Cluster Bombs: The Civilian Impact

Anthony Arnove

In the Persian Gulf
War, the war in the Balkans, and now in Afghanistan, U.S. military planners said
they had developed new methods of warfare that would hit military targets and
spare civilian life or, in the preferred terminology, “collateral damage.”

“This is war and
war is hell,” Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) said on September 16. “But we have
the capacity to target in a manner that is better than we’ve ever had before. I
can tell you that we will do our best to limit the collateral damage.” The
military has made “extraordinary efforts” to limit collateral damage, the
admiral of the USS Enterprise battle group told reporters on October 8.
“Our objective is to terrorize the terrorists.” The U.S. has developed “a new
model of warfare” in Afghanistan, the New York Times said on December 18.

In all its recent
wars, government officials have protested that the military was targeting the
political leadership, not civilians. “[W]e have absolutely no quarrel with the
Iraqi people,” said Prime Minister Tony Blair. “[T]he truth is that the United
States of America has no quarrel with Afghanistan and the Afghan people,” argued
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

But the actual
impact of U.S. bombings shows how misleading these claims are. Not only have
“smart bombs” routinely missed their targets and caused immense civilian
suffering, but the wars have extensively used weaponry with a massive civilian
impact, including depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and Kosovo and cluster
bombs in all three assaults.

As Seamus Milne
reported in the Guardian (London) on December 20, “The price in blood
that has already been paid for America’s war against terror is only now starting
to become clear. Not by Britain or the U.S., nor even so far by the al-Qaida and
Taliban leaders held responsible for the September 11 attacks on New York and
Washington. It has instead been paid by ordinary Afghans, who had nothing
whatever to do with the atrocities, didn’t elect the Taliban theocrats who ruled
over them, and had no say in the decision to give house room to Bin Laden and
his friends.” Milne cites Marc Herold, an economics professor at the University
of New Hampshire. who estimated from careful analysis of press reports that “at
least 3,767 civilians were killed by US bombs between October 7 and December
10…an average of 62 innocent deaths a day.”

In the Gulf War,
despite the claims about precision missiles, 70 percent of U.S. bombs missed
their targets and only 7 percent of the munitions used were so-called smart
bombs, during “the most intense aerial bombardment in history,” the
Washington Post
reported on March 16, 1991. Those bombs that did hit their
intended target often hit civilian infrastructure, including bridges, water
supply facilities, and power plants.

But in the annals
of horrific weapons, cluster bombs deserve a special place. Cluster bombs
scatter their ordnance over a broad area; include as many as 200 small
“bomblets” that routinely do not explode on impact; and remain to exact a deadly
toll for years. Some cluster bombs are built with “sprinklers” that are designed
to scatter the bomblets over an even wider area than traditional models.

Children often
come across unexploded bomblets and pick them up, thinking they are toys. In the
case of Afghanistan, the bright yellow bomblets look very similar to the food
packages dropped by the U.S. in a cynical public relations move broadly
denounced by humanitarian aid groups who had been working in Afghanistan before
the war.

In Iraq, ongoing
aerial attacks on the country “leave behind a lethal litter that could claim
civilian casualties for years,” the Washington Post acknowledged in a
rare report on the attacks. “[C]ivilian casualties have become routine” as a
result, the Post noted.

In an article for
the Washington website, not carried in the newspaper, William M. Arkin
noted that the U.S. has increasingly used “cluster bombs that have no real
aimpoint and that kill and wound innocent civilians for years to come.”

Of the 28 JSOW
cluster bombs fired on Iraq by navy aircraft on February 16, 2001, “Pentagon
sources say that 26…missed their aimpoints,” according to Arkin, a 93 percent
failure rate. “The 1,000 pound, 14-foot-long weapon carries 145 anti-armor and
anti- personnel incendiary bomblets that disperse over an area that is
approximately 100 feet long and 200 feet wide. In short,” Arkin wrote, the JSOW
“rains down deadly bomblets on an area the size of a football field with six
bombs falling in every 1,000 square feet. So much for precision.”

Demining experts
estimate that 35,000 unexploded bomblets were left in Kosovo, leading to “an
average of one civilian death a week in the area,” according to the Guardian

Afghanistan is
now littered with unexploded cluster bombs, adding to the risk to civilians who
also routinely die from the estimated 10 million land mines that remain from
previous wars. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, an
average of 88 Afghans die every month because of land mine injuries. One of the
first casualties of the war on terrorism was the killing of four United Nations
demining workers in early October and the total disruption of demining work. “We
have lost 30 workers in the last decade on minefields, but this is the first
time we have lost people in the office,” said Syed Ahmad Farid Elmi, acting
director of the demining team. More than 1,000 demining workers were put on
“mandatory unpaid leave once it appeared that the United States might retaliate
in Afghanistan,” the Boston Globe reported.

Afghan refugees
returning to their villages have already been killed and maimed coming across
unexploded cluster bombs. “As more people arrive in areas once abandoned,
hospitals have been reporting an influx of wounded,” according to the New
York Times

“The unexploded
yellow cluster bombs, each about the size of an aerosol can, still clutter a
rice field, an alley and two courtyards” in Charykari, according to the Times.
“Residents have covered some of them with overturned wash basins to keep the
chickens away.”

Though “no one
knows how many tons of American munitions lie unexploded on or under the
ground,” the Times adds, “it is evident that along former front lines and
many strategic roads, mines and unstable ammunition are all around.”

But the United
States is contributing only $7 million for current demining efforts. More
importantly, “the United States has not provided a list of areas where it
dropped cluster bombs,” the Times reported. So, Halo Trust demining
workers are now “driving through battle areas in a Land Rover, looking for the
little yellow bombs themselves.”                        Z

Arnove is editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Santions and War
(South End Press, 200)