Human Rights Watch Arms Project Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation

July 1997 Vol. 9, No. 3 (G)


The U.S. Army and

Antipersonnel Mines in the Korean and Vietnam Wars








Human Rights Watch Vietnam Veterans of

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Most of the world is poised to ban antipersonnel landmines, the indiscriminate weapons that kill or maim an estimated 26,000 civilians each year. More than 100 governments have committed to negotiating a comprehensive ban treaty in Oslo, Norway in September, with the intention of signing the treaty in Ottawa, Canada in December. Included are major U.S. allies such as France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom-all significant producers and exporters of mines in the past-as well as many of the nations in which mines have been used most extensively, such as Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, Croatia, Mozambique, and Nicaragua.

Thus far, however, the United States has said that it will not participate in the negotiations and is not prepared to sign a ban treaty as early as December 1997, despite the fact that in a major policy announcement on May 16, 1996, President Clinton pledged that the U.S. "will seek a worldwide agreement as soon as possible to end the use of all antipersonnel landmines."1 At that time, the president said that the U.S. must insist on two broad exceptions to a total ban on use of antipersonnel mines: (1) the right to use both long-lasting "dumb" mines and self-destructing "smart" mines on the Korean peninsula "until the threat is ended or until alternatives to landmines become available;" and (2) the right to use "smart" mines anywhere else "until an international ban takes effect."

Yet, the military necessity of these exceptions is seriously called into question by the Pentagon's own archival documents and by the assessments of numerous former military officers. In 1972 the U.S. Army's Engineer Agency for Resources Inventories (EARI) produced Landmine and Countermine Warfare, a series of documents obtained recently by the Human Rights Watch Arms Project. "To my knowledge, this is the most complete series of studies on landmine and countermine warfare available to the military community," wrote Robert L. Thompson, chief of the EARI, in an introduction to the fifteen volumes, which consist of military histories, unit records and monthly action reports of infantry, armor and engineer units, field manuals and operational plans.2

The Landmine and Countermine Warfare volumes show that disagreement within the U.S. military about antipersonnel mines is more a tradition than an anomaly. As early as 1954, Marine Corps Gazette published a sharp critique by Captain Richard Smith about a weapon he believed was more harmful than helpful in combat. "Nobody likes mines," he wrote. "The engineers may admire their efficiency and the commanding general may appreciate the principles of their employment, but the fact remains that those who know them best hate them with a passion. The unexpectedness of their damage, the high percentage of lost limbs, their tendency to strike at friend and foe alike, and their limiting effect on the Marines' time-honored offensive tactics-all these add up to make it the stepchild at the family reunion."3

While mine usage in a future war in Korea will not be identical to the earlier conflict, Captain Smith's assessment of the utility of antipersonnel mines has been echoed by military experts right up to the present. In April 1996 fifteen retired U.S. military commanders, including Lieutenant General Robert G. Gard, Jr., who commanded troops in Korea and Vietnam; Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth, former commander of all U.S. troops in Korea; General David Jones, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander, Operation Desert Storm, publicly called on President Clinton to ban all types of antipersonnel mines:"We view such a ban as not only humane, but also militarily responsible. Given the wide range of weaponry available today, antipersonnel landmines are not essential. Thus, banning them would not undermine the effectiveness or safety of our forces, nor those of other nations."4

Former Marine Corps Commandant General Alfred Gray, Jr., has said, "We kill more Americans with our own mines than we do anyone else. We never killed more enemy with mines.... I know of no situation in the Korean War, nor in the five years I served in Southeast Asia, nor in Panama, nor in Desert Storm-Desert Shield where our use of mine warfare truly channelized the enemy and brought them into a destructive pattern."5

In reviewing this report, retired Lieutenant General David R. Palmer stated: "As a combat arms officer with thirty-five years in uniform either developing or teaching or implementing war-fighting doctrine, I seriously question the efficacy of antipersonnel mines. I never saw a situation where I thought the use of antipersonnel landmines would be wise militarily for American forces; nor can I envision one in theory."6

Combat experience taught these veterans that antipersonnel mines are of dubious military utility and likely to inflict a deadly "blow-back effect"-harming the very soldiers they are meant to defend. In Korea and Vietnam, for example, the main source of supply for mines for those fighting U.S. forces was captured U.S. mine stockpiles. In Korea U.S. troops were killed by their own defensive minefields. In Vietnam the U.S. Army estimated that ninety percent of the mines and booby traps used against its troops were either U.S.-made or were made with U.S. parts. One-third of all U.S. casualties in Vietnam were caused by mines and booby traps.

The Pentagon argument that antipersonnel mines serve as an important defensive weapon that safeguards American lives in combat is undermined by its own archival resources. Mines may have defended some American lives, but the Vietnam statistics also show that U.S. mine casualties were mainly caused by U.S. mines. "I have always been convinced that landmines did more harm than good in Korea, and I know a significant number of the landmines we encountered in Vietnam were of U.S. origin," remembers Lieutenant General Hank Emerson, recipient of two Distinguished Service Crosses, five Silver Stars and two Purple Hearts. "[Antipersonnel mines] are a horrible weapon, and they caused a very high proportion of our casualties in Vietnam."7

Because of the desire of some in the U.S. military to hold on to this weapon as long as possible, President Clinton has been seeking a ban not through the fast-track "Ottawa Process" aimed at a ban treaty in December 1997, but through the notoriously slow United Nations Conference on Disarmament, a process expected to take many years, if not decades. After six months the Conference of Disarmament has been unable even to agree to put landmines on their agenda for discussion. A June 1997 New York Times editorial described President Clinton and Vice President Gore as "the main obstacles to American leadership on this issue. Despite ample political cover, they meekly yield to the wrongheaded opposition of the Joint Chiefs of Staff."8 Yet, the Pentagon documents excerpted here show thatmany in the U.S. military want to see landmines banned as much as the Cambodian farmers, Afghan refugees and Rwandan genocide survivors who usually step on them.

1 Statement by the President, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, May 16, 1996. 2 Robert L. Thomson, Chief, Engineer Agency Resources Inventories, U.S. Army, in a letter to Brigadier General Wayne S. Nichols, Director of Military Engineering, Office of the Chief of Engineers (Washington, D.C.: June 1972), republished in Herbert L. Smith, Senior Analyst, Landmine and Countermine Warfare, Korea, 1950-54 (Washington, D.C., Engineer Agency for Resources Inventories, 1972). 3 Richard W. Smith, "Nobody's Favorite Weapon," Marine Corps Gazette, October 1954, republished by Smith, Landmines/Korea, p. B-1. 4 Full-page open letter to President Clinton, paid for by Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, New York Times, April 3, 1996. 5 Speech to the American Defense Preparedness Association's Mines, Countermines and Demolitions Symposium, Ashville, NC, September 7-9, 1993. 6 Letter from Dave R. Palmer, LTG (Ret.), U.S. Army, President, Walden University, to Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, June 4, 1997. 7 Statement from Henry (Hank) E. Emerson, LTG (Ret.), to Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, June 8, 1997. 8 New York Times, June 21, 1997, p. 22.