A Surgeon’s Touch

A Surgeon’s Touch
By Howard Zinn

September 2005 Issue

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 horrible consequences.

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 him.”

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, “non-persistent” mines.

It should be noted that “smart” mines, 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 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 abolished.”

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.