Dallaporta’s Deadly Devices: Antipersonnel

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They have been called “the perfect soldier.” They neither eat nor sleep, are always vigilant, are rarely seen. Their forms are myriad, from the merely prosaic to the distinctly aesthetic, but their function is always the same— mainly to maim, not kill, to not only render their victims immobile, but to take others out of the fray, those who must deal with the carnage. Designated by the acronym, AP for “anti-personnel,” they are known by most of us simply as landmines.

More than 50 countries have manufactured over 350 types, though their numbers have decreased since the late 1990s. Human Rights Watch recently reports that:

A total of 161 nations are party to the Mine Ban Treaty, which was opened for signature in December 1997 and entered into force on March 1, 1999. The treaty comprehensively prohibits antipersonnel landmines and requires their clearance and assistance to victims. Members include all European Union countries, all NATO members except the US, all nations in sub-Saharan Africa, all countries in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba and the US, many countries in Asia-Pacific, and several nations from the Commonwealth of Independent States. Like the US, nearly all of the other 34 countries that have not signed the treaty follow its key provisions.

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As recently as March 2013, the Obama administration reaffirmed its intention to join the international ban—but the United States has not yet done so.

The report continues:

The last recorded US use of antipersonnel landmines was more than 20 years ago, during the 1991 Gulf War. The US has had an export ban on antipersonnel mines in place since 1992. There has been no known US production of antipersonnel mines since 1997. The US is the world’s largest contributor to global mine clearance and victim assistance programs. Since 2009, the US has participated as an observer in meetings of the Mine Ban Treaty.

As these  “intimate” weapons become obsolete or banned, they are being replaced by “cluster munitions.” The Israeli Army dropped them by the hundreds of thousands in southern Lebanon in August of 2008. Today, Amnesty International and Handicap International are working to ban these as well. They report:

Designed to be scattered across wide areas of conflict zones, cluster munitions inevitably affect civilian populations. On top of which, 5-30 percent (perhaps even 40 percent) of cluster munitions do not explode on impact and become de facto antipersonnel mines, exploding with the slightest contact, killing and mutilating during and after conflicts.

What would be the point of citing here the grim statistics of the hundreds of thousands wounded and killed, or even of singling out conflict photojournalists who have been their victims, from Robert Capa in Indochina in May 1954 to Joao Silva who lost both legs in Afghanistan in October 2010, more than 55 years later, a sobering comment on their continuity? Just more beads on the dolorous rosary of war dead and wounded.

Sadly, we are becoming more inured to the numbers and images of human carnage set before us by our news media, as well as their fictional but graphic simulacrums served up weekly on our local movie screens. It takes a film like The Hurt Locker to even begin to put us inside the experience of such close, eruptive death, rather than watching it as a voyeurist outsider. The intent of IEDs is to kill, not maim, as many people as possible, the steroid version of the landmine.

Thoughts on the impersonal mode of injury of landmines have stayed with me since I first saw the photographs in Raphaël Dallaporta’s 2010 book Antipersonnel.

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Amazon.com—Raphael Dallaporta: Antipersonnel link

We can very easily imagine these killing devices to be as visually ugly as their purpose.

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However, what Dallaporta has done in this slim book is fiendishly simple; he has removed these miniature devices of destruction from their intended place of silent sequester, hidden in the dirt, and has transformed them through studio lighting into objects not of fear, but portraits of a perverse wonder, even beauty.

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Some may merely look decorous, like a perfume bottle,

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Or a glass utensil.

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An obsolete WWII Soviet Union mine with a wooden casing may not have much aesthetic appeal, even looking like a harmless cast-off container, but it becomes doubly dangerous as decay of the wood makes it increasingly unstable.

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Dallaporta’s book pictures only 35 mines, one per page, each resting like a prized fetish in a black field. Each page opposite the photo states country of origin and details of the mine’s specific “qualities,” presented as anomalous captions. Where one might expect some dog-eared munitions catalog rendering, each one pictured here is “painted” with light. The clean, delicate highlights and shadows would have delighted cinematographer John Alton.

All too many of these mines have been manufactured in the United States. One of the most infamous is the “Bouncing Betty” M16, described as an “antipersonnel bounding fragmentation mine.” It shoots five feet into the air, exploding within half a second and creates a lethal radius of over 30 feet. But it looks like a homemade, jerry-rigged tin can. Perfectly American. Form follows function.

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An equally lethal first cousin is the more overtly designed (Italian, of course) V-69, which sends out over 1000 pieces of chopped steel. The caption reads:

Between 1982 and 1985, its manufacturer Valsella sold around 9 million V69s to Iraq. The mine was given a nickname by Iraqi minelayers: the “Broom.”

Saddam’s real weapon of mass destruction.

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Some mines look more like models for a science fiction movie than weapons, such as this American BLU-26/B. Over 9 million were left on the ground in Laos during the Vietnam War. Unexploded, they can’t be disarmed.

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The USA M-39 seems to have wings, perfect for its ejection from a howitzer at up to 11.5 km from target.

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The Russian Federation AO-2.5RTM submunition is heavy, about 6 lbs. and has a destructive area of 210 square meters.

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A trio of colorless steel more than makes up for their drabness by the wide range of havoc they make on descent from a plane or launcher. They resemble lost parts from some utilitarian machine, rather than a perfect maiming machine.

“The “mustard pot” was used in WWII by the Nazis.

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The BLU-24/B is a humbler looking yellow painted companion, sans filigree, to its BLU-26/B brother. These number/letter designations serve to suggest the great variety of “models” available to the fighting troops.

