A Cluster Bomb of Thoughts on the Indefensible

Even the most tenacious vectors of propaganda now grudgingly admit that their bombastic optimism of yore has run into a wall of disappointing reality. Biden’s cluster bombs, though not to everyone’s taste, symbolically keep hope alive even while threatening the lives and limbs of future generations of Ukrainian or Russian children, depending, of course, on who owns the land on which they fall.

concept of a runway area under fire from enemy aircraft. ©commons.wikimedia.org

July 19, 2023 06:48 EDT

Thanks to an opaque veil of propaganda whose opacity continues to grow, citizens of Western countries are now desperately confused about the running scorecard that tells them who is winning or losing the war in Ukraine. Just yesterday, The Washington Post expressed this ambiguity in the subtitle of its latest update on the war: “Ukrainian commanders have yet to use the large-scale offensive tactics they have been trained on, as Kyiv says it needs more weapons to fight the war Washington wants.”

Though deliberately adding to the obscurity, that sentence contains a lot of useful information. It informs us that the Ukrainian commanders “have yet to use” the wonderful gifts of the West, in this case training and tactics. Translated into reporting on the facts on the ground, this means Ukraine is clearly on the point of losing the war but that is only because it hasn’t “yet” used the silver bullet the West has provided it with.

The subtitle inadvertently – but correctly – alludes to “the war Washington wants.” That phrase could be taken to sum up the story of the past two years, if not two decades. As many serious commentators have consistently pointed out, what we are witnessing is the “uprovoked” war that for a decade Washington has been working assiduously to provoke.

But, of course, that isn’t what the journalists intended when they used the phrase “the war Washington wants.” To be more precise, they should have written “the quality of war Washington wants.” They may be thinking of the kind of quality of war Washington deployed in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, with such effective results.

Unlike last year’s propaganda that described Russia’s humiliation and imminent defeat, today’s propaganda is forced to be slightly more realistic. The Post cites a US official speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We don’t underestimate or underappreciate that it’s a very tough situation.” Two under prefixes in the same sentence tell us that this is probably understatement.

Despite this concession to the ambient pessimism, the article goes on to make this claim: “Expectations are high.” Nevertheless, in a shift from last year’s propaganda, focused on the ineptitude of the Putin’s invading forces, the article also points out that Russia “has shown itself to be a formidable adversary.”

Many former and current military experts, even at the Pentagon, now seem to have understood the basic reality: Ukraine has no nope of “winning” the war on its own or on NATO’s terms. But that is not something that the media can afford to trumpet to the world. The magic of propaganda is such that Insider can report this reality and still entertain the belief that the good guys are still winning. After practically admitting that Ukraine was militarily defeated, it added this consideration: “If you were to judge who is winning the war based on morale, Ukraine would emerge as the victor, according to all four experts.”

At the same time, in real news, coming from the mouth of US President Joe Biden, we now know that even if the Ukrainians don’t manage to fight “the war Washington wants,” they will at least have a new toy in their arsenal: cluster bombs. This will allow them at least to give the Russians a fright, if not a fight.

Given the reputation of cluster bombs, this is a controversial move. In his recent CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, Biden explained why the US was considering such weapons to Ukraine. As The New York Times reported: ““Mr. Biden also defended his decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, which are outlawed by many of America’s closest allies. He said it was a difficult decision, but with artillery supplies dwindling, it was a choice between supplying the weapons or leaving Ukraine defenseless.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


  1. The natural state of children everywhere in the world, including Ukraine.
  2. The unnatural state of Ukraine, a nation that has the privilege of being attacked from two sides, militarily from the east and morally from the West.

Contextual note

On the legal side, the US has nothing to fear, since it is not among the 123 nations that have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), specifically outlawing the use of weapons that continue spreading terror long after the wars they are used in have ended. Could the devious reasoning now be that because the Ukrainians have no hope of recovering the territory occupied by Russia, the children who in the future will have their limbs blown off by the unexploded bomblets will be Russian and not Ukrainian citizens?

On the moral side, Biden also sees no risk either, despite the public outcry and protests even from some of his closest NATO allies. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s principles were quickly overwhelmed by his commitment to the solidity of the alliance. ““We stand as two of the firmest allies in that alliance and I know we’ll want to do everything we can to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security.” According to the Manichean logic that justifies every action the “indispensable nation” takes against evil forces in the world, morality is flexible so long as the action is conducted by a nation whose presence in the world is thought of unequivocally as “a force for good.”

In other words, thanks to the inclusive framework of NATO, the question of the morality of cluster bombs is reduced to a difference of opinion. This illustrates one of the deeper questions about what NATO is and how it works. It’s the law of the lowest common denominator. The principle of NATO solidarity means that anything any member of the alliance can do, even if contradicting the commitments of the others, is not only justified, but entails all the allies’ obligation to conform. This is especially true if that member is the US. Politico’s article makes this clear. “Sunak pointedly said over the weekend that the U.K. ‘discourages’ use of the weapons — and his spokesperson reiterated that position in a briefing after the Biden-Sunak meeting, saying the prime minister had raised the issue directly with the U.S. president.” 

Sunak’s duty as a signatory to the convention is not to object and require respect for commitments, but simply to “discourage.” In other words, mentioning it in passing suffices.

Historical note

Biden clearly described the historical context of his decision. “I think we’re putting the world together in a way that is going to make things significantly, how can I say it, more secure for people. I just want to finish the job. And I think we can do that in the next six years.”

This isn’t about Ukraine’s sovereignty or even about the stated intention of sacrificing Ukrainian lives for the sake of “weakening Russia.” It is about the mission the US has assumed since the end of World War II: “putting the world together.” In 1932, the Soviet Union’s dictator, Joseph Stalin, instituted the pillar of communist nations’ economic policy, still practiced in China: the “five year plan.” Biden clearly wants to outdo Stalin. His plan is one year longer and the scope of it is not the economy of a single nation but the “world” that he claims the power to put together.

To be fair, Biden was alluding not to an official plan, but to his hope of being re-elected in 20024 and using the two remaining years of his current term and four more to come to ensure that the US remains, as it has during Biden’s entire lifetime: the only nation in a position to shape the world and dictate the rules of the global economy. Prolonging the war in Ukraine, even if it cannot be won, seems to be the best hope Biden has to realize his dream. More Ukrainians and Russians will die; damage to Ukrainian infrastructure and global supply lines will continue; food insecurity will be aggravated and the hope of any kind of global concertation to mitigate the effects of climate change will disappear. But at least, over the next six years, thanks to outdated cluster bombs, Biden will not have left Ukraine like a defenseless child.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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