Cruel landscapes: An interview with Joel Whitney

03/21/2013

The brutal and often unforeseen consequences of war are perhaps best illustrated by land mines, whose victims by death or disfigurement numbered more than 4,000 last year. One-third of these were children, innocent in the conflicts that transformed formerly habitable regions into landscapes of terror. A global treaty to ban the manufacture, stockpiling and transfer of land mines has garnered nearly universal support in the last 14 years, but some of the most influential nations, including the United States, have yet to sign on.

In a new ebook, Joel Whitney, a New York writer with family roots in Inverness, describes efforts to rid land mines from the estimated 78 countries in which they are found. The book’s haunting photographs by Los Angeles artist Brett Van Ort of undeveloped swathes of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 4 percent of the land has been rendered unusable, as well as stark images of land mines and prostheses, punctuate the essays. Minescape: Waging War Against Land Mines is a collaborative project of TED Talks Books and Daylight Books, and will be released as a hardcover art book in April.

 

TE: How did you come to publish a book on land mines?


JW: I got the assignment because Brett Van Ort, the photographer, has been working on this for a long time and our paths have crossed in numerous ways. On Guernica, the website I founded with my buddy Michael Archer, he published a slideshow of his photographs of the prosthetic arms and legs people have to wear when they are maimed by land mines. And his photographs of the land mines themselves sit alongside landscape photos of Bosnia that you can almost imagine are in West Marin except that the subtext is that the land will stay beautiful—ironically—because no one dare use it, farm it, put trails in to hike it. It hasn’t yet been demined.

The photographs are beautiful, but they are pointing to something that is not beautiful. We deal with that a lot in our slideshows, which are intended to draw attention to an issue that is really problematic and sometimes violent and cruel, surrounding issues of war, poverty and degradation. But sometimes the photographers are inclined not to just make it look like a documentary image, but like a fine-arts image, and that choice can be unnerving because you’re looking at something that has been separated from its context and made beautiful yet you know that it’s pointing to some of the ugliest things people do to each other.

In the case of land mines they do it semiconsciously and unconsciously, because few soldiers, few governments that use land mines—and many still do today—are thinking decades down the line; they’re thinking about winning the conflict that’s at hand. The Mine Ban Treaty is trying to address this: no matter what the conflict is, we don’t want these weapons to be available because they maim and kill civilians long after the conflict has been resolved.

 

TE: You write that there were an estimated 4,000 deaths and maimings due to land mines in 2010.


JW: Yes, and that number was 4,286 in 2011. As you saw, that’s come down quite a bit since the late 1990s, and a lot of that is due to education efforts and a lot to the Mine Ban Treaty going into effect. More than 155 countries have signed, so the demand is going down, and the stigma is increasing.

 

TE: But that’s still a large number. The estimated number of deaths due to drones in the last decade is 3,000, for example.


JW: It’s interesting that you compare the number to drone deaths. You could also compare it to the number of people who died in the World Trade Center, here in New York. Look at the reaction to that. Yet more people are killed by these mines every year.

 

TE: You have an essay in the book in which you describe new technologies for detecting land mines, so there seems to be the capability, but not the will.


JW: At the global level, we’re not quite at the moment where land mines are disappearing and being destroyed as fast as we are placing them, but that moment seems achievable. In 2012, Syria used land mines; in 2011, Israel, Libya and Burma used them. Non-state armed groups in Afghanistan, Colombia, Burma, Pakistan, Thailand and Yemen are using them. They’re still being planted, placed and manufactured even as the demand is decreasing. [In terms of removing them] the technology will continue to grow, with man-made devices and other natural approaches—one of my favorites is honeybees. The Koreans were developing bacteria that would “go crazy” [when it detected a land mine]. The problem with some of these is that once you find it you still have to have humans take them out.

