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A war that is imprecise and endless

Last spring, President Bush insisted that the war in Afghanistan was not a war directed against the people of that country. In the aftermath of the bombing, however, U.S. actions have hardly matched up with those words. The bombs keep killing, and those dying are the ordinary people, not terrorists.

It is difficult to get accurate figures on the numbers killed by American bombs during the conflict, though the San Francisco-based human rights group Global Exchange has so far identified more than 800. That number is certainly a low estimate of the total by any calculation. The Pentagon has voiced its regret over civilian deaths but maintains it bears no responsibility because the deaths occurred in a war zone.

But what about today, as the cluster bombs, a particularly vicious and indiscriminate weapon, continue killing innocents? U.S. use of cluster bombs (see story Page 7), which spread lethal “bomblets” over a wide area, has compounded the problems of war litter in Afghanistan, which was, before the U.S. bombings, the most mine-littered landscape on earth.

While modern warriors sell their conflicts as precise and clinical affairs, the reality is quite different on the ground. Cluster bombs, deemed “pilot friendly “because they require fewer passes over an area than single bombs, are indiscriminate killers. After they are dropped, a high percentage of ordnance remains unexploded, rendering land unusable and often causing death and maiming.

One of the groups most actively opposing the use of cluster bombs is the Mennonite Central Committee, which is urging a moratorium on the use of the bombs. More information on that campaign and how to sign on in support is available at www.mcc.org/clusterbomb. Other information is available at www.globalex change.org

The United States has made an initial offer of $7 million to help clean up the mess in Afghanistan. To place that amount in context, however, it is about the cost of one-third of a day of bombing.

Much more needs to be done first to clean up the litter of war and, in the longer view, to rid the world of these indiscriminate killers. At the moment, no government supports a moratorium on the use of cluster bombs and it is unlikely that any government will give such a move serious consideration without considerable pressure from its own people and from the outside.

The tragedy in Afghanistan, where innocent people are killed daily by bombs left behind, is compounded by the realization that death to a breadwinner can mean desperation for a family in this poorest of nations. Bomblets in a farmer’s field can be catastrophic in a country where only 15 percent of the terrain is actually habitable.

War is imprecise and, in the case of unexploded bomblets, seemingly endless.

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002