Cluster Bombs, Biden’s Wider War, & the NATO Left . . .

An ugly and bloody war in Ukraine is about to get uglier and bloodier. Just in the past month, President Joe Biden has approved depleted uranium tank bombs for Ukraine. In the past week, he also issued an executive order approving the mobilization of 3000 U.S. reservists to “defend NATO,” as he put it. At the NATO summit recently, Biden vowed to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” Finland is now an official NATO member, and Turkey seems to have dropped its objections to Sweden joining the alliance. . . and the U.S. is also selling F-16s to Turkey. And Ukraine is still seeking membership in NATO, which Biden has said has to wait until the war is over, but its entry is a virtual fait accompli at that point.

But the most disturbing decision recently is Joe Biden authorizing the use of cluster bombs in Ukraine, which should make everyone shudder. Cluster bombs are huge canisters dropped from planes (they can also be deployed from land or sea, but generally from the air) which contain big clusters of small bombs, also known as bomblets or bombies, with a fuse that will detonate before hitting the ground and then scatter deadly shrapnel. And there can be up to 600 little bomblets in one canister, in one cluster. It’s a deadly weapon.

Often, however, many of these clusters fail to activate when they land on the ground and they become Unexploded Ordnance, which is also known as UXO. Many of these duds are active and can be detonated by anyone—a farmer out in the field, a kid walking to school—simply by stepping on them.

The most devastating example historically of cluster bombs usage came in Laos, where in an undeclared war the United States dropped about 270 million bombs, destroying much of the countryside, especially the Plain of Jars. But 80 million of those bombs, 30% of the total dropped in almost a decade of round-the-clock missions, never detonated and have remained a grave danger to the people of Laos for a half century now. For the next 25 years or so after the war, there were about 200 to 300 deaths a year from UXO in Laos (and others in Vietnam and Kampuchea), and children were the majority of victims, sometimes stepping on them as they walked to school or sometimes thinking they were a ball to play with.

In 2008, various governments wrote the Convention on Cluster Munitions. This was an important international humanitarian law to prohibit the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster munitions and required states to eliminate and phase out such weapons. Over 100 countries signed this convention, but included in the nations that are not signatories to the agreement are Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

So why cluster bombs right now? Why resort to this? First off, the war isn’t going as well as the U.S. media would have you believe. The government and the media have been putting the best face on it. Clearly, Russia has taken some huge losses in this, but Ukraine has as well—there have been an estimated 60,000 killed already and over 300,000 wounded on both sides. And so cluster bombs are an intensification of that effort. There are also reports that Ukraine is running out of munitions, which would be another sign of the war not going well. It’s also somewhat awkward that the Ukraine could be running out of munitions considering the massive levels of aid that the United States and others have already provided.

The Biden administration has already sent, just in the recent run-up to the war and after the Russian invasion, about $100 billion and some estimates are as high as $137 billion; NATO-$75 billion; the EU-$30 billion; the UK-$10 billion; and Germany and Japan about $6 to $8 billion—so this is an immense outlay of money for Ukraine. The use of cluster bombs will inevitably, unavoidably worsen things. The United States has said that the dud rate in these bombs will be no higher than 2.35%. Now, if that’s true, and there’s strong reason to believe it won’t be, you would still have if you used the Laos example, 5 to 6 million UXO bomblets. And those bombs will be there and alive after the war ended, perhaps long after the war ended.

In Laos today, there are still UXO killing people. It will be same in Ukraine. Using cluster bombs is a signal that the West isn’t interested in ending the war, in negotiating, and is willing to put even more civilians in the crosshairs. And Russia will respond with some kind of escalation of its own. Biden’s decision has perpetuated this cycle of violence.

Russia invaded Ukraine, absolutely—and bears that responsibility for initiating these hostilities. But there’s a long context that has to be taken into account including 30+ years of NATO expansion, fostering the transition to private markets in Russia after the Soviet Union fell apart, the 2014 Maidan coup in Ukraine, and anti-Russian policies for much of that time, including now encircling Russia with a military alliance of more than 30 states, and the West scuttling negotiations in Ukraine when Naftali Bennett and Xi Jinping seemed to be making progress on some kind of settlement.

