Skip to content

Cluster Bombs and a legacy of war

A decade ago I attended a charity event dedicated to children from all over the world that had experienced horrible things. There was a little girl, around 11, who had lost both of her legs and her eight year old brother. International doctors had managed to save her life and perhaps in time with prosthetics she will walk again, though nothing will bring her brother back. She and her brother were from Laos, one afternoon they were outside playing when an explosive that had been dropped by the US government years before her parents were born, detonated. While the US and its citizens may have forgotten about Laos and South-East Asia as a battleground, the legacy of war remains to this day constantly creating victims, many of them yet to be born.

For a time the small nation of Laos was the most bombed place on Earth. It is claimed that more bombs were dropped on tiny Laos than had been dropped by every belligerent in all of World War Two. The United States was not at war with Laos or Cambodia, let alone allied South Vietnam for that matter and still the bombs, chemical defoliants and mines fell. Many of the bombs dropped were cluster munitions. Usually a larger carrier bomb filled with several smaller sub-muinitions, as it falls numerous the ‘bomblets’ splinter out sometimes descending by parachute to maximise the spread. The nature of such munitions is to maximises the area devastated. Cluster bombs come in a variety of types each with different targets in mind, all remain dangerous long after they are dropped. Not all the ‘bomblets’ detonate, many of which remain buried for decades, still dangerous and capable of exploding.

Once the boots on the ground disappear and the large air bases stop with their hundreds of sorties a day, the people who live in the war zones have to survive the remnant waste and exist in place filled with hidden munitions that can explode without warning. Whether land mines dropped to deter enemy movements or chemical defoliants used to destroy plant life, the legacy remains for generations. Hidden mines an obvious threat, indiscriminately killing or maiming those who tread in the many unmarked areas where they had been laid. While cancer clusters remain from the chemicals sprayed, with the poisons polluting water supplies, soil and human genetics. Agent Orange being the most famous of the many chemicals used by the US government in its war on South East Asia.

Cluster bombs hold a special sort of perversity, many of the innocuous looking ‘bomblets’ seem harmless to a child who may assume it was a toy, the US military also dropped those. Children ignorant of the history that had saturated their homelands with death are innocent to the foreign policy ambitions of an alien empire that would turn a small country into the worlds most bombed one, tend to fall prey to such explosive remnants. While those hoping to make a living from salvaging the scrap metal that still litters the countryside must ply their recycle trade with the risk of injury and death. Oftentimes the scrappers are families hoping to make ends meet, one detonation can take more than just a limb.

War is not clean. It does not clear up after the public and governments move on. For every soundbite of, “what is Aleppo?” and the smug laughter that follows, a legacy of torment for those who live there reigns on. Former air bases such as Tan Son Nhut, one of the biggest in Vietnam, now is a region of extreme pollution. The toxic fuels and death elixirs used by the US military and its allies were carelessly dumped, poisoning the soil so that it is one of the most polluted places on Earth. The toxic waste harming the health of innocent Vietnamese for generations. The burn pits used on US military bases not only harm their own personal but will continue to ruin life for generations. Just as the use of depleted uranium wherever US and NATO forces have fought in the past decades has created cancer clusters. War is dirty and deadly, for a long time afterwards.

The war between the Ukraine and Russia has seen innovations in human killing married alongside the antiquated, both sides are using weapons that will stain the battlefields for generations. Cluster bombs included. The war has been an exercise for the Russian government to clear out its stockpiles of Soviet era munitions while the arms suppliers of the world have enjoyed good business in keeping the Ukraine fighting on. Cluster bombs have now been approved by the Western powers to refurbish the Ukrainian stocks. In the outcry, critics have omitted the Russian use of such weapons or pointed to the fact that the Russians are using such munitions. It is the escalation of partisan political ‘whataboutism.’

