The moral center of humanity slowly asserts itself. Only the most powerful are too afraid to join.

You may have missed the news: At the end of May, 111 nations, including, at the last minute, Great Britain, showing the world the power of an unleashed conscience, agreed to an international ban on cluster bombs, surely one of the cruelest and, given the nature of war today, most unnecessary weapons in modern arsenals.

Among those not endorsing the treaty and MIA at the conference in Dublin where it was debated were Russia, China, Israel and, to the surprise of no one, the United States of George Bush, that increasingly isolated moral rump state of which so many are so ashamed. Indeed, the treaty is widely seen as a “diplomatic defeat” for the U.S., so identified is the Bush administration with the sanctity of its WMD.

The official U.S. stance on cluster bombs is that they have “demonstrated military utility,” which trumps “the humanitarian concerns of those in Dublin,” which the U.S. nonetheless shares with such passion that, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained in a recent policy memo, “by 2018 the military will no longer use cluster weapons with a failure rate greater than 1 percent. In the interim period the U.S. will deplete its existing stockpiles of cluster munitions with a greater than 1 percent dud rate by exporting them to foreign governments that agree not to use them starting in 2018.”

Certainly there is a hellish ingenuity to the cluster bomb, which was designed for use on an open field of battle. A “mother canister,” as it is called, opens in mid-air and releases hundreds of grenade-size bombs that “spew deadly shrapnel over very large swathes of land” when they hit the ground, as explained recently in the Salt Lake Tribune by former munitions researcher Dick Devlin.

And Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer adds: “If they exploded high enough to let the bomblets scatter properly, a few well-placed cluster bombs or shells could destroy dozens of soft-skinned military vehicles and blunt the attack of an entire mechanized infantry battalion. A few hundred could stop an army corps.”

Of course, we don’t use cluster bombs to disable massing infantries. We haven’t fought that kind of war in over 50 years. We use them now in counterinsurgency warfare, against primarily civilian populations, in such places as Kosovo (U.S.), Afghanistan (U.S., Russia), Lebanon (Israel) and, of course, Iraq (U.S.). We use them, in other words, to shred innocent bystanders.

Oh, and there’s one other feature to these weapons: Up to 20 percent of the bomblets fail to explode on impact. The fight moves on, but the duds stay on the ground until someone — often a child — disturbs them. Then they go off. It might be years later, well after the war is over. But then, wars are never over — and each unexploded bomblet that litters the planet is a metaphor waiting patiently to make this point.

This last property of cluster bombs is the one that has made them a focal point of humanitarian outrage, out of proportion (it almost seems) to the number of deaths that belated detonations have actually caused over the years — worldwide, in the thousands — relative to the total number of people, civilians and otherwise, who are chewed up physically, emotionally and spiritually in the grinding fury and stupidity of humanity’s wars.

The Dublin accord creates a new international convention, to be formally signed in December, that prohibits the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of cluster bombs. While the big geopolitical players, the major devotees and users of this hideous weapon, are not a part of it, they will be affected by it.

For instance, Dyer, echoing other observers on the power of moral persuasion, writes: “Cluster bombs are now stigmatized as immoral and (for most countries) illegal weapons. . . . What the treaty really does is to shift assumptions so that international public opinion will see a country that uses cluster bombs as being in the wrong.”

Great, I say, but let’s expand the context. Banning or stigmatizing the use of cluster bombs will, at best, minimize one specific form of cruelty practiced in warfare. This may be an important step toward a saner, safer world. But too limited a focus could, at worst, bestow a faux-blessing on hellish wars fought with “legal” weapons only.

Governments can always find ways around specific moral strictures. The world banned poison gas after World War I, but World War II gave us the saturation bombing of cities and, ultimately, nuclear weapons.

Cluster bombs are morally preposterous because their long-term consequences reveal the folly of the short-term strategic ends for which they were employed. The principle that makes them wrong also stigmatizes war itself. Let us not stop demanding moral sanity till we get to the heart of our folly.

Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at or visit his Web site at © 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.