Cluster bombs, Mennonites and a moment for witness

In northeastern Laos in 1994, Mennonite Central Committee worker Titus Peachey and Bua La, project director of the National Unexploded Ordnance Project, survey unexploded cluster bombs in a pasture. — Titus Peachey

In early 1981, Mennonite Central Committee workers in Laos, Fred and Jan Swartzendruber and Linda Gehman Peachey, visited a family whose mother had struck an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb while hoeing in her garden the day before. The bomb blew up, killing her and leaving 11 children without a mother. The father gave the shattered hoe head to Linda and urged her to take it back to her country. “Use it to tell our family’s story, so that it won’t happen again to other people,” he said.

Little did we know then that more than 40 years later, thanks to the advocacy work of Legacies of War, over 4,000 workers in Laos would still be busy destroying more than 300 pieces of ordnance every day, much of it consisting of unexploded cluster bombs.

The tennis-ball-sized bomblet that killed this woman was one of 270 million dropped by the U.S. during a 9-year (1964-1973) air war in Laos. The 580,000 U.S. bombing sorties over Laos averaged out to 1 bombing strike every 8 minutes, around the clock, for 9 years. Millions of these bomblets, up to 30%, failed to explode on impact, and they lurk in the soil today, still dangerous and lethal.

In 1994, MCC collaborated with the Mines Advisory Group and the Lao Government to initiate a humanitarian demining program. Mennonites in the U.S. and Canada contributed generously to this work, giving it much-needed support in its beginning stages. Today, this effort is fully funded by governments, including the U.S., which provides $45 million each year, for clearance and victim assistance.

U.S. cluster bombs to Ukraine

Now, the Biden administration has sent U.S. cluster bombs to Ukraine. To do so, President Biden crossed two significant constraints that were designed to protect civilians from harm during and after wars. He waived a congressional prohibition against exporting cluster munitions with a failure rate of higher than 1%. Old U.S. stockpiles of cluster munitions have considerably higher rates of failure, especially when used in combat. According to a Congressional Research Service report, and corroborated by the experience of clearance operators, U.S. cluster munitions typically fail at a 10%-30% rate.

Secondly, in December 2008, governments greatly concerned about the harm to civilians caused by these indiscriminate weapons, gathered in Oslo, Norway, to ban the production, use, transfer and stockpiling of cluster munitions. To date, well over 100 nations have acceded to the treaty, including the majority of our NATO allies. The U.S. did not participate in this process or sign the treaty. The U.S. decision to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine shows a callous disregard for the principled commitment of many governments and civil society groups to build a strong international norm to protect the lives of civilians during and after wars.

Our collective witness


All this takes place in the wider context in which billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. military shipments to Ukraine. The war, with all of its devastation and trauma, has been heartbreaking to watch. Indeed, in this context, Micah’s vision of swords turned to plowshares and a people living in safety under vines and fig trees seems remote, perhaps even naive. Yet even Micah described his own people as a people who “lie in wait for blood,” and whose “hands are skilled to do evil” (Micah 7:2,3 NRSV).

Micah’s vision and our faith commitments as Mennonites take us beyond banning one specific weapon system. The entire enterprise of war making is an affront to God’s love for every human being and the way of peace so clearly demonstrated by the life of Jesus.

So this is a moment for courageous witness: a witness against war; a witness against indiscriminate weapons, like cluster bombs and landmines; a witness for reorienting our national budget toward diplomacy and humanitarian aid, rather than military intervention; a witness for our nation to honor the international norms designed to protect civilians from harm that are embedded in the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM); a witness against killing and domination.

In our travels throughout rural Laos, we saw hundreds of cluster bomb containers, some of which still bore the name of the U.S. companies that had produced them. We also saw deadly cluster bombs along village paths, in school yards and scattered across grazing land. We sat with grieving families, who quietly told us about the loss of a child, father or mother. This was how our nation was represented to a people who had no capacity to harm us. These memories still trouble our souls. Now, U.S. cluster munitions, mingled with those from Russia, will litter the fertile fields of Ukraine. Please contact your senators, representatives and the White House to make your witness with passion and courage. The prophet Micah’s vision needs our hands and feet.

This article originally appeared on August 4, 2023, in the Menno Snapshots blog of Mennonite Church USA. Used with the author’s permission.

Titus Peachey

Titus Peachey lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Linda, attend Blossom Hill Mennonite Church. Together, they served as Read More

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