“I’m a rock ‘n’ roll guy,” explains Bobby Muller, “who got into this genre, if you wish, and I just love these guys.” Muller, the president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, is based in Washington, but his cadence and his rock ‘n’ roll bent are products of a New York City childhood. The genre of which he speaks so excitedly is, for lack of a better description, folk- and country-tinged rock, while “the guys” are musicians like Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn and Nanci Griffith.
Muller’s focus is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a campaign he co-founded in 1991 and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997, and the musicians above are among the many volunteers engaged in this effort. Using just a series of statistics, Muller paints a nightmarish picture of the situation in Cambodia when the campaign began: over 500 landmine casualties every month, an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 survivors of landmine explosions, more landmines than people in the country. It was a scenario that was lethal to both the people and the land, with potential farmland contaminated by the presence of millions of mines. According to Muller, “We just said, ‘Wait a second, we have to do something.’”
Some 10 years down the road, there have been some major accomplishments, including an international agreement that over 140 countries signed and a national rehabilitation center in Cambodia that’s run by the VVAF. “Of course,” Muller offers, “there’s still a long way to go.” After taking the lead on the landmine issue initially (with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy as the point man), the United States has, in Muller’s words, “gone south” since then. In 1992, the United States was the first country in the world to prohibit the trafficking in anti-personnel landmines, which was initially a one-year moratorium. The next year, in a rather astonishing 100 to 0 roll-call vote, it was given a multiyear extension. But then, as Muller recalls, the tide shifted. “All of a sudden, the Pentagon woke up and said, ‘We can’t have society starting to dictate what weapons we can and cannot use.’” Thus, the biggest obstacle still to overcome is getting the United States back on board.
Getting the general population on board is where the musical artists most come into play. Emmylou Harris launched the Concerts for a Landmine Free World in 1998, beginning with a show in Washington, D.C. The previous year, accompanied by her mother and Muller, she had made a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia as a tribute to her father, a career military man and a former POW in Korea. It was a chance to see an area of the world that had been part of her father’s life, but it also provided the opportunity for her to experience firsthand the devastating legacy of landmines.
“Emmy came to these clinics and saw, I think, something that she didn’t expect, which was kids laughing and people smiling,” says Muller. “Because as overwhelming as the circumstances may be in our mind as Westerners, they at least see rays of hope.” Inspired by this triumph of the human spirit, Harris began recruiting friends to hit stages with the goal of raising awareness of the landmine issue.
When Muller travels to Vietnam, as he did with Harris and on other occasions, he’s returning to the place where his journey to anti-war and veterans’ rights activism began. As detailed on the VVAF Web site, Muller was leading an assault as a combat infantry officer in Vietnam when a bullet severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. His rehab experience at the Veterans Administration Hospital in the Bronx, characterized by neglect and inadequate care, led him first to law school and then to a job as the legal counsel for the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, before founding the VVAF in 1980. His work as the head of the VVAF has led to the passing of a variety of landmark pieces of legislation (as well as his work with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines), but he’d much rather talk about the artists and the concerts than about himself.
“The vast majority of them have actually gone overseas, visited the clinics, personally experienced what it’s like to be in a landmine-infected area,” says Muller of the musicians who have volunteered their time and talents to the cause. “Therefore, when they speak about it, they’re not talking about talking points, they’re talking about how they feel, based on their experiences.”
The latest Landmine Free World tour, which kicks off a five-city run with a show in Raleigh on Nov. 6, finds Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Patty Griffin joining Harris in the songwriters circle. Cockburn is the most overtly political of the bunch, as evidenced by such songs as “Call It Democracy,” “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and “The Mines of Mozambique” (that last one and Buddy and Julie Miller’s “100 Million Little Bombs” are the only songs that Muller’s aware of that deal specifically with the landmine issue), but all the participants have traveled to landmine-ravaged parts of the world.
“I will tell you that, in the last several years, nothing has helped us get the word out there and build support for our work as much as the concerts,” Muller testifies. “It’s not about–at this stage of the game–giving another speech. You’ve got to give something to people that captures their attention.”
For more information on the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation and the Concerts for a Landmine Free World, see www.vvaf.org.