Blowin' in the Wind
Music stars rally for landmine-free world
By Greg Cahill
ROBERT MULLER knows how it feels to get blown away. As a Marine lieutenant serving in Vietnam in 1969, Muller was walking next to an armored tank when it ran over a landmine. The heavy steel-tank tread absorbed most of the blast, but the concussion sent him flying. "It was like one of those cartoon-character-type things," he recalls, during a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. "I literally got blown away with the pulverizing tread in a cloud of black smoke. I wound up in some nearby hedges. I was a little stunned--not really sure what happened.
"Right away, I started pulling an inventory of my limbs," he adds, with a nervous laugh. "I was miraculously unaffected."
A few days, Muller's luck ran out. During a firefight, an enemy bullet severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. "A bullet took me down," he says, "but the leading causes of casualties for U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War were landmines and booby traps."
In 1984, Muller returned to Vietnam and Cambodia, where he was stunned to see the high number of amputees and lack of support services. As the head of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Muller decided to do something to help. With funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the VVAF has supplied landmine victims with more than 4,000 prosthetic limbs, nearly 1,000 orthotic braces, and more than 2,000 wheelchairs, free of charge.
More recently--with the help of a lot of high-profile friends in the music biz--Muller has set his sights on the elimination of the small, cheap explosive devices that have caused so much misery. That effort has resulted in an international treaty banning antipersonnel landmines, which in 1997 earned Muller and others the Nobel Peace Prize. The United States has not ratified the treaty, which is backed by 135 nations, because it would require the elimination of anti-tank mines from the U.S. arsenal.
But Muller is determined to rally public support for the treaty.
On Dec. 2, the Campaign for a Landmine-Free World will host a benefit concert at the Luther Burbank Center, featuring an all-star lineup of country and folk artists. Scheduled to perform are Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn, Nanci Griffith, Patty Griffin, and a special guest.
While celebrity concerts for the landmine campaign began in 1997, thanks to the support of Harris, the three upcoming Bay Area dates are the first in a series of singer/songwriter-in-the-round concerts benefiting the Nobel Prize-winning organization.
TWO YEARS ago, Harris traveled with Muller to Vietnam and Cambodia to learn firsthand about the hidden threat posed by landmines. "She is a strong advocate on behalf of the work that we do with war victims," Muller says. "She has called upon the music community to get behind this cause, and the response has been overwhelming."
Last year, Harris performed at the Nobel Prize Award ceremony in Olso, Norway. She later headed a benefit concert for the campaign at Constitution Hall, in the nation's capitol, which featured Earle, Willie Nelson, Sheryl Crow, and Lucinda Williams. "That got a lot of media attention and brought a lot of support," says Muller, adding that the purpose of all this celebrity action is to put pressure on the United States to sign the treaty.
"Music has consistently connected us to people--more so than any speeches or lectures that we give," he explains. "When these people have stepped up as spokespeople, they capture audiences, and the message is amplified in support of our work in a way that as advocates we just don't have the ability to do. And the musicians love to do it.
"So we're all very excited about it."
PROCEEDS from the concerts support several VVAF projects co-funded by the United States and several other nations. VVAF helps pay for the surveying of minefields and the clearing of explosives. The organization also operates the largest amputee rehabilitation projects in Cambodia, Angola, Kosovo (where the VVAF serves as the coordinating agency for the United Nations), and Sierra Leone.
During his visit to the Bay Area, Muller will meet with representatives from J Winery and other local vintners involved in Roots for Peace, a wine-industry project that is funding the removal of landmines in Croatia (a breakaway state of the Yugoslavian Federation) and helping to restore that republic's devastated agricultural industry.
Such efforts make Muller hopeful that public support for the VVAF campaign is growing, but he remains discouraged that the U.S. government is steadfast in its refusal to support the international treaty.
"It's very disappointing," he says. "When we began this campaign, it was the United States that had inspired the movement around the world. A lot of people don't remember that we were the first country in 1992, unilaterally, to give up the trade in landmines. That meant we couldn't sell them or give them away.
When our key political liaison in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Patrick Leahy from Vermont, called upon the Senate for that initiative, on a roll call vote he got unanimous vote in support of the ban--something you don't see every day.
"The next year, President Clinton went before the U.N. General Assembly and told delegates that this is a very dangerous weapon and that we've got to get rid of it. Two years later, he went back again and called on the world community to get rid of landmines through an international treaty. So after the United States led the way to get something going, at the end of the day not to have the United States as one of the 135 countries that have signed this treaty is a real bitter disappointment.
"We've got to get the United States on board if we want to pick up any more key players."
The current concert series , Muller says, is a way to accomplish that goal. "We want to keep this issue out there in the public arena," he says, "so that people understand that while we're doing the humanitarian work of helping the victims and clearing the lands, we still need to turn off the spigot."
At press time, there were a few tickets left for the Concert for a Landmine-Free World, Thursday, Dec. 2, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $45-$85. 546-3600.
From the November 24-December 1, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.