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Landmines as an Ongoing Battle

What are the views of a Vietnam veteran on landmines, war and global conflict?

December 19, 2003

What are the views of a Vietnam veteran on landmines, war and global conflict?

We have an extraordinary capacity to deny our reality. Each and every one of us knows we are going to die.

But it probably would be too terrifying for most people to live their lives with the daily awareness of the fact that this could be it. So we deny it.

When I was 23 years old, I got shot. But I was conscious long enough to recognize what had happened — to feel the life ebb out of my body.

I was losing consciousness and saying, "I don't believe it. I'm going to die. On this shitty piece of ground, I'm going to die." When I woke up, I was on a hospital ship, in intensive care.

I had so many tubes sticking out of me I could not believe I had not died. They wrote on my medical chart that had I arrived a minute after I did, I would have died — the bullet had punctured my lungs and both had collapsed.

I was lucky. The ship off the coast was the farthest north it had ever went — and it was turning around to head south, back toward Danang. So a miraculous series of things happened. When you really face your mortality the way I did, it changes you.

My reaction was joy to be given a second chance. I will never forget when the doctor came and said, "We've got good news and bad news. We're pretty confident that you will live — but you will be paralyzed."

I remember saying, "Don't worry about that. That's okay. I'm here. I'm here."

I had been an officer with the marines, infantry. I had played god: I would decide who went on point, who was first out — this, that and so on. To go from being God to a piece of shit — well, it was kind of overwhelming.

The first time I ever cried was when I got to the veterans hospital. It was a dilapidated facility — over-crowded, understaffed, stinking. It had been an orphanage in the late 1800s.

In these kinds of situations, you ultimately get to critical matters. You either say no and push back — or you get overwhelmed and are crushed. Everybody handles it differently.

A lot of vets got injured in ways that were never a question of their life. It was just a question of their loss. Eight on my ward committed suicide. If you are 18 years old and you have never expected to do anything except manual labor in some capacity, a disability denies you that future.

You give up — or you get pissed and you start to fight. Once you cross that line and start to become an activist, you do not get easily intimidated. When people start to push at you, well, you continue to march and you lean into it a little bit more.

I am amazed at where I started. I kept waiting for somebody to make things right for Vietnam vets — but nobody was doing it.

So in 1978, nine years after I returned from Vietnam, I said, "I'll go tell the story." I believed that if somebody could get the story out and focus attention on the injustice, the government would make it right.

I still naively believed that if you simply got the story out, a caring and values-based society would respond. That is when I learned that things do not happen simply because of arguments based on equity and justice.

You need more than that. You need political engagement. That was an important lesson.

Then, you also learn that in the democracy we live in, you still have opportunities. The mechanisms are still there. It is like with the land mines campaign.

Once I came to understand land mines, I recognized how truly devastating the consequences of these weapons were, not just for the victims — but for the countries that used them, a major destabilizing factor.

I really had no doubt we could ultimately get this weapon banned internationally.

It would be put on the list with poison gas and dumb-dumb bullets — weapons the world community says no to.

But to get the United States to agree was a difficult process.

We reached out to the retired military leadership and got former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Norman Schwartzkopf, General Jones and General Calvin to sign an open letter to the president — a full-page ad in The New York Times.

You do not necessarily have to go through grassroots campaigns to move mountains. That is a lesson earned from the early days. When we came back in 1992, we said we were going to make something happen on land mines.

We went to the most powerful member of Congress we knew, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He was the chairman of the Appropriations Committee on foreign operations. Senator Leahy single-handedly ensured that the United States outlawed land mine trafficking.

Mr. Leahy was even able to use his influence with then President Bill Clinton, who addressed the UN General Assembly — and said, "We've got to outlaw these weapons."

This illustrates the importance of political leadership. As citizens, we can put out a moral call. But, there are a lot of moral calls out there, a lot of injustices.

There is an organization for just about every conceivable issue you can imagine. The difference is getting political leadership behind you. And we got a powerful senator who went nuts.

I knew a lot of guys in the Senate who said, "Look, Bobby. I only signed that bill to get Leahy off my back. He wasn't leaving me alone."

These guys do not care about antipersonal land mines. It was Leahy's persistence that made them say, "All right already, I'll sign the bill."

One of the things that really irritated me when we were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was that there was such a romanticized treatment in the media, one to make people feel good — inspired.

People think that because of Princess Diana and the fact that there was an international treaty — and a Nobel Peace Prize — that it's done, that the job is over.

We need to wait a second because we have not universalized this treaty. Land mines have totally fallen off everybody’s screen.

We still need the United States to sign the Mine Ban Treaty — because many other countries that need to be on board are not going to get on board ahead of the United States, such as China, Russia, India and Pakistan.

Courage, for me, means swimming against the tide. Goon in the face of adversity. It is to be willing to expose yourself to failure and ridicule. You have to be conscious of the fact that you are at risk and are aware of what you can lose.

To then go forward is a courageous act. It is not courageous to just act blindly. Loss is not only reputation and money, it is security and possibly your life. And if you go in and face those risks and that threat — I think that is greatness.

You are doing it not because there will be applause at some point down the road or reward, but because it is right.

My dream for the future is to make a real contribution to contain conflict. I am not a pacifist. I have killed people and I would do it again if necessary. But there is a difference between engaging an enemy soldier — and killing civilians.

Conflict has been fundamentally transformed. Now it is the vulnerable and the innocent that are the targets of violence, instead of the military. That is absolutely unacceptable.

If we cannot ultimately get people to be outraged over the slaughter of the innocent, then the chances of getting people to engage in the concept of conflict is even more remote.

To most people, conflict is still defined more along the terms of “Saving Private Ryan.”

While 1999 marked the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Convention, that document’s edicts are not laws of war — they are suggestions.

Laws require punishment for those who violate them. There has to be accountability.

It is a fact that 80% of antipersonal land mine victims are innocent victims. In their absurdity, they serve as a good way to illustrate what conflict has become: violence which is unable to discriminate between soldiers and civilians.

We live our lives largely insulated from the depths of despair, pain and anguish — and everything else that is going on out there.

That is why I feel so strongly about going after laws and making them real. The belief that you cannot allow genocides — the Cambodias and Rwandas of the world — to play themselves out.

Allowing innocent people to be slaughtered on the scale that we are witnessing around the world is to degrade the basic level of humanity. The world community has to make clear that this conduct will not be tolerated.

If we continue to allow it, the world will become a breeding ground — and the seeds of destruction will be sown. One day, that degree of madness is going to walk up the block and come into your neighborhood.

This essay is excerpted from Kerry Kennedy Cuomo’s book "Speak Truth to Power", which is edited by Nan Richardson. It is published by Umbrage Editions. Copyright