Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Numbers Tell the Story

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.
Matthew 5:9

Yesterday in the waiting room at a doctor’s office, I was leafing through an old news magazine and listening to the conversation around me. A woman was speaking to a man on the opposite side of the room. “How old do you think I am?” she asked. The gentleman demurred, wisely saying that he was not very good with ages. “I’m eighty-one,” she said proudly. “Do I look it?” The gentleman told her that she looked very good.

After a few minutes of silence, she asked again, “How old do you think I am?” Her son, sitting next to her, said, “Ma, you just told him how old you are.” But she was undeterred, “I’m eighty-two,” she said. Before anyone could point out that less than five minutes ago she had told the man that she was eighty-one, she explained, “I just turned eighty-two.”

Apparently, I thought to myself, I really have been here for a long time. But the son chimed in, “You’re right, Ma, you turned eighty-two last Sunday.”

As the conversation was going on, I was looking at a section in the magazine called, “Numbers,” and half-way down the page I saw this:

104,295The number of Vietnamese
killed by abandoned landmines
or explosive devices since
the end of the Vietnam War.

I scribbled down the number just before I was called to see the doctor.

It seemed impossible. I had heard of the dangers of landmines. Remember Princess Diana? But I could not imagine that scale. By contrast, there have been about 4,500 United States Military deaths in Iraq since the war there began in March of 2003. How could civilian deaths in Vietnam since the end of the war possibly be more than twenty times the (U.S.) military deaths in the Iraq war?

So I checked. And I received a brief but shocking education.

104,295 is not the number of deaths; it is the number of casualties. Right now, the casualty number is actually a few hundred higher than that.

The number of landmine related deaths in Vietnam since the end of the war is a little less than 40,000.

Still, it is a staggering number. And we hear very little about it. When one of our soldiers is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan by an I.E.D. (Improvised Explosive Device) we hear about it. But when a child is blown up by an abandoned landmine in Vietnam, or Cambodia, or Angola, or Rwanda, or a host of other countries, it does not make the news.

A recent UNICEF report explains the geography of this destruction: “Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia have suffered 85 per cent of the world's land-mine casualties. Overall, African children live on the most mine-plagued continent, with an estimated 37 million mines embedded in the soil of at least 19 countries. Angola alone has an estimated 10 million land-mines and an amputee population of 70,000, of whom 8,000 are children. Since May 1995 children have made up about half the victims of the 50,000-100,000 anti-personnel mines laid in Rwanda.”

And the report goes on to say that “Children are particularly vulnerable to land-mines in a number of ways. If they are too young to read or are illiterate, signs posted to warn them of the presence of mines are useless. Also, children are far more likely to die from their mine injuries than are adults. Of those maimed children who survive, few will receive prostheses that keep up with the continued growth of their stunted limbs.”

The UNICEF report speaks of landmines as “contamination” and “pollution.” But isn’t it more accurately called a form of terrorism?

Landmines are widely used because they are incredibly cost-effective. They can be produced for as little as $3, and they can be dispersed at a rate of up to 1,000 per minute. They are always on duty. They never sleep. And they never give up. Actually that last one is an exaggeration, apparently they typically remain active for up to fifty years. That’s not really forever, but it is a long time.

Getting rid of them, on the other hand, is extremely expensive and time consuming.

Jesus tells a series of parables about the cost of discipleship. In one of them, he talks about a king’s rash decision to go to war without counting the cost and gauging the strength of his enemy. But as the great Christian pacifist A. J. Muste said, our real enemy is not another king, our real enemy is war itself. In a pamphlet titled, “War Is the Enemy,” Muste argues that we believe that non-violence is too costly, but we never really consider making the same investments in peace that we make in war.

And, we might add, when we consider the cost of war we seldom account for the collateral damage that may occur decades after the fighting is over.

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