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Bombs Bursting in Air?

by Sean Gonsalves

As we prepare to celebrate "rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air" next week, arms control experts are meeting in Geneva to talk about crafting a treaty that would ban the use of cluster bombs.Yep, the "terrorists" have suicide bombers and we've got cluster bombs.

I know. The supposed moral line in the sand separating "us" from "them" is that "they" intend to kill civilians, whereas we intend to kill only the "terrorists." They commit murder. We commit "collateral damage."

While Islamophobes and the "liberal" media have us focused on the theoretical threat of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, there's not much public discussion about the real threat of cluster bombs, which are designed to open in mid-air, kinda like the fireworks you see at Fourth of July celebrations, unleashing dozens (or hundreds, depending on type of cluster bomb) of smaller explosives.

But, instead of fizzing out and disappearing into the night sky to the sounds of oooooh and aaaaawwww, the cute little "bomblets," as they're called, fall from the heavens like fragments of Lucifer himself.

An October 2004 Defense Department report to Congress says we've got a stockpile of 5.5 million cluster munitions containing about 728.5 million sub-munitions.

Arms control experts will tell ya those are low-ball numbers because the tally does not include cluster munitions in what they call "the War Reserve Stocks for Allies (WRSA)." Human Rights Watch has estimated that the US inventory, including WRSA, is one billion sub-munitions.

The report found the Army has about 638.3 million cluster sub-munitions (88 percent of the total inventory). The Marines have about 53.3 million, or 7 percent of the total inventory. The Air Force's 22.2 million air-delivered cluster bombs amounts to about 3 percent of the cluster inventory and the Navy's 14.7 million represents about 2 percent.

But, of our 728 million sub munitions, only 30,990 have self-destruct devices. That's less than a half of one percent. And, the report notes, a 2 to 6 percent failure rate for most of the sub-munitions.

We're supposed to be destroying some cluster munitions because the expiration date has passed but there's no plan in place to destroy the inaccurate duds. According to the report, there'll still be 480 million of dated and unreliable sub-munitions in the cluster inventory in fiscal year 2011!

In a guerrilla war like the one we're engaged in Iraq - where the battlefields are civilian centers - cluster bombs are not only the anti-thesis of "precision bombs," they're notorious for not exploding on impact, leaving a nice little lethal present behind for future generations to stumble across (to say nothing of the cancer-causing agents seeping into the ground). They're especially attractive to kids because of the fun-looking, small yellow parachutes attached to the bomblets.

We used cluster munitions during on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1964 and 1975 - with immense human suffering left in its wake that still reverberate today.

In a 2004, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report, it was estimated that in Laos alone, between 9 million and 27 million unexploded sub-munitions are still in the ground, having already claimed the lives of 11,000 people since the conflict ended - 30 percent of which have been children.

A four-month examination by USA TODAY of how cluster bombs were used in the invasion of Iraq "found dozens of deaths that were unintended but predictable. Although U.S. forces sought to limit what they call 'collateral damage' in the Iraq campaign, they defied international criticism and used nearly 10,800 cluster weapons; their British allies used almost 2,200."

For example, "just before U.S. forces' "thunder run" into Baghdad on April 7, the 3rd Infantry Division fired 24 MLRS cluster rockets into Iraqi positions at an important intersection in the capital. The damage assessment, recounted in the Field Artillery article: 'There's nothing left but burning trucks and body parts.'"

The United Nations estimated that Israel dropped 4 million of the bomblets in southern Lebanon last summer, with perhaps 40 percent of the sub-munitions failing to explode on impact.

So far, 70 countries have pledged to support an international ban by 2008, but the U.S., Israel, Russia, and China - the countries with the largest stockpiles - have long rejected a complete ban.

But, on June 18th the U.S. delegation made a surprising announcement that we're now willing negotiate an international treaty to regulate the use of cluster bombs under the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW)..

U.S. diplomat Ronald Bettauer said "concerns raised by other countries, and our own concerns about the humanitarian implications of these weapons" triggered the shift in posture. It was only last November, that the Bush administration saw no need for cluster bomb curbs.

But, if leading by example is the only way to lead, then shouldn't we acting unilaterally on putting an end to their use? Clearly, this "Christian" nation isn't ready to give up celebrating bombs bursting in air but maybe we can get some independence from cluster bombs that blur the line between "terrorism" and "collateral damage."

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times assistant news editor and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at sgonsalves@capecodonoline.com

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