The battlezones that are being contested will become saturated with the remnants of war for sometime, not just with cluster bombs but the chemicals that are used to keep aircraft flying to the hidden mines. Those eager to feed the war machines will move on once this war is over, hungry for the next one. Those condemned to suffer, whether today or tomorrow do so in mostly silence, misery is far more common than any glory in war. Though profits for those who do not suffer is what fuels the war. In an age of social media clout, clicktavism and partisan politics infecting jurisdictions beyond the ballot box, the profit of being righteous unites with the more traditional financial and career minded motives, ensuring that the war goes on just to prove a point. The dying innocent be damned.

Dominoes did not fall once Saigon did, in fact communist Vietnam fought the Khmer Rouge and then the Peoples Republic of China soon after. The Russian invasion is wrong, to the Kremlin it is a righteous reaction. Many have argued far more righteous than the invasions of Afghanistan (pick your invader), Iraq or Vietnam (again pick an invader). Should the Russians win, it is unlikely that they will occupy Ukraine and it is almost guaranteed that they will not press on through the Fulda Gap until they reach London. Even the Soviets, outside of a Harold Coyle or Tom Clancy novel, could or would not have done that. But there is an industry for those who claim otherwise, always has been.

The eagerness to escalate a war is not just harmful to those directly effected now. It has the danger of spreading beyond time and place, cluster bombs may be to some people a minor addition in the supply of munitions, they will have a lingering legacy. Outside of the claimed moral or legal argumentation of the use of such weapons, the ethical discourse about indiscriminate or needlessly destructive killers goes back to the St Petersburg declaration of 1868. It is pointless to even consider morality when the most immoral conjure up policy and enact it. Escalation can be understood by even the most amoral observer, the steady advance of deadly progress can see the acceptance that tactical nuclear devices may be introduced or at the very least chemical agents.

In the war between Iran and Iraq of the 1980s, modern warfare and ancient ferocity met in a gruesome war that showcased a degree of restraint by the Iranian government, When the Iraq regime used chemical agents supplied to it by its Western sponsors, the Iranians did not respond in kind. Such theological governance that made the Tehran regime so frightful to the West suddenly restrained it from using “gas” to kill its enemies. Such moral restraint was absent from the most civilised Christian nations of World War One, when they used “gas” and likely would be absent in the bumbling cynicism of some modern governments. For all the horrible things that the Iranian regime did and has since done, it at least did not reach the levels of atrocity like the Wests proxy, Iraq.

Those who eagerly drop the bombs and spread the destruction go home, returning to the relative safety of their lives and eventually put their service behind them. It is then for volunteers and under funded experts to find different ways of removing the deadly remnants that such warriors dropped. Training specialised rats to detect the explosives, while crawling on their hands and knees probing the dirt to employing modern drones full of sensors that can then detonate the hidden bombs. It takes time and effort, it’s also dangerous work. The lives that are saved are immaterial, those who dropped the bombs usually just did so because it was a job, they were paid to it for a cause many did not understand, ‘just following orders’ and so on. We live in such a world where the glory gorges to the many killers, while the few who risk to save life, to clean up the forgotten battle fields do it simply because it is the right thing to do. The more technology improves the clean up methods, you can guarantee it will enhance the killing by ten fold. Just as you can be certain that more will do the killing and less the clean up and life saving work in the years after. The Russo-Ukraine war will be no different. Just like everywhere else it’s cluster bombs will linger for generations.

In decades from now there may be another little girl who loses her brother and legs because they happened to playing outside. A small munition dropped a generation before her mother and father were born by a government that likely is friends with its former foe. That munition laying at rest, long forgotten, hidden, suddenly explodes, tearing a child’s life from this Earth while ripping legs from another. Far away those who forgot where Laos or Aleppo is, may even shrug with indifference at the mention of Crimea, though ever certain of the next geographically important location. Just because the soldiers go home, does not mean their victims get any rest.

July 2023

Published inAll Articles and EssaysWar, History and Foreign Policy