When innocents die – just because they’re there

April 8th, 2024 by Tom Lynch

“War is hell.” — Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, in a speech to graduates of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879.

Sherman was right, and at this moment his three-word phrase is ringing true, especially in Ukraine and Gaza. Inhumanity is on full display.

When wars end, somebody has to pick up the pieces — in more ways than one. First, there is the massive rebuilding that will confront the survivors whenever the bullets and bombs stop flying. I’ve written about what Ukrainians face when that longed-for day comes. Palestinians will require the same kind of herculean effort in Gaza when that horror stops, if it ever does.

Second, and not as well recognized, is the peril of unexploded ordinance and landmines that survive the battle to lie in wait for some poor innocent to take the wrong step into the hereafter.

More than 700 million artillery and mortar rounds were fired on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, of which an estimated 15 percent failed to explode. Every year these leftover shells kill people — 36 in 1991 alone, for instance, when France excavated the track bed for a new high-speed rail line. Dotted throughout the region are patches of uncleared forest or scrub surrounded by yellow danger signs in French and English warning hikers away. The French government employs teams of démineurs, roving bomb-disposal specialists, who respond to calls when villagers discover shells; they collect and destroy 900 tons of unexploded munitions each year. More than 630 French démineurs have died in the line of duty since 1946.¹

When those 36 French people Adam Hochschild cited in his masterful history, To End All Wars, died in 1991 laying a track bed for a rail line, World War I had been over for 73 years.

Many of the First World War’s live explosives dotting the French landscape lie in the Zone Rouge, the Red Zone encompassing much of the territory of the Battle of the Somme, which took place from 1 July to 18 November 1916. This was one of the bloodiest battles in history, with over a million casualties. On the first day, alone, Britain saw 57,470 of its soldiers killed — you read that right, 57,470 soldiers killed — in one day. During the entire battle, the British and Germans fired more than 37 million artillery shells, 1.7 million in the first week.

At the end of the nearly five-month Battle of the Somme, the British had managed to gain a grand total of six miles of territory. It might not seem like much, but the losses Germany incurred forced its troops to retreat to the Hindenburg line in early 1917.

Today, a potentially worse problem than unexploded shells faces Ukrainians, because not only do they have that problem, they also face the nearly impossible task of finding and neutralizing more than a million anti-personnel land mines Russia laid in Eastern Ukraine before its troops pulled out in 2023. These land mines are killing and maiming people every day.

Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (or Mine Ban Convention), adopted in 1997. More than 150 countries have joined this treaty. Russia is not one of them. Neither is Israel. Or Iran. Or China.

Nearly 1,000 civilians in Ukraine have been killed by mines since the war began, according to aid groups. Most of those civilian casualties were caused by anti-vehicle mines planted in areas Ukrainians were trying to return to in order to revive their farms. But a bigger problem now is the anti-personnel variety, the ones that are strewn over field after field. The ones people step on. Most Ukrainians who step on mines and survive face foot and leg amputations. Clearing these is heroic work.

Last night, Scott Pelley, of CBS’s 60 Minutes, reported on the anti-personnel land mine horror facing Ukraine now. It was compelling, even hard to watch, because it showed what land mines are doing to innocent civilian Ukrainians whose only crime appears to be being Ukrainian. Like the French, who continue to be bedeviled by bombs from 73 years ago, Ukrainians will be dying from these Russian gifts for generations.

The anti-personnel land mines are an obvious war crime. That’s easy for me to say. What do you think? Why not watch Pelley’s award-worthy (and dangerous) reporting and decide for yourself?

Now what do you think?


¹HochschildAdam, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.