There is something called the Mine Kafon, which was developed by Massoud Hassani from Kabul. The desert around Kabul is filled with mines, some of which go back at least to Soviet attempts to pacify Afghanistan as part of its distant Red Curtain, so to speak. Because of the landscape and because it is so windy he thought of this childhood toy he had that was like a rolling tumbleweed. So he developed this giant tumbleweed-like thing that looks like it’s made up of plungers with their rubber parts sticking out and they just roll in the wind. And when they hit a mine it sets off and it blows out that one plunger and then the other plungers fill the hole, and it keeps going. It doesn’t need people. It’s really low cost to make, and he’s got good funding.

 

TE: You contrast the cost of land mines to the cost of prostheses, and the difference is enormous. Is the shortsightedness of war also economic?


JW: It can take as few as three or five dollars to manufacture a land mine and as much as $1,000 to take one out. That’s astonishing, and it does point to the failure of war economically. Some people talk about how these are industries that create jobs. But I think that’s another aspect of cynical, shortsighted thinking—creating a problem just to create a job to fix the problem. And a deadly problem at that.

But it’s easy to judge from posterity. In the case of Soviet use of land mines during WWII, they had the Nazis chasing them, and they might have had a hard time, run out of soldiers, if they hadn’t put mines in those fields. It’s tricky to second-guess history, and that’s one of the instances of land-mine use where pundits scratch their heads and say, ‘Well at least the mines helped the Soviets stop the Nazis.’ So we have to contend with the complexity of conflicts.

But while contending with that, there are a number of countries that still haven’t signed the Mine Ban Treaty, big countries with big influence. Three out of the five countries in the Security Council have not signed. Sadly, the United States is one of those countries. The rationale for this has shifted.

During the Clinton era we wouldn’t sign because we said we needed land mines between North and South Korea to protect the South Koreans from attack. Bush had other reasons to use land mines. Obama said he would review it. Then he said we’re developing so-called smart mines, which can be decommissioned when the conflict has ended. Well, sadly that doesn’t help civilians while the conflict is going on, and so far the technologies intended to be smart have failed civilians in case after case, whether it’s smart bombs or drones. Obama is probably listening to military advisers who want to keep all options open in case some grand new conflict comes up. But it’s sad that neither the U.S., Russia, China, India nor Pakistan has signed the treaty, which has a near-international consensus.

 

TE: Does the United States continue to use land mines?


JW: It’s a nuanced approach. The land mines planted in Korea in the demilitarized zone are still there, and many of them are U.S.-made. Has the U.S. been using land mines in any kind of increased capacity since the land mine treaty? Probably not. The U.S. stockpiles land mines in case it needs them but isn’t supposed to be actively using them. It’s also a large donor to international demining efforts. So there is some compliance.

 

TE: Are we manufacturing smart mines?


JW: I think there have been studies of ways to create smarter mines. Whether we’re producing them now, I’m not certain. But there is also a new international consensus that is building against cluster munitions. These are not smart at all; you constantly have them failing, often in heavily populated areas. Those are being manufactured in the U.S., I’ve read, and have been used in places like Iraq and Afghanistan in our current conflicts. So the International Campaign to Ban Landmines has been putting those two things together, because they behave similarly. An unexploded cluster bomb kills and maims when civilians stumble upon them.

 

TE: Can technology make war more humane, or will war always be cruel and shortsighted?


JW: I think an end to warfare is not in our immediate future, but different kinds of treaties can push back against some of the cruelties that inevitably come up. Of course the end goal is not just banning the manufacture and transfer of land mines, but the destruction of land mines themselves. You know, you can have a cruel or fearful thought and not act on it. You can have a cruel or fearful thought that turns into a land mine and sits in the dirt for decades and decades and somebody who had nothing to do with the original conflict that led to that cruel thought will step on it.

 

TE: If you can have a violent thought and not act on it, then is the elimination of war a human possibility?


