Oh, The Hugh Manatee!

There’s a move going on to ban a class of weapons from use, and the US has decided to follow Casey Stengel’s advice and say “include me out.” The weapons whose ban is being discussed are cluster bombs.

That’s the generic term; the military prefers “cluster munitions,” as they include bombs, missiles, and (I believe) artillery shells.

The way a cluster munition works is that it doesn’t have one big warhead, it has a bunch of smaller explosives that it scatters over a wide area. It’s the equivalent of a big shotgun; instead of one big boom, it makes a whole bunch of little booms over a bigger area.

Cluster weapons were developed for use against dispersed soft targets. That’s military-speak for “stuff that isn’t armored much if at all, and spread out instead of bunched up.” If you’re attacking a tank, you want the equivalent of a sniper rifle or an elephant gun: something that hits very hard, or in a very specific area.

But if your target is a bunch of infantry, spread out (or even dug in to foxholes or trenches), or trucks, then your heavy stuff is pretty much worthless. You need something that will deliver the same amount of force, over a wider area. An anti-tank missile will take out one truck (possibly two or three, if you’re very lucky). But take that same warhead (say, ten pounds) and chop it into twenty half-pound little bombs, and you can easily take out a dozen or more in one shot. And an artillery shell that might kill everyone in a single foxhole can destroy an entire platoon in the same way.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we don’t need the big weapons. Our enemies don’t have tanks, and they’ve learned not to bunch up in too large groups. And one of the main reasons they’ve learned that lesson is because of cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions, like land mines, fall into a category of weapons the military, in their love for convoluted and clinically precise language, call “area denial.” This means “we’re going to make sure you don’t go there, even if it means we can’t, either.” It’s a tactic that’s not so much designed to kill the enemy (although that’s a nice little bonus when it does), but to control their movement. “OK, we’ve made sure they can’t attack us in this direction. Now let’s make sure they can’t run away in these directions, so they’ll have no choice but to either go where we want them to go or stay right where they are.”

The argument for banning these weapons fails, to me, on two fronts.

First, arms-control agreements historically work only when it is couched in the self-interest of all parties concerned. In other words, when the agreement can be boiled down to “we won’t use these weapons if you won’t.” That’s how the ban on chemical weapons after World War I worked, and it worked pretty darned well in World War II: even though both sides had plenty of chemical weapons (or the means and know-how to get them damned quick), nobody did use them. Ritght now, cluser munitions are not that common; there is a certain level of infrastructure required to use them (aircraft to drop them, artillery to fire them) and an appropriate target to use them against. According to Wikipedia, only 23 nations use them, and that’s a good enough answer for me.

So there is no real incentive for the US to forgo their development and use apart from a bunch of people saying “we think they’re bad and you should stop using them.” Appeals to morality and humanity have a much worse track record for success in these sort of matters, especially when compared with appeals to self-interest.

The other argument I’m going to steal from David Gerrold’s “War Against The Chtorr” series of novels. (And where the hell is that next book, anyway, dammit?) And that is the argument that cluster munitions are inhumane. In one scene from the first novel, the veteran is fitting the new guy (the narrator and protagonist) with a flamethrower:

“…Let me ask you this: what is it that makes a weapon inhumane?”

“Uh…” I thought about it.

“Let me make it easier for you. Tell me a humane weapon.”

“Um– I see your point.”

“Right. There’s no such thing. It’s like Christmas — it’s not the gift, it’s the thought that counts.” He came around behind me and started fitting the pads under the straps. “A weapon, Jim — never forget this; lift your arms — is a tool for stopping the other fellow. That’s the purpose — stopping him. The so-called humane weapons merely stop a man without permanently injuring him. The best weapons — you can put your arms down now — are the ones that work by implication, by threat, and never have to be used at all. The enemy stops himself.”

“It’s when they don’t stop” — he turned me around to adjust the fittings in front — “that the weapons become inhumane, because that’s when you have to use them. And so far, the most effective ones are the ones that kill — because they stop the guy permanently.” He had to drop to his knees to cinch the waist strap. “Although… there’s a lot to be said for maiming –“

“Huh?” I couldn’t see his eyes, so I didn’t know if he was joking or not.

“– but that’s asking too much of both the weapon and its user.”

The most “humane” weapon is the weapon that ends the fight the quickest. Period. Other concerns may factor in there, but that’s a solid general principle.

Right now, the US is moving away from cluster munitions — not because we’ve suddenly decided they’re just too darned mean and icky and nasty, but because we’ve developed better alternatives. Thanks to GPS technology, among other things, we can now make guided weapons far smaller and more precise and even more discriminating.

But we want to keep cluster munitions available as options. For one, while they’re less efficient than the newer stuff, they are a hell of a lot cheaper. President Bush, in the aftermath of 9/11, discussed with key Senators his plans for retaliation. In that meeting, he famously said “I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.” In that particular case, a couple thousand dollars worth of cluster bomb would take out not only that tent (and poor camel), but a whole bunch of tents in a camp.

For another, as I said, there really isn’t any benefit for us in agreeing to give them up. To be utterly selfish, cluster weapons are not a threat to Americans. Nobody’s threatening us with them, and not likely to any time soon. It’s a classic example of the mice voting to bell the cat.

It sounds selfish, but self-interest is a vital part of any truly productive negotiations. And if the rest of the world wants the US to give up cluster munitions, they need to come up with a compelling answer to the question: “what’s in it for us?”

Until that point, we should do all we can to make it abundantly clear that we will not play along with their little game of moral hand-wringing.

You are my sunshine
Another side of John McCain