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Cluster bombs: The case for morals in wartime

By Aaron the Humanist

In this article, Aaron responds to David Brittain's companion article. Aaron's views have been shaped by several years' service in the Territorial Army and several more in the Royal Observer Corps. In the image (left) he is shown taking a break from Airsoft combat.

I recently watched the video below featuring RAF and US Air Force bombing raids over Germany in World War II. It was claimed in the video that something like this would be unthinkable today, but would it? Waves of planes may not have swarmed over Ukraine in recent months, but cruise missiles have certainly been accumulating 'frequent flyer' mileage and causing huge amounts of destruction. And we have looked on and done nothing.

Russia has been waging a war against civilians without any sense of guilt, remorse, or facing consequences for their actions. The world, including the UN, has done little to address this issue. Based on these circumstances alone, it is understandable that David Brittain advocates for unrestricted warfare, even if it results in Ukrainian civilian casualties, as long as the desired outcome justifies the means. However, is such an approach acceptable in modern warfare or from a humanistic perspective? What about Defence Humanists? What would they say?

If we had to justify our actions to an alien species observing the situation from afar, we could cite evidence that the Russians committed unspeakable acts of barbarity, whilst 'we' (Ukraine/the West/the rest of the world) exercised restraint. We prioritized the avoidance of civilian casualties and refrained from indiscriminate city-wide bombings. Our approach involved targeted strikes on military or essential infrastructure, and even when there were instances of unintended consequences, we openly criticized ourselves for those failures. We didn't require an external enemy to point out our shortcomings. As a society observing the events, we held ourselves accountable.

Royal Engineers took 38 years to declare the Falklands free of mines.

In the debate surrounding cluster bombs, there is one significant issue that looms large: the prospect of bombing one's own land. Once the Russians have retreated or been pushed back to their side of the fence, Ukrainian civilians, with children playing and pets roaming, will eventually return to these territories. Unfortunately, they may discover unexploded bombs for many years to come. A parallel can be drawn with the Falklands War, where it took until November 2020 – thirty-eight years after the conflict – to clear all the Argentinian landmines. Until then, entire areas were fenced off as no-go zones. If Ukraine were to win a war but be unable to enter the reclaimed terrain due to the hazards posed by their own bombs and unexploded munitions, it would not truly be a victory. Therefore, using or reclaiming the hard-fought land becomes impractical and illogical when considering the dangers associated with such cluster bombs.

Combatants are indeed expected to adhere to moral boundaries, and a victory should be achieved within those boundaries. In times of war, it is considered ethically acceptable to remove enemy soldiers from an area, either through their forced retreat or by taking their lives. Additionally, the elimination of enemy combat infrastructure, weapons, machinery, and support networks is considered acceptable. However, causing indiscriminate mass damage that directly impacts civilians, such as the destruction of vital infrastructure like dams, is not morally justified.

Adherence to acceptable rules of war is precisely what sets us apart from our enemies. It is these rules that reflect our commitment to higher ethical standards. If we were to discard them and engage in unrestricted warfare, we would diminish the distinction between us and the enemy, eroding our moral standing. Moreover, the victor in such a scenario would have the power to rewrite history according to their own perspective.

By upholding the principles of the rule book, we not only maintain our moral superiority but also ensure that the consequences of war do not disproportionately affect innocent civilians.

As a final note, YouGov recently conducted a poll on this question. My vote is included in the 40% Discourage result shown below. Why not tell us what you think in the comments section at the foot of this page?

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