On One Hand

May 3, 2008

Residual Consequences – Weapons Left Over After Conflict

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 3:41 pm
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MSNBC reports that a man in Virginia was killed by a cannonball built during the Civil War this February. The 140-year-old bomb, filled with black powder and lead pellets for shrapnel, was part of Sam White’s collection of Civil War relics. It exploded as he was trying to clean and restore it outside his garage.

According to the article, there were about 300,000 non-exploded cannonballs left in the fields at the end of the Civil War, some of which are deactivated in museums or have broken down over time, but some of which ares still buried in rural parts of the United States or in possession of collectors unaware that they are dangerous.

This is usually the last kind of accident policy-makers think about when considering the tragic consequences of war, but Sam White’s death is an ominous warning to future generations. If a primitive bomb made under the technological conditions of the the 1860’s could still be active a century and a half later, one might predict that superior weapons for modern wars could be killing people in accidents for millennia to come.

Consider that there are still 23 million land mines left in Egypt from World War II and 20 million buried mines in the African nation of Angola from a civil war that began in 1975. Estimates predict between 600,000 and 6 million buried mines in Cambodia and millions more in Serbia, Vietnam and Afghanistan – which, unlike Civil War relics, are nearly all still dangerous. In Libya, 27 percent of farmable land cannot be used because it is covered in minefields, and Vietnam and Mozambique lose significant tracts of land to mines. The toll is more than mere potentiality; all told, 25,000 people worldwide are killed each year by buried mines from wars that have been resolved for decades. (In 1997, most world nations signed a land mine ban in light of problems like these. The United States, Russia and China refused to sign.)

Meanwhile, the Afghani and Iraqi insurgencies have used 1970s-era American-built weapons to fight United States soldiers there. Bombs and machine flooded into the region when the American government was supplying insurgents with artillery to use against the Soviet Union or Iran in the late 20th century. Central and South American governments face similar problems with American-built weapons supplied to fight Leftist governments during the 1970s.

The most high-tech and durable weapons in the world are nuclear warheads. There are about 20,000 existing bombs in all, half of which are “operational,” which means they are ready to use. Half of those are in silos in the United States or stationed in Germany, Italy, or Turkey under U.S. military control, while almost as many are in former Soviet states. China and France each have about 400, the U.K. has about 200, Israel about 100, and India and Pakistan each have between 30 and 50 nuclear weapons. 50,000 weapons were dismantled in the 1980s and 1990s by the United States or Russia – so, while they still exist, they are unlikely to detonate accidentally. But if only one tenth of one percent of all existing warheads (which amounts to 20 nuclear bombs) were lost to the control of terrorists or were launched by human or mechanical error , the explosions could still kill tens of millions of people.

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1 Comment »

  1. Quite fascinating. The latest fatality of the U.S. Civil War happens in the year 2008.

    Comment by tempur_tempur — May 4, 2008 @ 4:34 pm | Reply


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