It’s the holiday season – tomorrow is Christmas, so naturally, the thing we all want to talk about is cluster bombs. As if Weird Al’s Christmas at Ground Zero wasn’t bad enough – at least that’s just a song about the fictional end of the world. Cluster bombs are all too real. And today the BBC reported that Israel’s use of cluster bombs in last year’s invasion of Lebanon was legal.
I don’t know about the legal restrictions that apply to the use of cluster munitions. The facts of the matter are that Israel dropped a lot of them on Lebanon, and because of the relatively high failure rate of munitions, there are a lot of bomblets that are unexploded and doing massive amounts of collateral damage to innocent people more than a year after the invasion. Bomblets have similar effects to people as land mines do, but there are rules (namely Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons) that govern the use of land mines that supposedly make it easier for the mines to be cleaned up after the war is over. The problem with cluster bombs is that, unlike land mines, the bomb may go off-course in its descent and even if it doesn’t, the bomblets themselves fall indiscriminately over the area where the bomb was dropped. This makes cleaning them up following the cessation of hostilities even more difficult than clearing mines – at least there’s supposed to be a map for the location of the mines.
It doesn’t help that some U.S.-made cluster bombs look a lot like air-dropped food rations (the yellow is supposed to make them both easy to see, in one case to make the food easy to find and in the other case to make the bomblet easy to avoid – too bad it doesn’t always work that way). In areas where bomblets and food rations are both air-dropped, the combination of the two with a population that probably can’t read English has earned the U.S. (and our allies who use our cluster bombs, like Israel) a great deal of well deserved criticism.
There are calls to ban cluster bombs from NGOs like Stop Cluster Munitions and a number of governments as well. The problem is that, as weapons of war, they are singularly effective at destroying your enemy. Bombs or artillery shells hit a single spot and radiate out destruction from that location. Cluster submunitions delivered by bombs or artillery shells spread out over a larger area, creating a much larger zone of destruction and death. Submunitions can be designed to punch through armor, start fires, operate like grenades in an anti-personnel fashion, lay an instant mine field (something that is frowned on by the U.N.), even render airfield runways useless. And for that reason, there will always be people willing to use cluster munitions of various sorts.
You’d think that, with all the badness that goes along with cluster bombs, I’d be all for banning them, along with land mines. I’m not, though. As horrible as they are, when used “responsibly,” their very effectiveness makes them irreplaceable in war. But I do believe that it’s a moral requirement for any invader to pay for the removal of any unexploded land mines or submunitions, just as it’s morally necessary to compensate those non-combatants injured by unexploded submunitions. Just as the U.N. demands that all mine fields be mapped and the location of every mine identified, the number of cluster munitions and every impact point must also be mapped accurately so that every last cluster munition can be removed safely. It also wouldn’t hurt to make damn sure that your food rations aren’t colored the same color as your bomblets.
Bombing population centers like Israel did in Lebanon will always earn the aggressor international disdain, even if the innocent population has all fled and only combatants remain. After all, the homes and livelihoods of the general population are being destroyed as the combatants fight. But this has always been true in war, and probably always will be. Ultimately, if you choose to engage in warfare, the most humane (if anything about war could be called such) way to wage war is to do so with the most effective weapons at your disposal, to win fast, and to disrupt the general population as little as possible. And if cluster bombs are the right weapon to do that, so be it.