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The use of cluster munitions shows that U.S. intervention in Ukraine is about power, not morality
Liberals who think cluster bombs are a tool for expanding liberty and democracy are thoroughly propagandized by the U.S. war machine. We need a bigger imagination for peace.
In eleventh grade, I participated in a debate about the Iraq War. It was early 2003, and the war drums were beating loudly. For me, the only possible argument for re-emptive war was Saddam Hussein’s treatment of the Kurds. I was suspicious of the Halliburton contracts and the thirst for Iraqi oil, and thought the claim that Hussein was maintaining weapons of mass destruction was specious. Despite those things, I made an argument for the war in order "protect" the lives of Kurdish people. It did not take long to realize, however, that war was not the best way to save lives—and was, in fact, an effective way to take lives, instead. The prevailing myth around redemptive violence eventually proved to be dead wrong. For me, the elaborate arguments for war relying on jingoism and "patriotism" grew tired even a few months into the quagmire. And even though opposition grew against the war, within the first few months, opposition to the war was met with incredible resistance, even among humanitarians. I wrote this about the early support of the war:
But at the time, Congress overwhelmingly voted to authorize the war. Furthermore, among Americans, the War in Iraq was immensely popular. It was loudly and proudly defended even in the liberal media. At the start of the war, 63 percent o Americans supported the war, and two months into it, the number grew to 79 percent. Over a year later, the majority of Americans still thought it was the right thing to do, so much so that in November of that year, 51 percent of them voted to re-elect George W. Bush. I grew up in the midst of this hysteria.
Last week, Joe Biden announced that he would send cluster munitions to Ukraine and it brought to mind the contradictory notion of using deadly force to save lives. These munitions are, according to the New York Times, “delivered by artillery, a 155-millimeter shell packed with 72 armor-piercing, soldier-killing bomblets that can strike from 20 miles away and scatter them over a vast area.” Allies and human rights groups object to these weapons. Ukraine has used artillery shells supplied by the U.S. But because supply is down, cluster munitions seem like a good substitute to some. Furthermore, Russia has been using the same weapons, so supplying them to Ukraine seems fair.
But this rationale exposes the flaws in logic of war. Just because one’s opponents use a weapon that is likely to kill children through unexploded ordnances does not mean that we should, as well. In the international rules of war, cluster munitions cross a “red line” that keeps nations from using those that are "massively destructive"or POSE risks to non-combatants. According to The Daily, “The International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated that in Laos alone there are 9 to 27 million unexploded bomblets. And that they have killed or maimed 11,000 people. And many of those, of course, were children (The "dud" rates of those weapons can be as high as 40 percent. The U.S.’s cluster munitions, however, are more effective—with over 97 percent detonating.)
These are dangerous and imprecise weapons that will have deadly consequences. Over 123 nations have agreed not to use them. The U.S., along with Russia and China, opposed the U.N.’s treaty against cluster munitions—and have already used them in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.S. has demonstrated some prudence in terms of the weapons sent to Ukraine, but it is clear that it is increasing their deadly power as the war drags on. This war could continue for much longer and grow in intensity. We are seeing that war is not an efficient solution to global problems and engaging in it by supplying more money and weapons only prolongs it. The New York Times Editorial Board (linked above) makes this argument persuasively—but does not go far enough.
There is no doubt—even in the mind of this pacifist—that self-defense is justifiable on the part of Ukraine. But the U.S. must be engaged in a de-escalation of the conflict, pursuing diplomacy, and a peaceful and just end to the conflict. Increasing arms, and using arms that have been widely rebuked, does the opposite.
In response to the U.S.’s sanctioning of cluster munitions, Dr. Cornel West, a prophetic commentator and public theologian (who happens to be running a very longshot campaign for president) has spoken out for the use of peace and diplomacy. West argues that this war is about a global power struggle, and both Russia and the U.S. are responsible for their historic arms race and their attempts at global domination. His words showcase a plain fact: the U.S. is engaged in this war, not for the sake of Ukrainian lives or justice, but for its own self-interest, i.e. securing power in the world. Is West correct in asserting that NATO expansion is partly responsible for Russia’s aggression? I don’t think so. But what isn’t hard to say is that the U.S. is engaging in a war for global power that will escalate this conflict.
West's claim has been met with significant pushback—as prophetic voices always are in the heat of popular wars. To his detractors, the only just option is arming Ukraine and matching Russia, blow-for-blow. If Russia is using certain weapons, so the U.S. is justified in supplying them.
The absurdity of calling U.S. intervention "moral" is as plain as ever. The U.S. is refusing to submit to the international community in not using cluster munitions, and matching the arms of China and Russia, shows us that this war is about self-interest for the U.S., not human rights. As heinous as Russia’s actions are, the U.S. needs to meet them in a different way, or else perpetrate evil as bad as Russia's.
I’m not naïve enough to think this will happen. I think the U.S. will continue to fight fire-with-fire, and it will do so at the expense of Ukrainians (and Russians), for years to come.
I personally believe that we should be using every means we have to bring about an end to this war, and use nonviolent and diplomatic means to secure peace. Ideally, the Russian people and Ukrainian people would decide their own fate through self-determination (an act that cannot be accomplished by the power of Biden, Putin, or Zelensky). I am not a head of state, and I understand that this may seem impractical to some. Opposition to war often seems impractical, in fact. But to those who disagree with my assertion, to those who believe that the U.S. must engage in this war, even with cluster munitions, they must lose the pretense that this is about morality. Using weapons that can kill children can never be an argument used to preserve life – it falls flat on its face. It is hypocritical and contradictory. The elaborate defenses propped up for such a position show us their moral absurdity.
Supporters of the war need to plainly state the obvious: they prefer U.S. hegemony to Russian or Chinese hegemony. There are practical reasons for such a belief, but they lead to a war-ridden world. And those of us with a prophetic imagination about what is possible, must resist these seemingly forgone conclusions, and imagine another world altogether, even when it seems impractical.