Sunday, December 3, 2006

The logic of cluster bombs

Introducing an article about one of the most disgustingly ironic events in recent memory--the US State Department's condemnation of Israel's use of cluster bombs against civilian targets in Lebanon--poputonian at Hullabaloo asks a question I've wondered about for some time: What, exactly, is the difference supposed to be between a cluster bomb and "a big canister full of land mines"?

As the article points out, cluster bombs are distinguished from other antipersonel munitions by their massive failure rate. Up to 40% of the bomblets resulting from a cluster bomb strike do not explode on impact, yet remain explosive long after, awaiting the unsuspecting civilian (often a child) who happens upon them. These bomblets may not resemble landmines physically, and they are not intentionally hidden or buried--though they may in fact be hidden from sight in one way or another, obviously. But in their basic logic, both militarily and morally, they are the same weapon. They both indiscriminately target any and all human beings who come across them, friend or foe, military or civilian. In remaining explosive indefinitely, they can, in a very troubling way, make a military conflict permanent. The persistence of active munitions in the environment means the persistence of war, and the persistence of arbitrary death and disfigurement. I doubt anyone who has lost a limb or a child to a hidden explosive device would care much about any distinctions between a cluster bomblet and a mine.

Yet armies and governments have consistently treated cluster bombs and landmines quite differently. 152 countries, including such noted champions of humanitarianism as Sudan, have signed a treaty outlawing the use and production of landmines. Despite their near-indistinguishability, cluster munitions are not included in the treaty, nor does any similar global treaty exist that bans them. (Not that no-one has called for one, but suchlike are voices in the wilderness.)

Given this climate, nearly all the world's militaries, even those not signed on to the treaty, show considerable restraint in their use of landmines. Even the United States, which has not signed on to the treaty and has, under Bush, rescinded on its Clinton-era promise to move toward a ban on mines, has not used mines in over a decade, despite being one of the world's largest producers and exporters. The US has, however, used cluster bombs quite frequently in recent years. The US Air Force (in)famously dropped cluster bombs on Serbia during the Kosovo war, on Afghanistan, and now on Iraq. Read a report on the use of cluster bombs in Baghdad, from the indispensible Human Rights Watch, here. If the US military were mining the streets of Baghdad, the world (and the American people) would be up in arms, yet somehow cluster bombs fail to produce similar outrage. Even HRW itself limits itself to saying that
the use of cluster munitions in populated areas may violate the prohibition of indiscriminate attacks contained in international humanitarian law.
"May"? How can there possibly be any doubt?

To drop these weapons on a heavily populated urban center is outrageous enough, but to have the unmitigated gall to publicly chide the Israeli army for doing the exact same thing in Lebanon--with American-made bombs, nonetheless--is something else. Seriously, is this a joke? The bombs were practically made for this purpose, as we should know, having made them ourselves, and having used them repeatedly for exactly this purpose. What else could anyone have expected Israel to do with them?

If cluster bombs do have any "legitimate" military use, surely that use would be better served by a weapon that doesn't fail 40% of the time. These weapons need to be outright banned. Whatever line of illogic has kept us from understanding their moral equivalence to landmines needs to be recognized as such, and this recognition may be the first step.

1 comment:

Michael said...

A 40% failure rate? You have to wonder whether a certain percentage of failures is meant to occur because of the long-term hazards the bomblets create. During World War II, for example, some timed bombs were designed to not explode on impact so that they would endanger bomb-disposal crews and others who entered the area after an air raid.

Land mines seem slightly more pernicious, and morally reprehensible, than cluster bombs because they are specifically designed to avoid detection and create indiscriminate long-term dangers. But we're talking about fine distinctions here, I admit.