The morality of cluster munitions


Why are cluster munitions immoral? Because a bunch of governments have signed a treaty banning their use? Because civilians, especially children have been killed and wounded by cluster munitions? (See for example Alex Shephard’s New Republic article of July 11, 2023: Biden’s Immoral, Indefensible Decision to Send Cluster Bombs to Ukraine.)

By the second standard, war itself is immoral, and all weapons of war are immoral. Most pacifists believe this. The first standard is laughable because it assumes that a large number of today’s governments actually have moral standards.

In the Marxist tradition aggressive war with the intent to conquer and destroy is immoral, but defensive war is justified and eminently moral. So too is a revolutionary war by the oppressed against their oppressors.

If the Ukrainians defensive war is moral, then there is the issue of the usefulness of cluster munitions.

There are three principal Russian-made obstacles to that counteroffensive right now:

  • Extensive Russian minefields throughout occupied Zaporizha, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea.
  • Extensive systems of entrenchment in these same area.
  • Helicopter gunships armed with missiles that are capable of destroying Ukrainian demining equipment and soldiers from a safe distance (These helicopters could easily be destroyed IF the USA and NATO would supply Ukraine with the aircraft it needs.)

Next to aircraft and longer range missiles, cluster munitions are exactly what the Ukrainian counter offensive needs right now to clear the Russian’s systems of fortified entrenchment.

The kind of munitions the Ukrainians will receive are 155 mm artillery (and possibly 105 mm howitzer) shells rather than missiles or bombs dropped from aircraft.

These munitions can kill soldiers protected by trenches much more effectively than conventional unitary artillery ammunition, and they can destroy vehicles and groups of soldiers on open roads. They can be targeted to relatively small areas of just a few meters, or to larger areas of as much as 200 meters in diameter.

However, how effective cluster munitions are at demining operations is an important question, especially for destroying antitank mines (See David Walters’ post.) Other explosive devices are effectively used for demining. Bombs dropped from aircraft and missiles can destroy large percentages of anti-tank mines, and several existing demining vehicles use rocket launched, explosive packed tubes to destroy anti-tank mine fields and reportedly destroy 90% of mines. Most interestingly, The Ukrainian military is reportedly successfully using hand grenades dropped from drones to destroy Russian anti-tank mines.

Nevertheless, there is no evidence how effective cluster munitions are at demining operations easily available online. These munitions were not designed for this task and have not been field tested for this task as far as I can tell.

One point that has to be considered is that cluster munitions effectiveness for this job can probably be varied since they can be loaded with different numbers and size of bomblets. A cluster shell containing fewer, larger, more powerful bomblets might do the job that conventionally packed cluster shells cannot do.

Since Ukraine’s airpower deficit makes it difficult to take out the Russian helicopter gunships, they will try to use cluster munitions to replace human engineers and demining vehicles or at least to supplement them. Ukraine will provide the world with the data we now lack, only because the United States and NATO leave it no other option.

There are a few myths about cluster munitions that should be addressed:

  • Cluster munitions deliver dozens of smaller bombs across a huge territory, the very definition of indiscriminate bombardment.
  • Many go unexploded, leaving bombs—many of which are oddly shaped and colorful and thus appealing to children—littered behind.
  • They could fall on areas where Ukrainian civilians live.
  • In the long-term, they represent a tremendous threat to Ukraine’s own civilian population.
  1. The area to be covered by cluster bomblets is determined in advance by setting the altitude at which the shell will release its bomblets. It can be as large as 200 meters in diameter, or it can be only a few meters in diameter. Cluster munitions have been deliberately and intentionally used for indiscriminate bombardment of civilian populations, but they can be used in other ways depending on the decisions of the military unit using them.

Ukraine has pledged that they will use these munitions to clear the Russian invaders from their entrenched positions in occupied Ukraine. Why would they do otherwise?

  1. The munitions the United States is providing are not oddly shaped and colorful, but some fail to explode upon impact. Some are designed not to explode on impact, instead acting as mines.
  2. Unexploded ordinance including mines is a terrible remnant of war in every country that has suffered any warfare since the early 20th century. Demining operations are long, expensive, time consuming and dangerous. However, Ukraine is now the most heavily mined country in the world. Russia has extensively mined the entire land bridge between Donbas and Crimea, and much of Donbas and Crimea, too. These are exactly the areas in which Ukraine will use any cluster munitions they receive. Arguably, they will add very little to the danger already presented by Russian minefields.
  3. The entire region has already been partially depopulated by the Russian invasion and occupation, but the areas the Ukrainians are likely to use cluster munitions on are the Russian minefields and trenches, not the towns and cities. Why would they do otherwise?
  4. Cluster munitions do represent a long term threat to Ukraine’s population, but a lesser threat than the Russian jackboot, and a lesser threat than Russian landmines. Ukraine is being destroyed slowly and relentlessly by Russian missiles. Why shouldn’t the Ukrainians have the weapons they needed to stop that destruction?

War is terrible. Ask the Ukrainians. They think losing a war to Russia would be worse. They also have shown that leaving Russia in control of any Ukrainian territory would be a Russian victory that would most likely lead to another invasion in the future.

The moral thing to do, here, now, today, is to give Ukraine the arms it needs to win: F-16s and other aircraft, longer distance missiles, and cluster munitions.

Oaklandsocialist adds: Does justifying the use of cluster munitions lead to justifying the use of poison gas or napalm? Does finding one to be “moral” mean finding the other to be moral also?  Trotsky said that what is moral is what lifts up the working class, helps it understand its historic role and inspires it to struggle to fulfill that role. We agree with that definition. The success – even partial success – of Putin’s imperialist invasion is likely to lead to greater nationalism within Ukraine. It will further depress the class consciousness, whereas its defeat will have the opposite effect. Does that mean, then, that the use of napalm or sarin gas is also justified? These literally burn people to death. They are instruments of mass torture, and such torture brutalizes the torturers. Any war brutalizes society as a whole, but allowing the imperialist invasion to succeed without the greatest fightback possible would do so even more. But using mass torture through the use of sarin gas or napalm would further brutalize the society that uses it.