JW: Well, that’s a great question that I’ve though about a lot in the context of my dad, who is an avowed religious pacifist. I do think that the human imagination is miraculous. I have faith that unseen things can be brought into the seen world. But the world is a complex place, and to bring everyone to imagine the same sorts of things and bring them about is the trick. A lot of great leaders have brought us closer to that. So a world without warfare, that’s a conception I would sign up for. But it doesn’t seem like it’s in the
offing.

 

TE: Land mines seem to be a perfect example of how the consequences of violence ripple through time and space in treacherous ways. Where does your interest in the human costs of war originate, and where is it taking you?


JW: I think it originates in my attempt to stay connected to my childhood indignation over discovering that the world can be an evil place, and my inability to grow up (in the ugliest sense of growing up). The world is a place of violence. But it is also filled with people who have faith in their imaginations and ability to end or soften that violence; the number of ordinary people who are part of the often unspoken consensus against violence certainly outnumber the rest.

Recently, I’ve been reading about my great-great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Buffum Chace. She was a Quaker abolitionist and feminist who wasn’t willing to let the Quakers be so smug about their gradualist approach to ending slavery. She was willing to make waves. The first line of her memoir is, “When the time comes that men and women shall better understand the laws of heredity, there will also come a stronger sense of responsibility concerning the characteristics with which they shall endow their offspring.”

She also refused to let feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton peel away feminists from the anti-racists after the Civil War, pitting anti-racism campaigns against campaigns for feminist progress. Most of my life I didn’t know about Chace’s work. But when I found it through my grandmother Deborah Whitney, and then read that line about heredity (the word then for DNA) I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It made me laugh. You can leave your offspring money, or property... or strong “characteristics.” (Ideally, all three!)

 

TE: Does it feel good to have published your first book?


JW: Yeah… I never thought my first book was going to be an ebook. But as someone who has been nervously watching the Internet and its effects on traditional publishing, suddenly I’m very curious about the whole business of ebooks, how they are made, how many you have to sell to have success. I’m someone who rarely reads ebooks, and so far all I’ve read have been classics, so this is my first multimedia, modern one with photographs, that is collaborative. I’m also grateful to the publishers and to Brett for their work on this project.


TE: What other projects are you working on?


JW: I’m looking at essays about some of the questions you’ve asked, and I’ve been working on a series of articles about how the CIA used covert propaganda around the world to soften people’s attitudes about the American Proposition and to harden people’s attitudes toward Communism. For the past year I’ve been working on a novel set in Costa Rica, which is a country with no military, where I lived for two years and where I met my Guernica co-founder. It’s not a political novel but questions about militaries and abolishing militaries and how Costa Rica did that are part of the backdrop.


TE: Can you describe your local roots?


JW: My grandparents, if they didn’t meet at Chicken Ranch Beach, certainly saw each other there a lot. My grandfather Jim Whitney was staying there, at the house behind the beach that my cousins still have, when they got in trouble with their parents because they met at a party and four of them went driving around all night and didn’t even think to go home.

My grandfather built a cabin up on the cliff at Seahaven, and I’ve been lucky enough to go there since I was a tiny tyke. Interestingly, my parents divorced when I was 2. I don’t know which East Coast home I’d claim as my childhood home because we moved so much—my mom was changing jobs, she worked in radio, she worked in law, she was teaching. She’s a woman, like so many, who has worn many hats. So what I think of as my ancestral childhood home is that one at Seahaven that I’ve always been able to go back to.

As much as there are questions about how to do policy surrounding that park and as much as the town sometimes gets troubled by debates over how to use the land, I’ve always loved the humanitarian concerns and sense of sustainability and aesthetics and long-term thinking that defines that peninsula. From the outside looking in, I see those debates very favorably in themselves. Some have defined democracy as government by discussion or even argumentation or dispute. I can go back to any of the homes I grew up in on the East Coast and they look totally different and the towns are totally different. But thanks to those arguments surrounding Point Reyes—when they do finally arrive at consensus—I can come back here decade after decade and the landscape is remarkably unchanged.