Marxist theory

The morality of cluster munitions

by Anthony Boynton

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?

2. 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.

3. 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.

Categories: Marxist theory, war

2 replies »

  1. Agreed in all points. The fundamental question as you point out, is not some particular weapons system, but whether the Ukrainian people and working class have a right to self-determination and to defend that right. The answer is definitely yes, and accordingly they have the right to acquire whatever arms are needed to defend themselves, from whatever source.

    I would add that apparently the main reason alleged for sending these cluster shells is not so much their effectiveness or not for particular tasks, but that the Ukrainians are running out of standard 155mm ammunition and the US/EU imperialists reportedly do not have sufficient stocks or production to supply Ukraine at the fire rates.

    As I view it there are different groups expressing opposition to the supply of cluster munitions to Ukraine, for different reasons.

    Firstly there are the pro-Putin shills, and naturally their opinions are simply propaganda aimed at assisting Russian imperialism to conquer and colonize Ukraine. They would prefer to have the Ukrainians completely disarmed and lined up for the Russians to machine-gun them, Baba Yar style. And of course they are quite happy to have the Russian imperialists use cluster munitions against the Ukrainians.

    Secondly, there are the muddle-headed. This includes pacifists and utopians, for whom all war is bad. The Gandhi types who advised the Jews to accept their fate at the hands of the Nazis, cause ‘war is bad.’ And there are the confused utopians who think war and weapons can be “banned” under capitalism.

    Imperialists develop or abandon weapons solely based on whether they are effective at killing, and cost efficient. They have none and will never have any qualms about any weapons. No weapons system has ever been banned for moral reasons, and never will be.

    The U.S. has just announced that it has destroyed the last of its chemical weapons stocks, which it had promised to do in 1989. It also ended its biological weapons program, not because they consider them “immoral” but simply because they’re not very effective, and very difficult to control. It’s more cost effective to use conventional weapons, backed by nukes. The moment they can make chemical or biological weapons effective and controllable, they would immediately restart both.

    Again, land mines (which can include cluster munitions) are far more terrible, and kill far more civilians, than cluster munitions.

    Lastly there is a bizarre lack of proportion and context to many of the objections to cluster munitions.

    The Russians attacked and are dangerously occupying the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant. They blew up the dam supplying cooling water, and are clearly engaged in very dangerous acts around the plant. A nuclear accident would have unimaginable consequences, that would exponentially dwarf anything involving “cluster munitions.”

    Yet where is the hue and cry about the incredibly dangerous acts by the Russian imperialists?

    And finally for those who are genuinely horrified by the war and cluster munitions, the answer is simple. Tell Russia to cease its war and withdraw. That way no cluster munitions will be used, and no one else has to die because of Zar Putin.

  2. Ukraine is very unlikely to win this war by military means alone.  What it has on its side is the commitment and mobilisation of the mass of the population, in contrast to the chaos, demoralization and war crimes that characterise the Russian troops.  Many wars have been won where the losing side was stronger militarily but was destabilized politically by the unpopularity of the war or even the growth of revolutionary fervour amongst their troops.  Examples are the German and Russian forces in WW1, almost every colonial war (Portugal 1974!) and of course Vietnam.  Often the criminal tactics used by the losing side were a factor in that equation (cluster bombs in Laos,  My Lai, Agent Orange,  napalm).  The Ukrainian government has taken insufficient notice of these tactical/political questions: the need to build a solidarity movement rather than just appealing to imperialist governments, to devise ways of encouraging Russian troops to desert and to foment political opposition inside Russia itself. Cluster munitions run counter to the process of creating divisions in Russia and its armed forces.

    (The drone attacks on Moscow also probably do not help in that regard: Rutger Bregman, in his book Human Kind has an interesting account of the “British Exceptionalism” argument used by Bomber Harris to justify the fire-bombing of German cities, which did not turn the German masses against the Nazis. He should have known this, as the Blitz did not create anatagonism against the British government).

    As far as building solidarity for the Ukrainian struggle internationally is concerned, it’s all very well a Marxist saying “so what if cluster bombs are nasty or if some governments oppose them”, but most people are not Marxists and you have to take account of this consciousness.  We are also not indifferent to international arms control treaties.  They may be often honoured more in the breach, but that fact should not be used as an excuse for making an exception in Ukraine.  Pursuing such a logic could then “justify” the deployment tactical nuclear weapons on the front line (say 1kt about 7% of the size of the bombs dropped on Japan).  They would probably be more effective in killing troops in trenches and in demining.

     I actually don’t believe cluster bombs will be effective for demining.  Le Monde says that an area the size of Florida – 140,000km square km  – has been mined by the Russians and of course both sides have laid many mines in Donbas since 2014.  To clear 140,000 sq km, even if it worked, would require 3.5 million shells if each sprays its bomblets over the maximum 200m square. And are they effective when the bomblets are that dispersed?  I don’t know..  Mines and unexploded cluster bomblets are usually cleared by hand (also mine ploughs in military situations) not explosives, which is why, of all the mined areas in the world, in 2019 only 131km^2 of mines and 89 km^2 of cluster bomblets were cleared.

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