"There is an organization for just about every conceivable issue you can come up with. What makes a difference is getting political leadership behind you. And we got a powerful senator who went nuts."
In 1969, Lieutenant Bobby Muller led an assault up a hill in Vietnam until a bullet hit his back and severed his spinal cord. Miraculously, Muller survived. But the real misery didn’t begin until Muller returned to the United States and was confined to a decrepit veteran’s hospital. During his first year, eight people on his ward committed suicide. His experiences there led him to become a leading advocate for veterans’ rights. Years later, as head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Muller traveled to Cambodia where he witnessed the devastating impact of land mines on the local population. He launched himself into this new cause with characteristic energy and determination and in 1997, his efforts, along with cofounders at the Campaign to Ban Land Mines, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his success, Muller is the first to point out that the most daunting task, still to be accomplished, is removing the land mines already planted. Antipersonnel land mines kill or wound twenty-six thousand women, men, and children each year, often years after the conflict has ended and combatants have gone home. Today, Muller continues to focus worldwide attention on war’s impact on civilians.
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 that. When I was twenty-three I got shot and was conscious long enough to recognize what had happened—to feel the life ebbing 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 that I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t died. They wrote in my medical record that had I arrived a minute later I would have—the bullet had gone through my lungs and both had collapsed. I was lucky—the ship right off the coast was the farthest north it ever went up and it was turning around to go back south, back toward Danang. So I had this miraculous series of things happen. When you really face your mortality the way I did, it changes you. My reaction was joy to be given a second chance. And I’ll never forget when the doctor came and said, "We’ve got good news and bad news. We’re pretty confident that you’re gonna live—but you’re gonna be paralyzed." And I just absolutely 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 was God: I would decide who went on point, who was first out, this, that, and so on. And to go from being God to a piece of shit—it was kind of overwhelming. The first time I ever cried was when I got to the veteran’s hospital. It was a dilapidated facility—overcrowded, 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 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 eighteen 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 you start to be an activist, you don’t get easily intimidated. When people start to push back 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 and 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’s when I learned that things don’t happen simply because of arguments that are based on equity and justice. You need more than that. You need political engagement. That was an important lesson. But then you also learn that in the democracy that we have, you still do have opportunity and the mechanisms are still there. It’s like with the land mines campaign. Once I came to understand land mines, I recognized how truly devastating the consequences of this weapon were, not just for the lives of the victims, but for the countries they were used in, a major destabilizing factor. Then I really had no doubt that we could ultimately get this weapon banned internationally, put on the list with poison gas, dumb-dumb bullets, the weapons the world community says no to. But it was a difficult process to get the U.S. to say no.
We reached out to the retired military leadership and got Schwartzkopf, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Jones, and General Galvin to sign an open letter to the president—a full-page ad in The New York Times. You don’t necessarily have to have grassroots to move mountains. That’s a lesson I learned from the early days. So when we came back in ’92 we said, we’re going to make something happen here on land mines. We went to the most powerful member of Congress that we knew, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. He was the chairman of the appropriations committee on foreign operations, and Leahy single-handedly ensured that the United States outlawed traffic in land mines. Leahy was even able to use his influence with the president so that Clinton addressed the UN General Assembly and said, "We’ve got to outlaw these weapons."
This illustrates the importance of political leadership. We can put out a moral call. But you know, there are a lot of moral calls, there are a lot of injustices out there, and there is an organization for just about every conceivable issue you can come up with. What makes a 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 goddamn bill to get Leahy off my back; he wasn’t leaving me alone." These guys don’t give a shit 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 pissed me off when we were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, there was such a romanticized treatment in the media, to make people feel good—inspired. It was horseshit. People think because of Princess Diana, the fact that there was an international treaty, a Nobel Peace Prize, that it’s done, the job’s over. We need to wait a second—we have not universalized this treaty.
Land mines have totally fallen off the screen for everybody. We still need the United States to sign the treaty because all these other countries that need to be on board are not going to get on board ahead of the United States: China, Russia, India, Pakistan.
Courage for me means swimming against the tide. To go on in the face of adversity. To be willing to expose yourself to failure and ridicule. You have to be conscious of the fact that you’re at risk and aware of what you can lose—to then go forward is a courageous act. To just act blindly, that’s not courageous. Loss is not only reputation and money, it’s security and possibly your life. And if you go in and face those risks and threats I think that’s greatness. You’re doing it not because you’re gonna get applauded at some point down the road or rewarded, but because it’s right.
My dream for the future is to make a real contribution in containing conflict. I am not a pacifist. I have killed people and I would do it again if it was necessary. But there’s a difference between engaging an enemy soldier and killing civilians. Conflict has fundamentally transformed. Now it is the vulnerable, the innocent, that are the target of violence, instead of the military. That is absolutely unacceptable. If we can’t ultimately get people to be outraged over the slaughter of the innocent that’s going on, then chances of getting people to engage the concept of conflict is even more remote. Because with most people, conflict is still defined more along the terms of Saving Private Ryan. It’s a bitch, but it’s still military on military. This is the fiftieth anniversary of the Geneva Convention following the Second World War. Those aren’t laws of war—they’re suggestions. Laws require punishment for those who violate them. There has to be accountability. Antipersonal land mines, since 80 percent of their victims are innocent victims, serve as a good way to illustrate what conflict has become—violence that cannot discriminate between soldiers and civilians.
Look, we live our lives largely insulated from the depth of despair of pain and anguish and everything else that is going on out there. That’s why I feel so strongly in going after laws and making them real—the belief that you cannot allow the genocides, the Cambodias, the Rwandas of the world to play out. Allowing innocent people to be slaughtered on the scale that we’re witnessing around the world is just degrading the basic level of human conduct that we need to have. The world community has to say that conduct won’t be tolerated. Because if we do allow it, then it’s a breeding ground and sows the seeds of destruction. One day, that degree of madness is going to walk up the block and come into your neighborhood.