On Point: The Cluster Behind the Cluster Munitions Ban

by Austin Bay
June 3, 2008

I have yet to encounter a "surgical" weapon. A weapon exists to kill or damage living beings and material objects. "Surgical" is a questionable word, anyway, when applied to a weapon. It yokes scalpel and dagger. Both cut, but one cuts while performing medical service and the other cuts to harm or slay.

When you need a dagger, however, you really need a dagger. When you need a B-52, you really need a B-52. The "when" of course reflects either a threatened (defensive) or threatening (offensive) situation, though in our complex existence being threatened and being threatening are often simultaneous conditions.

Our complex existence, as well as the existence of violent sociopaths like Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, who turn automobile exhaust (Hitler), water diversion dams (Saddam against the Marsh Arabs) and civilian airliners (bin Laden) into weapons of mass murder, are certainly a few of the reasons I have yet to encounter an arms control treaty that works. I don't disparage good intentions by diplomats who want to diminish violence and minimize warfare's destructiveness, when the good intentions actually exist on the part of all parties.

The papacy may or may not have tried to ban the crossbow, but the Second Lateran Council (1139) certainly disparaged the "murderous art of crossbowmen" and prohibited their use against Christians. In 1936, Hitler agreed to prohibit unrestricted submarine warfare. In 1939, he unleashed the U-boats.

Which brings us to the cluster munitions treaty announced in Ireland on May 30. Hosannaed by "the international community" and hailed by anti-Americans, the treaty is another attempt to politically cleanse warfare.

Like every explosive weapon, a certain percentage of cluster-munition "bomblets" fail to explode and continue to kill after the war ends. This is the legitimate moral spine of the argument to ban the weapons: Innocents continue to die on old battlefields. The moral spine of the argument to keep them is made by the U.S. Department of Defense, which says these flexible, multi-purpose munitions protect American soldiers. Many pro-ban supporters don't have cluster munitions. Many pro-ban supporters don't like American soldiers, either.

The anti-Americanism exploited by many treaty advocates is both disgusting and sclerotic. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's May 31 report opens with "Negotiators of a landmark treaty banning cluster bombs predicted the pact will make it too politically painful for the United States ever to use the weapons again."

China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel reject the treaty, but America is the big rhetorical target. This is a legacy of the Cold War, when unilateral disarmers largely focused on the United States -- kicking America cost them zip politically, and they had no influence over Communist totalitarians. The United States, its critics to the contrary, remains the most benign global power that has ever existed, so piquant displays of self-righteousness by activists still have no downside.

"Feel good" flaunts rarely do any good in the killing fields. As for the argument that "the harder the war the harder the peace," it holds when democracies win. Agreed, continued suffering caused by unexploded ordnance isn't merely a continuing political problem but a lingering evil. This is why use of any explosive weapon ought to be judicious and rare.

Ultimately, the political drama -- with a degree of moral weight -- involves well-intentioned idealists, some decent-sort diplomats, scores of cynics and scads of liars.

Here's the big loophole: What stops Eritrea from using cluster munitions if Ethiopia threatens to break through (or vice versa). And what mechanism prevents Sudan's noxious government from using them against its numerous tribespeople in southern and western Sudan?

The answer? Why, the outrage of "the international community," of course. The same one that has been so effective in stopping genocide in Darfur.

I wish the idealists and the decent-sorts the best, and I support their efforts to remove unexploded munitions and compensate victims of cluster munitions. Yet I also think of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who told a gathering of cadets in 1879, "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell."

Even when fought with rocks, daggers and diversion dams.

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To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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