April 18, 2011

In Defense of Cluster Munitions

This weekend's news that forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi are firing cluster munitions into built-up areas -- reported by C.J. Chivers and Bryan Denton in both the New York Times and on Chivers's blog -- has generated outrage, and it is easy to understand why.

Cluster munitions are nasty, nasty weapons. One of the reasons they are so nasty is that they rarely work as intended. The M-26, to use but one example, has an official "dud rate" of 5%, but often the dud rate is higher. What that means is that cluster munitions produce a lot of unexploded ordinance (UXO). In Afghanistan, in early 2002, the U.S. Air Force dropped cluster munitions on a position my infantry company was later asked to clear. The UXO from those cluster munitions honestly presented a bigger threat to the safety and welfare of the men in my platoon than the Taliban or al-Qaeda. You can imagine what the effect of this UXO is like in more heavily populated area. As a civilian researcher, I have seen the effect of cluster munitions used during the 2006 war in southern Lebanon, where hundreds of Lebanese civilians have been either maimed and killed by cluster munitions in the past five years. Little kids go walking through the woods, just as I once did, and pick up the shiny metal object on the ground, just as I would have done as an eight-year old. The consequences for picking up a shiny object off the ground in southern Lebanon, though, are more severe than they are in eastern Tennessee.

For these reasons, I have never understood the logic behind using cluster munitions in offensive operations -- especially in built-up areas. The U.S. military, we should all remember, used cluster munitions in the offensive on Baghdad in 2003, and several U.S. soldiers and countless Iraqi civilians were killed from the leftover UXO.

At the same time, though, I understand why the United States is not a signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions -- just as I understand why the United States is not a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty on land mines. First off, cluster munitions are just that -- munitions. And any weapon or munition, depending on how it is used, can present a threat to civilians. Most of these people in Bryan's photographs, for example, were killed in nasty, gruesome ways by pretty "vanilla" weapons and munitions. (Also, we're going to rid ourselves of cluster munitions but keep massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons?)

Second, cluster munitions have their uses in combat. In defensive, conventional warfare -- such as the kind of warfare the United States and its Korean allies prepare for daily on the Korean Peninsula -- cluster munitions and land mines would be terribly useful. I certainly would not want to take either weapon system off the table for commanders there. (Plus, cluster munitions are getting smarter.)

Finally, it strikes me that most of the major powers that have signed both the CCM and the Ottawa Treaty are powers that have grown accustomed, either consciously or unconsciously, to living under the U.S. security umbrella. In the same way some of these powers have neglected to buy enough bombs for a sustained campaign in Libya and have not invested in the kinds of close air support platforms that have once again proven their use in combat, it's safe to righteously swear off both cluster munitions and land mines when you know that your security guarantor has not. That's cynical of me to think that, I know, but no more cynical than goading your allies into a war for which you know your own military is unprepared.

One last note: I know a lot of well-intentioned, decidedly non-cynical campaigners believe we should ban these weapons outright, and my mind on this subject is open to be changed. So please leave any comments or counter-arguments in the section below. If I see a particularly thoughtful counterargument -- or argument in support of my thesis -- I will post it.

Update: Aaron Ellis makes a good point here about how "unusual" weapons (like cross-bows, once upon a time) are often the ones least likely to earn approbation, while reader Andrea (no last name) has thus far crafted the most thoughtful counterargument.

Update II: The ever-cranky Welsh scrum-half @InkSptsGulliver provides a link to this article by Charli Carpenter on why some weapons get banned and others do not.