postcards to the president of Italy. Each postcard carried
a photo of a child mutilated by a land mine. That year the Italian
parliament enacted a law banning the production, use, import,
and export of land mines.
But Gino Strada understands that the campaign
to ban land mines was treating the symptom of a deadly disease.
That disease is war itself. One day, working in a hospital in
Djibouti, Strada finds two victims, from opposite sides of the
civil war, in the same hospital, on beds three feet apart. One
of them, though paralyzed, shouts that he wants to leave, refusing
to lie alongside his enemy. Dr. Strada sits between the two of
them and says: "I know nothing about this war. It is not
my country, nor my culture. But I think that you x two have paid
enough, one paralyzed, the other without a leg. There can't be
war anymore between the two of you; it is not possible anymore,
even physically. You have good reasons, both of YOU, to hate war.
Don't you think that war is the real enemy?"
Not this war or that war, no choosing
among "just" and "unjust" wars. War itself,
no matter what justifications are given, is unacceptable.
Gino Strada knew of World War II only
through his father's recollections in Milan. "My father told
me of a school with many children inside, in the neighborhood
of Gorla. It was hit by a bomb dropped from an airplane. 194 of
them died, children with their teachers." Yet, from the point
of view of the United States and its allies, that was the "good
war." He discovered that in the Second World War more than
half of those who died were civilians.
Since that time, in the many wars that
have followed, the percentage of civilians who die in war has
grown greater and greater.
Strada rejects the idea of "humanitarian
wars," as I do. I can accept that there may be rare situations
where a small act of force might be used to halt a genocidal situation
(Rwanda is an example). But war, defined as the massive and indiscriminate
use of force (and technology dictates that any large-scale use
of force cannot be focused on a particular evil-doer) cannot be
accepted, once you understand its human consequences.
Campaigns to rid war of land mines, or
napalm, or white phosphorus, or depleted uranium, are important
in themselves, as the reduction of symptoms is important to anyone
suffering from a deadly illness. But those campaigns must be accompanied
by the understanding that the illness itself must be eliminated.
Albert Einstein, horrified by the First
World War, said: "War cannot be humanized. It can only be
For those like Gino Strada, who have seen
with their own eyes the results of modern warfare, the abolition
of war is not to be dismissed as utopian. The abolition of slavery
in the United States was seen that way, but a handful of black
and white abolitionists would not give up, and they eventually
created a national movement powerful enough to turn a utopian
dream into reality.
We also can realize the dream of a world
without war, but only by stubborn persistence, only by a refusal
to surrender that dream.
Howard Zinn's latest work (with Anthony
Arnove) is "Voices of a People's History of the United States.
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