Cluster Bombs: The Civilian Impact

by Anthony Arnove

Z magazine, March 2002

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 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 (London).

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. "


Anthony Arnove is editor of Iraq Under Siege: The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War (South End Press)

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