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‘Cluster Bombs and the Ethics of War Show How Difficult Decisions are Made’

Russia’s use of cluster bombs is leaving Ukraine fighting sub-optimally against a weapon it doesn’t have, writes Brian Latham

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and President Joe Biden in Downing Street, London, in July 2023. Photo: Imageplotter/Alamy

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Hitting a landmine is hell, even in a protected vehicle. There’s a brief bang and then you fly, usually landing upside down in your harness with the smell of dust and cordite in your nostrils.

You’ll be deaf for a while, too, and the best you can hope for is a broken bone or two. In an unprotected vehicle, you’ll be dead or limbless – and on foot, that’s all a hundred-fold worse. 

Back in the 1970s, Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) cities were among the first in the world to make their pavements and sidewalks wheelchair friendly because landmines left thousands, civilians and soldiers alike, limbless. Unlike cluster bombs, landmines are wholly indiscriminate. 

That’s why it can be a problem when civilians preach about the ethics of war, as Rishi Sunak seems to have done when US President Joe Biden paid a fleeting visit to London this week.

Biden plans to send cluster bombs to Ukraine, and Ukraine wants to detonate those bombs over minefields left behind by retreating Russians. Biden’s decision would have been informed by the advice of his senior generals. Outside of Hollywood, generals tend not to be war-mongers, and when General Eisenhower said “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can”, he was simply making public a feeling held by most generals through most of history.

These cluster bombs will detonate Russian landmines, clearing a path for, and saving the lives of, Ukrainian troops – and ultimately civilians, too. 

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Landmines are banned by a 1997 treaty signed by 164 nations. Cluster bombs are banned by 111 nations after a 2008 treaty. 

In Mozambique, thousands of civilians, a great many of them children, lost limbs to mines. There were orphanages specifically for the children who’d lost legs. For children under 12, this is especially traumatic because, for some, the bone continues to grow from the point at which it was severed.

These horrors are repeated from Mozambique to Angola, Liberia to Cambodia – and now to Ukraine. Interviewing those children is hard on the soul and you’ll dream about them for the rest of your life. 

Cluster munitions kill and maim fewer people than landmines and, while there aren’t reliable figures for the total number of casualties, the International Committee of the Red Cross says that between 1,000 and 2,000 civilians are killed or injured by mines each month.

In Angola, one in 470 people is an amputee. Half of those are or were children. There are still millions of landmines seeded across the Earth, each awaiting a victim. 

By comparison, in the years since the Second World War, cluster bombs have killed between 56,000 and 86,500 people worldwide, according to a New York Times report. So still a threat, but a considerably lower threat than landmines. 

Of course, not all cluster bombs are equal. Each bomb releases bomblets, but as many as 40% of the Russian bomblets land without detonating. Some hit soft ground, others are simply defective. Russia is using old technology, some of it very old.

The cluster bombs Biden plans to send to Ukraine aren’t old. About 2% of the bomblets don’t explode, and that’s a significant difference. It’s particularly significant, and useful, to Ukrainian troops skirmishing through the exploded ordnance of a former minefield. It would reduce the time it takes to cross a minefield to hours, from weeks or even months. Mine clearance is a very slow, inch-by-inch, process and it will take several years to rid Ukraine of all the landmines laid during the past 500 days. 

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Aside from all that, America isn’t a signatory to the cluster bomb ban because it would be tactically dangerous, not only to Americans, but to a great swathe of the world the US pays to protect – particularly Europe.

The West has but one superpower, America, but a host of potential threats. If the unthinkable happened and the world went to war, America would almost certainly win. Again. True, it would need or demand help. Besides, it’s not the only stable, democratic and Western nation to abjure signing the treaty. 

It’s because of those threats that the US can’t be a signatory to the convention while there are powers that have and use cluster bombs – some of which, like Russia and China, present a potential threat to peace in the West. According to the Cluster Munition Coalition, there are 74 non-signatories to the 2008 convention, among them North Korea and a host of less than stable nations such as Yemen, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, Iran, Eritrea and Belarus. 

Russia is deploying cluster bombs over Ukraine at this moment. Their use leaves Ukraine fighting sub-optimally against a weapon it doesn’t have. No doubt Biden was being honest when he said it was a “very difficult’’ decision, because despite all of Ukraine’s remarkable successes, it is heavily outgunned and still far from victorious.

Since the Second World War, Russia’s military tactics have relied on pouring expendable manpower to the front, hoping to overcome by deluge, not finesse. Russia has about 143 million people, Ukraine about 43 million. That’s a chilling reality for anyone concerned about Europe’s future. 

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