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Cluster bombs: The case against morals in wartime

By David Brittain

David is the founding editor of Humanistically Speaking. In this short opinion piece, he dives into the morals of war and comes down on the side of President Biden's decision to supply Ukraine with devastating weapons.

On Saturday 8th July, the United States announced that it was going to provide cluster bombs to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The reason given was that they were necessary to breach deep Russian defence lines – and it was also justified on the grounds that the Russians, evidently, were already using them. Nevertheless, this raises serious concerns – and for good reason.

Cluster bombs can either be dropped from aircraft or fired from ground or sea, and they are commonly designed to open up in mid-air and release maybe hundreds of bomblets – each one able to kill or maim. The ‘in the air’ feature means that they can be spread over a very wide area, and are designed to explode in the air or upon hitting the ground. They are essentially anti-personnel weapons specifically designed to kill or maim any victim. Even worse than this, though, is that a proportion of the bomblets invariably malfunction and do not explode as designed, and these can lay in wait both on and in the ground for a long time for some unsuspecting victim in the same way as a landmine.

Such weapons are not only horrific, but indiscriminate, and most countries in the world have made undertakings never to use such weapons. But there are exceptions, and three of the countries who have not signed the convention are – wait for it – Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

Serious moral questions have been raised about the ethics of using them. These are well-meant, and I have sympathy with them. But I think the essential question to ask is this: where are the ethics in war? Does the application of moral sensibilities make any sense at all in wartime?

I say no. In my opinion, war is at best a sign of complete diplomatic breakdown and failure of leadership; at worst it is organised theft. War is, in itself, an admission that there are no moral values attached to it. To my mind it is simply an act of unforgivable neglect, followed by another act of insane self-harm. When war happens, whatever attachment we have to ethics simply goes out of the window. The stakes are simply too high and, without some kind of conciliation brokered by a more powerful third party, the logic of this particular game of Russian roulette is simple. One side must be seen to lose and the other must be seen to win – at all costs if necessary.

We were not so constrained during World War II. The bombs that fell on great cities in the UK and, sometime later, on Cologne, Bremen and Berlin were utterly indiscriminate. It has been argued that the bombings were necessary, even though I understand there is little evidence that they succeeded in breaking morale on either side.

What I’m really saying is that, if we go to war, we can never be nice about it. I recall an early Star Trek story where two warring sides agreed to a kind of remote conflict. If a virtual battle was lost, the losing side was obliged to kill a specific number of their own people. This avoided damage to their infrastructure and therefore they were able to keep up the fight – and the misery – for centuries. It sounds like a ludicrous idea, I know, but in Ukraine, the West doesn’t seem to be far from that. We seem to be feeding the Ukrainians with just enough arms to keep the Russians at bay – and that, for me, misses the point entirely. Do we want Ukraine to be able to defend itself or not? We may be concerned about the nuclear threat, but if we were that concerned we might as well have handed Ukraine over to Putin already and saved much of the agony on both sides.

In the situation we find ourselves now, the invading army must be driven out, and be seen to be driven out, and Vladimir Putin must be seen to have lost. And to that end, I would provide enough arms to the Ukrainian army to ensure as early a conclusion as possible. I therefore think President Biden is correct to release these cluster bombs, terrible though they are.

I am aware that there are some related issues that I have not addressed in this short opinion piece, such as the dangers to innocent Ukrainians from unexploded bomblets. But I'd love to hear your views so please feel free to comment below.

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