Predictably Horrific: The Afterlife of Cluster Bombs

By Winright, Tobias | Commonweal, March 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Predictably Horrific: The Afterlife of Cluster Bombs


Winright, Tobias, Commonweal


Following two days of intensive bombing in Karbala, Iraq, in 2003, Jabar Raheem and her six-year-old daughter, Duaa, emerged from their house to get water. Along the way, Duaa found a black plastic object shaped like a C-cell battery and attached to a white ribbon. She took it home to share with her sisters, three-year-old Duha and eight-year-old Saja. Sitting on the kitchen floor with the device, Duaa twisted a screw. It exploded, cutting her in half, killing Duha, and severely injuring Saja. "We thought we were safe because the bombs had stopped," their grief-stricken mother said. "My daughters were stolen from me."

The weapon responsible for that gruesome tragedy was a U.S. cluster bomb. According to a 2007 report from Handicap International, 98 percent of the casualties from cluster munitions are civilians, of whom 27 percent are children.

Last August, an international Convention on Cluster Munitions went into effect, two years after its adoption in Oslo, Norway, by 108 nations. So far, fifty-two signers have ratified the convention. It prohibits the production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of these weapons, and it provides assistance for those, like Saja, who have been injured by them. Unfortunately, the United States--along with Russia, China, and Israel--has neither signed nor ratified the agreement.

Cluster bombs have been used in conflicts in thirty-five countries and regions, including Laos, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Chechnya, and the former Yugoslavia. Early versions of the weapons were employed by the Soviets and the Germans in World War II, and the United States has used them in almost every conflict since Vietnam. In 2003 in Iraq, our armed forces used over ten thousand cluster bombs.

Technically known as Cluster Bomb Units, or CBUs, these weapons are dropped from planes or launched from land and sea by artillery, missiles, and rockets. Inexpensive to produce, cluster bombs differ from munitions designed to strike a single point. Each bomb contains up to 650 bomblets or submunitions that can be dispersed over a target area (or "footprint") as large as two football fields. The bomblets are sometimes attached to small parachutes, so they can float down over targets. They come in various shapes and sizes, are sometimes brightly painted and can resemble batteries, tennis balls, soda cans, or hockey pucks. Each submunition contains shrapnel (steel pellets or ball bearings) that is released when detonated in midair or on impact. The weapons are used to wound or to kill enemy soldiers, especially in mass formations, but the shrapnel can also penetrate and incapacitate tanks, armored personnel carriers, and grounded aircraft.

Supporters of the ban, like Virgil Wiebe (an international law scholar and cofounder of the Cluster Munitions Coalition, a network of groups campaigning against cluster munitions), argue that the weapons are immoral because they inevitably cause harm to civilians. A similar criticism was made on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 by Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, who at the time was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Any implied or express threats to defend against Iraq's weapons of mass destruction by using our own weapons of mass destruction," including "antipersonnel land mines, cluster bombs, and other weapons that cannot distinguish between soldiers and civilians, or between times of war and times of peace," he wrote, would be "clearly unjustified." A 2008 statement of the World Council of Churches describes the CBU as "an indiscriminate instrument that confounds the intentions of its users and brings terrible consequences to its victims." These criticisms hinge on the just-war jus in bello principle of discrimination--or noncombatant immunity--that prohibits intentionally targeting and harming civilians.

Defenders of CBUs argue the munitions can be used discriminately. In a 2001 Air Force Law Review article, Maj. …

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