Armies inevitably refight the last war, and generals are often unprepared for the new war their enemy brings them. The law and ethics of war follow the same pattern. Years go by before lawmakers and ethicists recognize the worrisome changes that have overtaken warfare. It took decades for the human costs of antipersonnel land mines to lead to a prohibition on their use in the Ottawa Convention of 1997, a treaty to which the United States is still not a signatory. The postwar poisoning of land and people in Iraq by depleted uranium munitions has still to be regarded by the military or policymakers as an inhumane extension of war that needs to be ended.
The recent fighting in Lebanon underscores the need to put another weapon, namely cluster bombs, on the list of prohibited weapons. Cluster bombs are capsules that open up to distribute bomblets over a wide field. Like land mines, they remain long after the battle is over. Children are often their victims, because their small size and often colorful appearance easily draw a child’s attention. Supposedly designed for close combat situations, they can be used as antipersonnel weapons to clear wide areas of civilian population. That appears to be how the Israel Defense Force employed them in the last days of the Lebanon assault.
More than 400 bomb sites have been identified in southern Lebanon with an estimated 100,000 bomblets on the ground. Given the evident desire of families to return to their homes, the dispersion of bomblets across the region can only be regarded as an attempt to effect ethnic cleansing by preventing the largely Shiite population from returning to the bombed zone.
Soon after the cease-fire, the U.S. Senate failed to prevent the use of cluster bombs against civilians in future conflicts by defeating, by a vote of 30 to 70, a measure controlling sale of the weapons. The Senate’s decision reflects the hypocritical view that the humanitarian laws of war are for other times and other peoples, not for us, our close allies or our style of fighting. In the meantime, the Vatican mission at the United Nations in Geneva has appealed for a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs and for international treaties to restrict their use. To critics who claim the weapons are not now banned, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican observer, replies, The fact of declaring a weapon legitimate does not make it more acceptable or less inhuman.
The Vatican initiative is well taken. Negotiations are needed on banning cluster bombs, and domestic legislation restricting their use should be on the docket for the new Congress. In the meantime, the United States should join the proposed moratorium.