One doesn’t have to support anything Russia did or have any positive feelings about Putin to understand the need for some level of strategic empathy, to understand that even your enemy, when it’s doing things you don’t approve of at all, has some kind of its own national interest at stake. And U.S. policymakers have ignored the warnings of many of their own “wise men” who have made that point. People like George Frost, Kennan, Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger (as much as one hates invoking him but on this one, he did understand what the stakes were), various diplomatic and CIA officials, and all kinds of experts in international relations and history.

And this is another reason why the NATO Left is so dangerous and we talk about it so much. This is a liberal’s war, but so many people who call themselves socialists are supporting it. And we’ve named names before–the likes of the people at New Politics and Tempest and Bill Fletcher, whom we’ve singled out because he’s been so vociferous about this. And there are people who are posting rantings and alarmist tracts saying that the Left has to support the war in Ukraine (such as this: Many have engaged in McCarthyite tactics, calling anyone who disagrees with them Putin’s puppets.

This war is bloody. It’s getting steadily worse. And there are people who associate with the Left are calling for an escalation and rejecting negotiations. Recently, many of these NATO supporters are featuring memes and other statements linking Ukraine and Palestine. They’re putting up memes of Ukraine and Palestine flags next to each other. And this is a particularly disingenuous and personally, I think, vile political equivalency to take.

The reality is that this war has been marked by massive destruction and damage. It will require an immense and costly rebuilding effort. And Black Rock and Goldman Sachs and various corporations have already been meeting with Zelensky to discuss postwar financing and reconstruction. Along with the vast profits already made by the weapons manufacturers like Raytheon and General Dynamics, there are many more fortunes that are going to be made in Ukraine.

Along with that, there’s going to be massive environmental destruction with depleted uranium and UXO—it’s going to be inevitable and deadly. And wars can lead to revanchist and right-wing movements among veterans and civilian survivors—they almost always do. So the dangerous global move to the far right will more likely than not be exacerbated.

This war in Ukraine has galvanized Biden and NATO to reshuffle the world order, largely to contain or bring to heel Russia, which, though aggressive in Ukraine, is encircled by a 31 state military alliance and spends less than 10% on its military budget than the United States does. And ultimately, the target is China, which is a much more dangerous adversary. Biden is clearly provoking Moscow and Beijing into starting a new Cold War, as a lot of people are describing it, or giving oxygen to resuscitate a Cold War that allegedly ended 30 years ago, but in reality has been waged in a more limited and less notable fashion since then but didn’t really end (and that’s the position I would take).

Cluster bombs make an already destructive conflict much worse. Their use hardens the resolve on all sides. It will make targets of more civilians, especially kids, and will cause more deaths, and likely continue until long after the war is over. These are criminal acts that that don’t make Ukrainians or Russians (or Americans) safer.

Sadly, much of the antiwar sentiment in the U.S. right now is coming from the far right, which is mostly motivated by a loyalty to Trump, not a genuine search for peace. Human Rights violations and atrocities will inevitably intensify with these new Biden measures.

At the outset of the war on 28th February 2022, when reporters asked the White House about rumors that Russia might use cluster bombs, the press secretary, Jen Psaki, said, “We have seen the reports. If that were true, it would potentially be a war crime.”

Well, in July 2023, it’s still a war crime and no amount of media propaganda or NATO Left equivalency can change that fact. It’s time for those of us who have historically called for and marched and been activists for peace to demand that cluster bombs not be used, and that negotiations begin to end this conflict in Europe. Putin, Zelensky and Biden have thrown gasoline on the fire for 18 months and the war keeps widening. It’s time to stop it now before more soldiers die, before more neighborhoods are blown up, before more young people are drafted into military service and before generations of kids walking to school pick up an unexploded bombie years from now and become collateral damage in a bloody and criminal war.

Robert Buzzanco is co-host Green and Red Podcast, Professor of History University of Houston, and author of Masters of War: Military Dissent and Politics in the Vietnam Era, Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life, and many other books and articles on American foreign policy and history. He blogs at