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And Portugal manages entry-level status in the manufacturer’s club with the non-bounding M-966/B, which can also be detonated by a tripwire. It looks like a radio antenna.

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More rudimentary in shape is the BLU-97/B, another American entry in the sweepstakes for non-design simplicity and efficiency. Like too many American-made products of the 90s, its failure rate only made it more deadly. The book caption claims its failure rate in Kosovo was 7 percent

Meaning that each CBU-87 [the larger mother bomb carrying the submunition BLU-97/B] leaves 14 unexploded submunitions over an area of 800 square meters. Once on the ground, these duds act as de facto antipersonnel mines.

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Another frequent American dud, the submunition BLU-3/B is called the “Pineapple” though it also resembles a heavy metal badminton cock. It sports six fins, which are supposed to slow and stabilize its descent. Nearly 25 percent fail on impact.

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Another American finned sibling is the BLU-77/B, which has a squid –like profile. It is one of over 700 (yes 700) submunitions in a 7,400 pound cluster bomb, the CBU-59 Rockeye II. It was a star of the 1991 Gulf War, and makes a significant part of the 200 cluster submunitions still discovered every month in Kuwait.

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A French entry, the MI AP DV 61, has clean and elegant but functional lines, with a spiked shaft to facilitate embedding in the sands of desert countries such as Algeria, North Africa being the last bastion of Gallic imperialism.

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Not all landmines are the products of worldwide war profiteering corporations. A homemade version comes from Bosnia-Herzegovina. It has a detonation mechanism mounted onto an explosives filled plastic jar. The adjacent caption says that in 2005, a decade after the end of the Yugoslav war, landmines still killed 34 people in Bosnia.

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But a certain pride of place must be given to France, again, for the Ogre F1. Its portrait in Dallaporta’s gallery looks like it could be a beribboned French war trophy.

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The Ogre can be fired up to 35 km. with a footprint of 10,000-18,000 square meters. In 2008, the French signing of the Oslo cluster-munitions treaty spelled its demise.

How does one consider the implications of this photo gallery of death? If you, like I, have never seen what landmines actually look like, there is a good chance you won’t be able to forget these images. We may scan an online news photo slideshow or flip today’s newspaper pages showing bloody images of the damage that antipersonnel ordinance can inflict on the soft targets of human flesh, but in some uncanny way, clearly intended by Dallaporta, these sensuously lit, but unemotive, sterile, images, are searing retinal records of what we do to one another in the glorious name of “god and country.”

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Next:  “The Spinning Top,” and the Parvo.

 

2 Responses to “Dallaporta’s Deadly Devices: Antipersonnel”

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  • Michael Tsimperopoulos

    Thank you for such a poignant essay, especially during these days, by a filmmaker who never endorsed gratuitous violence in his work.

    Recently, I stumbled across Dallaporta’s photos, and before I even realized that those were mines, they made my skin crawl. There was something sinister about those –unknown to me- objects, emerging from the darkness, the black background of the compositions.

    Without criticizing the images, I wondered “why would somebody do that ?” But I kept looking, imagining the bloody and mutilating consequences of the existence of those devices, and soon I had my answer, realizing how effective they are at revealing a glimpse of the human mind.

    The greek word for the mine is “narky” which means “dormant”, and there is something archetypal, something minimalistic, ancient and primitive, about a destructive trap or weapon, that one puts in the ground, laying dormant, waiting there forever, waiting patiently to capture, maim, or kill. So utterly impersonal, so disgustingly fearsome.

    Precisely 20 years ago, on December of ’93, I was sent to Somalia, as part of my obligatory two-year service to the army. It was two weeks after the “Black-Hawk Down” incident. My morning ritual entailed a high-speed ride from our base to Mogadishu. When on the first day I asked the driver why he was constantly pushing our jeep at a speed of more than 100km/hour on that battered dirt-road, he replied that there was a slight chance that speed and momentum could save our lives in case we rode over a mine, and by the time it exploded we might had already passed it….

    From that moment, and for the next two months, I died every single morning as I visualized that dormant monster waiting for us. I was never afraid of bombs, snipers or straying bullets. But I was terrorized by that waiting mine, and came to associate it with my most basic fears , a manifestation of malevolence, an expression of pure evil. Every morning I wondered about the satanic minds that came up with those things and manufactured them…

    A few years later, I had the chance to meet someone who had worked in a production line, manufacturing mines. And to my utter surprise and disbelief, he wasn’t the devil incarnated. He was a simple man, devoid of ethical dilemmas, as he never meant to do any harm himself, never having pulled a trigger, feeling like an infinitesimal cog in a huge machine, just doing his job, where others, much higher in the chain of command were burdened with the heavy choices and important decisions. An ethical debate on the subject is a minefield in itself, but I can’t help remembering what Hannah Arendt used to describe as “the banality of evil”, the most destructive –and not dormant- force of all.

    JOHN’S REPLY: Michael, the deeply personal recollection of your close-up “visualization” of land mines while you served in the military gave me an unexpected frisson. No matter what we think and say about the larger “existential” threat of these terrible objects– there is nothing that can make them quite as real as such a personal story. Many thanks for writing this.

    I think also of the Australian entry for the AMPAS foreign language film this year- “The Rocket”_ — the tale of Laotians today making rocket fireworks from the still unexploded ordinance dropped on their country more than 40 years ago by US bombers.

  • I share Michael’s feelings regarding the mines; for me it brought back memories from the Vietnam War. The only comment I can add is that nothing says military gallows humor like the Claymore Mine with its advice as too which side should be facing the enemy.

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