Oppenheimer, Ukraine and Cluster Bombs

In desperate situations, it is essential that ethics are not sacrificed, as happened in practice in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Poster for the Oppenheimer film. Universal Pictures

At the cinema, currently we can follow the United States’ development of the atom bomb, headed by the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

At the same time, Nazi Germany was in the process of developing its own weapon of mass destruction.

To defend themselves against the victory of barbarism, the Americans decided that it was necessary to steal a march on the Nazis – and if necessary use the bomb. In this way, they could halt the enemy once and for all and bring an end to the destructive war.

I myself have lectured many times about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, and about other war crimes committed by the “good” side. I’m shocked by the suffering inflicted on hundreds of thousands of civilians. I search for solutions that could realistically have been substituted for the most brutal and egregious breaches of international law.

With the benefit of hindsight, I see many such options. Not least, I see that thoughts of vengeance should have been kept better in check – and that the destructive power of the atom bomb should not have been realized.

But at the same time, I see the terrible dilemmas facing Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I know that the survival of freedom was at stake and that the other options were perceived as far too uncertain. Besides, those involved were already numbed by the misery of war.

Parallels with the debate about the use of cluster munitions in Ukraine are many, even if we are not talking about weapons of mass destruction and  global warfare.

A breach of international law?

As Arne Willy Dahl pointed out in Aftenposten on 14 and 22 July, in response to Torkel Brekke’s important challenges about – and support for – Ukraine’s use of cluster munitions, published on 11 and 18 July, the rules of war apply in any event, and to both parties.

Gro Nystuen, Cecilie Hellestveit and Steffen Kongstad (14 and 21 July) have also argued persuasively against supplying Ukraine with such weapons, even though Ukraine believes they are necessary. According to those opposing the supply of cluster munitions, the consequences of their use will breach international law, despite the fact that Ukraine, the United States and Russia have not signed the UN Convention on Cluster Munitions.

But what if the situation is extreme? What if the weapons could make the difference between victory or defeat?

Currently, reports from Ukraine suggest that the weapons seem to be effective. The dilemma may appear insoluble, and we lack the academic’s luxury: treating the matter as a purely theoretical problem.

What we can do is to insist that everything we do in, or contribute to, a war is subject to very thorough ethical evaluation and complies with – or at least is in the spirit of – the basic rules of war, and that any deviation from these rules is subject to the utmost caution.

Yes, exceptions exist. But exceptions tend to become the rule at terrifying speed. This tendency is often underestimated when we move into the convoluted world of exceptions.

The importance of ethics

Torkel Brekke is correct that Ukraine is fighting a defensive war, and that it is the Ukrainians who have asked for the weapons. But this does not mean that critical assessments should not be taken seriously. What happens in Ukraine may have consequences in other places in the form of standards that are set – and rules that are broken. In addition, it is crucial that Ukraine does not lose the moral high ground in the eyes of the rest of the world.

The contributors to the debate in Aftenposten are among the academics and practitioners I respect most highly in my own field. And as a strong supporter of the ban on cluster munitions, I see that – unfortunately – there are arguments on both sides: in a situation where Russia is the clear aggressor and foremost rule-breaker and where Ukraine is fighting a legitimate defensive war.

In any event, it is essential that ethics are not sacrificed in desperate situations, as happened in practice in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A continuing and active debate is necessary, and the endless struggle for rules and propriety in war must be pursued as vigorously as possible. This is a point on which I believe Brekke and his critics can agree.

  • Henrik Syse is a Research Professor at PRIO and professor, Oslo New University College
  • This text was published in Norwegian by Aftenposten 13 August 2023
  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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