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Syrian civilians and children should count themselves lucky that mass opposition in the US, the UK and much of the rest of the world to the idea of a US bombing blitz aimed at punishing the Syrian government for allegedly using Sarin gas in an attack on a Damascus neighborhood forced the US to back off and accept a Russian deal to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons.
Had the US attacked, primarily with a two- or three-day barrage of Tomahawk missiles, many of those rockets would likely have carried warheads containing BLU-97 cluster munitions, according to the United States Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions — cluster bombs that would have assuredly killed or maimed many Syrian children.
This news should come as no surprise. The US made heavy use of deadly body-shredding cluster munitions in its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and during the subsequent bloody war and occupation there, as well as in its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Some 30 tons of cluster bombs were dropped or fired into urban neighborhoods of Iraq during the first few weeks alone of the 2003 US invasion of that country. Another 250,000 antipersonnel bomblets were dropped or fired into Afghani neighborhoods during the 2001-2002 US invasion of that country.
The US Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions notes that the last documented US use of cluster munitions was in 2009. The organization writes that was:
“…in Yemen, when one or more Tomahawk cruise missiles loaded with BLU-97 bomblets struck the hamlet of al-Majala in the southern Abyan province. The strike killed at least 41 civilians and at least four more civilians were killed and 13 wounded by unexploded bomblets after the attack. Four years later, the site of the attack remains contaminated by cluster munition remnants.”
In fact, cluster weapons, whether bombs dropped from planes, warheads fired by missiles, or shells fired by cannons or tanks, are among the deadliest and most untargetable weapons devised by man, holding the distinction of being particularly lethal to civilians and children. They work by having a larger bomb, warhead or shell deliver a payload of smaller “bomblets” to a target (each Tomahawk cluster warhead contains 166 of the lethal bomblets). These casings burst open, releasing the small devices, either on the ground, or lowered by little parachutes. Many burst on impact, sending small deadly spinning flechettes out in all directions to tear the flesh off of bones, maiming and killing anyone in the vicinity, while others routinely fail to explode, and then lie around, sometimes for years, until someone steps on one, or a child picks it up to see what it is. (Unexploded BLU-97s look like cardboard drink containers and are bright orange.)”’
I remember a visit to Laos in 1995. It had been over two decades since the US had been relentlessly bombing that small peasant country day and night, primarily with anti-personnel bombs, and the country seemed to have returned to its tranquil past. But walking around the sleepy capital city of Vientiane, I was puzzled at seeing a surprising number of young children of varying ages hobbling around on crutches with one and sometimes parts of two legs missing, or arms missing, often with faces disfigured. I asked a Lao official why there were so many such kids, and he explained they were victims of the “bombis” — small fragmentation bomblets dropped by US forces in the secret war on Laos that had not exploded, and that remained buried in farmers’ fields until found or inadvertently disturbed by peasants or, more often, children working or playing. (The US has refused to help locate and clear these relics of war, claiming, ridiculously, that the Communist Laotian government is still secretly holding captured US soldiers–a position that the then US ambassador shamefacedly admitted to me was nonsense, but that was dictated by right-wingers holding onto the myth of long-suffering MIAs “abandoned” in Southeast Asia.)
When President Obama went on national television on Tuesday, Sept. 10, and passionately evoked images of suffering Syrian children dying on hospital floors from a Sarin attack in Damascus, he might have looked sincere to some, but most of those US viewers probably didn’t realize that as commander in chief, he was asking them to support a bombardment of Syria which would have likely included thousands of similar bomblets that he surely knows would inevitably end up, over time, killing far more children in far more horrible ways than the Sarin attack that was his casus belli.
According to experts, 98% of the victims of cluster bombs are civilians, not soldiers (as horrible as the deaths or maiming of even soldier-targets are from these insidious weapons). And 40% of the victims are children.
Since 2008, there has been a UN Convention against the use of cluster weapons. It has been signed by 112 nations, 83 of which have ratified it. The US is a key holdout, along with China, Israel, Pakistan and Russia. The US in fact, not content to simply not sign the convention, is arguing strenuously against the treaty, claiming that its bomblets, at least by 2018, will boast a 1% failure rate, and thus supposedly would not pose the danger of leaving unexploded, attractive or interesting-looking bomblets scattered around the landscape for months or years, waiting to be picked up by curious children. It’s an absurdly low failure rate the government is claiming, and is also wholly unprovable. (At least the US is consistent; it also refuses to sign a Convention banning landmines, which kill many civilians in the same way as antipersonnel bomblets.) Critics of the cluster munitions, like the US Campaign to Ban Cluster Weapons, say the failure rate of current US weapons like the BLU-97, the most common cluster anti-personnel device used by US forces, is closer to 30%. Besides, as demonstrated by the Yemen Tomahawk attack, a lot of the killing and maiming of civilians and children by cluster weapons happens when the bomblets explode as planned and “on target.”
Talk about brazen hypocrisy! A child killed or injured by Sarin gas is an atrocity, to be sure. But so is a child whose body is turned into chopped meat, or who is painfully rendered limbless by an exploding BLU-97 weapon. Worse yet, the US has had the audacity to accuse the Syrian government of an atrocity for allegedly using cluster weapons, voting earlier this year in the UN to condemn Syria for use of a weapon which the US used liberally in its wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, and in massive amounts in Indochina, and which it stockpiles and continues to design for more lethality and destructiveness for future use by American forces, including in Syria. (The US also sells these horrific weapons of child destruction to its “allies,” including countries ruled by dictators, like Saudi Arabia, which notably is known to be supplying arms to Syrian rebels.)
Of course, Americans themselves can be hypocritical about this stuff. Much horror was expressed after the Boston Marathon bombing over the use of BB pellets in the home-made pressure cooker bombs alleged to have been used, which killed several and lacerated the bodies of others. “How could people be so evil,” many asked. And yet the US provides its military with weapons that are far more efficient at shredding bodies, using taxpayer money, and has done so for decades, with few Americans expressing outrage, even at the carnage the weapons cause among children. Some 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Indochina between 1964-73, 80 million of which failed to explode and remain to pose a threat to civilians today.
Textron Defense Systems, the maker of the most widely used cluster bomb in the US arsenal, which contains the BLU-97 bomblets, and which is being sold by the US to Saudi Arabia and other “allies,” offers this marketing motto for its deadly product: “Clear victory, Clear battlefield.” Given that most of the “battlefields” these days are urban areas, not classic battle fronts, the “clear battlefield” concept bodes ill for civilians and children.
Obama would be standing on stronger ground in demanding that Syria’s government eliminate its stocks of poison gas, if the US would sign onto the UN’s 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. His call for Americans to stand against the use of poison gas weapons by the Syrian government would not ring so hollow if he ordered the US military to destroy its massive stockpiles of cluster weapons, and vowed never to use them again.
Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).