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President Joe Biden’s administration has taken a cruel weapon—the cluster bomb—off the shelf and sent it to Ukraine to be used in the war against Russia. Prior to being transferred to Ukraine, cluster bombs made in the United States were used by Saudi Arabia as recently as last year to devastating effect in its war in Yemen. The weapons pose such an extraordinary danger to civilians that—although the U.S. is among a minority of countries that refuses to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions banning them, and retains such weapons in its arsenal—they have largely been gathering dust because their use and sale are so controversial on the world stage. The White House’s decision to transfer the bombs to Ukraine both escalates the already horrific war and legitimizes a weapon that has no place in our world.
Cluster bombs are large bombs that contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller bombs, or “bomblets.” Cluster bombs are designed to scatter the bomblets over a wide area upon detonation. At a time when the United States and its allies often claim—inaccurately—to carry out precision killing with “surgical strikes,” cluster bombs are imprecise by nature.
But what makes cluster bombs even worse is the fact that, inevitably, not all of the smaller, scattered bombs explode on impact. The bomblets lie on or below the surface of the ground, potentially for years or even decades, waiting to be detonated when touched. They are, in effect, land mines. As Amnesty International’s Brian Castner concludes, “There’s just not a responsible way to use cluster munitions.”
In Laos, where the U.S. dropped cluster bombs extensively as part of its war in Southeast Asia during the 1960s and ’70s, unexploded bomblets continue to litter the land even today. As veteran foreign correspondent Lewis M. Simons—who covered the war in Southeast Asia—wrote in a piece responding to the news of the weapons transfer to Ukraine, “Less than 1% of the dormant bombs have been cleared since the war ended in Laos. About 20,000 civilians been killed during the same period. Even as the numbers gradually decline, thousands continue to be killed, crippled and disfigured.” He added, “Half the victims are children.”
Well after ceasefires and treaties formally end armed conflicts, cluster bombs continue to threaten civilians in the places where they have been used. In response to the dangers remaining bomblets present to civilians, more than 120 countries have signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions.
This means that by transferring cluster bombs to Ukraine, the Biden administration is violating an international law that the majority of U.N. member states are party to.
This is ironic given the attention that the White House has rightfully called to Vladimir Putin’s violations of international law in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. move to send cluster bombs to Ukraine indicts the moral position that it has claimed in the war.
How We Got Here
Biden’s decision fits into a long, dark history of the U.S. manufacture, use, and sale of this destructive weapon. The U.S. has used cluster bombs in large-scale military operations since World War II, including its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq two decades ago. The bomblets that the U.S. used in those invasions were the same size and color as the packaged meals—humanitarian daily rations, or HDRs—that the U.S. also air-dropped for civilians. Human rights groups warned at the time against using cluster bombs, pointing to a similar problem that occurred when the U.S. used them in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s and children mistook the bomblets for toys—but the Pentagon used them anyway. Between the misleading, friendly appearance of the unexploded bomblets and their widespread scatter upon being dropped, cluster bombs killed, maimed, and threatened the lives of many civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq, provoking condemnation by human rights groups.
Then in 2006, Israel used U.S.-made cluster bombs in its 2006 invasion of Lebanon. In a move that the U.N. described as “immoral,” Israel dropped the overwhelming majority of its bombs—90%—in the last three days of the war as it was retreating, leaving Southern Lebanon littered with mines that have continued to pose a threat to civilians in the years since. This further fueled public sentiment against cluster bombs.
In 2008, the year that the Convention on Cluster Munitions was drafted and opened to signatories, President George W. Bush’s administration issued guidance regarding the Pentagon’s use of the weapon. While the U.S. would maintain cluster bombs in its arsenal, the new directive required that the “dud rate” of the bomblets had to be under 1%.
The directive, on the one hand, was a response to international pressure and domestic unease over the threat that such weapons posed to civilians. On the other hand, it gave cover to cluster bombs by suggesting that the destruction they caused could remain limited to the time and place of battle and target only combatants. But the U.S.’s so-called “precision weapons”—such as “smart bombs” and attack drones—have been shown to cause enormous civilian casualties. The notion that it is possible to develop a cluster bomb—an essentially blunt instrument of warfare—that spares civilians is a total fantasy.
In 2017, however, the U.S. abandoned even this effort that at least hinted at a concern for the problem of civilian harm and a commitment to human rights when Donald Trump’s administration reversed Bush’s 2008 directive. This allowed the use of cluster bombs that had already been made—and were in the U.S. stockpile—that had a dud rate exceeding 1%. The new guidance also removed a deadline for replacing older cluster bombs that had higher dud rates.
Ironically, this coincided with the greatest blow to cluster bombs’ credibility in recent memory, when the U.S. provided them to Saudi Arabia for use in its scorched-earth bombardment of Yemen. Riyadh bombed weddings, destroyed bridges and roads used by Yemeni civilians, and slaughtered dozens of children when it blew up a school bus—using U.S.-made cluster bombs. The atrocities rendered the war unpopular in the U.S., leading to a Congressional vote to end U.S. involvement—which President Trump then vetoed.
The U.S. remains in the minority of countries that refuses to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions, along with Ukraine and Russia.
Still, the cluster weapons transfer to Ukraine remains controversial. In addition to condemnation by human rights groups like Amnesty International, The New York Times—which has enthusiastically supported sending weapons to Ukraine—editorialized against sending the cluster bombs.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration overrode the warnings of rights advocates and transferred the weapons, which are sure to pose a threat to life well into the future, as they have in other countries.
Thankfully though, that is not where the story ends.
During the widespread condemnation of U.S. support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen at its height in the mid-2010s, anti-war activists in New England organized against Textron, a Rhode Island–based weapons manufacturer that made cluster bombs. The campaign was ultimately successful, and Textron announced in 2016 that it would stop manufacturing the weapon. The many controversies and regulations regarding cluster bombs have led U.S. companies to stop producing them, and Textron was the nation’s last domestic manufacturer. There are currently no cluster bombs being manufactured in the U.S., and, if anti-war activism is strong enough, perhaps there never will be.
Just weeks ago, the U.S. disposed of the last chemical weapons in what had once been an enormous arsenal. Though militarism is on the rise around the world—with Washington being a key driver—the elimination of U.S. chemical weapons is a great milestone in the history of disarmament. The challenge is to build on the success of the chemical weapons moratorium and on the campaign against Textron, and toward the day when we can also assure the elimination of U.S. cluster bombs.
Khury Petersen-Smith is the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He writes about US empire, the War on Terror, solidarity with Palestine, and anti-racism in the United States. He is a contributor to In These Times, The Nation, Truthout, and Common Dreams. Khury is based in Boston, MA, and speaks English. He can be reached on Twitter @kpYES