The Horrors of Cluster Bombs

“Well the first War of the Machines seems to be drawing to its final inconclusive chapter—leaving, alas, everyone the poorer, many bereaved or maimed and millions dead, and only one thing triumphant: the Machines.”—J.R.R. Tolkien

Writing to his son in January 1945, J.R.R. Tolkien, who would later pen The Lord of the Rings, saw clearly that mechanized warfare would horribly mutilate, maim and eventually eradicate human beings. Warfare can only be called the horror of all horrors, especially given the technological advancements in mechanized fighting since Tolkien’s time. Take, for example, one small cog in the machinery of war—cluster bombs.

As noted in a Field Artillery article documenting the damage in Baghdad immediately after U.S. forces used cluster rockets to overtake the Iraqi capital, “There’s nothing left but burning trucks and body parts.” This description of a particular battle’s aftermath also paints a vivid picture of the resulting devastation and horror in the wake of a cluster bomb attack.

Originally used by the Nazis to attack both civilian and military targets during World War II, cluster bombs have been utilized in several wars since then by various countries, including the U.S., which employed these weapons in Vietnam, Kosovo and Iraq.

Since the recent Israeli-Hezbollah conflict and the continuing U.S.-led war in Iraq, international attention has been focused on the heavy toll placed on humanity by modern weaponry. The use of cluster bombs has been at the heart of the discussion. According to reports, Israel dropped thousands of American-made cluster bombs on at least 170 villages in Lebanon in its recent war with Hezbollah. And a USA Today article reports that by January 2004, U.S. forces had used almost 11,000 cluster weapons in Iraq.

What is the concern with the use of cluster bombs? As one commentator has explained, “Cluster bombs are capable of turning huge areas into killing fields.” Cluster bombs are particularly dangerous because, unlike other bombs, they are delivered by rockets containing hundreds—sometimes even thousands—of individual “submunitions” or miniature bombs that are released at once. Like a shotgun, after detonation these cluster bombs spray a large area with flying miniature bombs ripping through anyone or anything in their path. In fact, the area affected by a single cluster bomb—known as the “footprint”—can be as large as two or three football fields.

Different from the original cluster bombs used in the 1960s, today’s cluster bombs can be used in a variety of ways. For instance, some cluster bombs are designed to kill troops by producing flying shrapnel. Others are meant to destroy armored vehicles such as tanks by using their hardened spikes and warheads to penetrate armed coatings.

Although the use of these bombs in war zones is troubling, no doubt harming the psyche of the soldiers who witness their destruction, the devastation that cluster bombs visit upon innocent civilians is especially disconcerting. Furthermore, cluster bombs have a high “dud” rate (according to some estimates, up to 40%), meaning the bombs do not explode on impact. Like land mines, which have been banned by many countries due to their extreme danger to civilians after hostilities have ended, these live bombs remain in the ground until they are detonated. This often happens when passers-by, including children, touch them, not realizing what they are. In fact, Amnesty International has reported that at least eight people have been killed and 25 injured from unexploded cluster bombs in Lebanon since Israel began launching them into southern Lebanese cities. “What’s shocking and I would say, to me, completely immoral,” said U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland recently, “is that 90 percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution.”

Thus, the real tragedy lies with those who accidentally stumble upon an unexploded cluster bomb —and with the children who might pick it up, thinking it a toy. As one reporter notes, “It looks innocuous, but a careless kick from a passing child would detonate this cluster bomb, one of thousands of unexploded devices Israel scattered over towns, villages and hillsides of south Lebanon during its 34-day war with Hezbollah fighters.”

Unfortunately, this tragedy occurs all too often. Consider the story of Hassan Tahini, a 10-year-old Lebanese boy who was unfortunate enough to face the destruction of these unexploded weapons first hand. In an interview, he remembers how he and his 12-year-old cousin were walking in a Lebanese village when they noticed something sticking out of the ground:

We were walking without paying attention, we saw something, but we didn’t know it was a bomb. We saw a little bit of it sticking out of the earth. We said to ourselves, “It’s a toy, so what?” We trod on it. It exploded and we flew two or three meters through the air.

Luckily, after spending two days in intensive care in a local hospital with major wounds to the intestine, liver and stomach, these boys survived. But what about the next child who happens to come across one of these deadly bombs? As a consequence of this tragic reality, Lebanese children cannot live a normal childhood. Fearing their children might come across one of these bombs, parents refuse to even let them go outside. Cluster bombs, then, are a form of terrorism.

If modern warfare teaches us anything, it is that war brings out the worst in humanity. It seems that as mechanized weaponry progresses, our humanity digresses. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.”


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at Information about the Institute is available at

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