More than half of the world's countries agreed to ban cluster bombs that cause unacceptable harm to civilians following 10 days of intense negotiations in Dublin, Ireland. The U.S. government wasn't there.
Based upon my experience testing these weapons, and later watching how the U.S. military misused them, I believe this is a profound mistake.
I was drafted into the Army at the height of the Vietnam War. Having nearly completed a degree in mechanical engineering, I was offered an engineering position at the end of basic training. This was pretty good duty for enlisted personnel, so I accepted and was assigned to the position of project director, special ammunition, at Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona.
My job was to test experimental cluster munitions. These weapons have a "mother" canister that opens in mid-air, releasing hundreds of smaller bombs, or grenades. When they hit the ground, these small bombs spew deadly shrapnel over very large swathes of land.
Following tests, demolition crews would scour the impact area for "duds," mark their positions and explode them in place. We usually found that about 10-20 percent of the submunitions would fail to explode.
The purpose of this type of ammunition, as explained to me, was to fire on a group of soldiers on the march in open areas, not the sort of counterinsurgencies the U.S. military faced in Vietnam and that it faces today. They certainly were not intended for use in areas with dense jungle canopies, as in Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia, nor were they intended for use in civilian-populated areas in countries like the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Nevertheless, the U.S. military used cluster bombs in all of these places.
Unfortunately, when the target is a village or city, demolition crews rarely go in afterward to clean up the deadly mess of unexploded grenades. The results have been predictable: high numbers of dud cluster submunitions littering the landscapes, producing large numbers of civilian casualties for weeks, months - even decades, in the case of Laos - after the war ended.
What's worse, this litter is particularly appealing to curious children. The cluster submunitions I worked with had little pink stabilizing ribbons that made them look like toys. Children pick them up and swing the grenade around by the ribbon, thereby activating it. Children ages 5-15, and boys in particular, account for almost half of all cluster bomb casualties in the 20 countries affected by cluster-bombs around the world.
Farmers, de-miners and even U.S. soldiers also fall victim to this deadly litter. An MP in our barracks found some unexploded cluster submunitions while guarding an impact area. Since he did not have need-to-know clearance, he had no idea what they were and used them to decorate his footlocker! Fortunately, they were dummies and not highly explosive.
Similarly, when U.S. soldiers stumbled upon tens of thousands of dud U.S. submunitions in the deserts of Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm (Iraq, 1991), they did not know what the litter was. As a result of their curiosity, this type of U.S. weaponry killed and injured more American troops than any Iraqi weapon system during that war.
Those who know these weapons well, like I do, believe that their time has passed. Most of the world agrees that it is time to put an end to the use of these weapons, which have killed and wounded more civilians than soldiers. The U.S. should join with its closest allies in banning these indiscriminate weapons.
--Dick Devlin is a retired manufacturing engineer.
© 2008 The Salt Lake Tribune