Monday, 2 June 2008

Clusters' Last Stand

As eager as ever to deepen the irony of its self-ratified claim to a global monopoly of moral authority, the United States has refused to sign a U.N. treaty banning the use of cluster bombs, joining a wretched rogues' gallery of co-refuseniks (including Russia, China, and Pakistan) in the process.

Cluster bombs are particularly nasty pieces of ordnance, as each bomb releases a host of smaller bomblets designed to spread over a wide area and thus maximise anti-personnel casualties. Many of those bomblets fail to explode on impact and thus become disasters waiting to happen: civilians routinely fall victim to these lethal objects, and children have been known to pick up the brightly painted orbs and play with them until they detonate. It is hard to discern a value to these bombs (in the strictly tactical sense) that could redeem the unacceptable threat they pose to non-combatants. Disgracefully, American officials have apparently found a way to dismiss the well-documented occurrences of bomb-related child deaths as negligible "collateral damage".

As a laughable aside, we're told not to fret, as the U.S. is hard at work formulating a purely voluntary, non-binding "best-practice" accord with its fellow cluster-bomb enthusiasts, as the rest of the world wonders whether anything could be more grotesquely risible than the spectacle of a network composed mostly of brutal dictatorships and failed states ranking among the world's most avid users and manufacturers of cluster-bombs arrogating to itself the sole right to regulate their employment.

America's failure of nerve is the latest of a long series of anti-multilateral retreats. Most notoriously, the U.S. ignored the Ottawa Treaty banning landmines (along with China and Russia, as always), perhaps feeling that a Canuck "pinko" like Lloyd Axworthy simply didn't know how to recognise a nifty little anti-personnel device when he saw one. In fact, landmines are an appalling scourge upon civilians in times of war and of peace, blowing limbs and innocent lives away even years after the end of hostilities; in Vietnam, undetected mines and other ordnance have taken 40,000 lives since 1975 and remain a serious threat throughout the countryside.

Anti-personnel landmines, like flamethrowers, are grotesque anachronisms, and their disappearance would require few changes (if any) to the way infantry field-craft is practiced in today's low-intensity conflicts. Landmines are big business, though, especially for the United States, one of the world's largest landmine and cluster-bomb manufacturers.

American refusal to participate in these bans has nothing to do with concerns over U.S. "sovereignty" or the integrity of its tactical and strategic arsenal. It has everything to do with wanting to keep a cash cow at the feeding trough, even at the cost of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of pointless deaths and maimings. As always, the U.S. calibrates the worth of a humanitarian initiative according to its impact on the bottom line: "sure, some brown and yellow people may be disembowlled and blown apart needlessly, but there are plenty more where they came from; moreover, if they didn't blow up, they would probably starve or die of disease anyway; one simply cannot allow sentimental "do-gooder" interventionism to get in the way of the proper functioning of the world's engine of prosperity; weapons of mass destruction are our prime concern (especially their fictional, Iraqi embodiments); we just haven't the resources to deal with weapons that are actually killing people and their children".

We are in the habit, in this vapid "GWOT" era, of applying the term "cowardice" only to acts of flagrant terrorism committed by people with funny names. According to this acceptation, the 9/11 hijackers were cowards, as are suicide bombers and others who target civilians in the belief that no human creature deserves absolute protection from political violence.

If it be cowardice to kill civilians while also putting oneself at immediate and certain risk of death, what should we call the act of fattening one's investment portfolio through the production and sale of child-killing ordnance whose habit of indiscriminately shredding civilian bodies, though fully known to you, is the last thing you worry about during your exertions on the squash court or your stroke on the par-five?

I think "cowardice" would serve quite well, preceded by the appropriate adjectives--like "unutterable" and "vile".

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