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'New York Times' Investigation Shows Just How Deadly Cluster Bombs Are For U.S. Troops


Nearly every country on earth has banned the use of so-called cluster munitions. These are bombs and other weapons that break apart in midair and scatter smaller bomblets across a large area. Nearly every country has banned them except the United States and a handful of others, including Iran, Russia and North Korea.

Cluster bombs are notorious for harming civilians. A new investigation from The New York Times shows they are also deadly for the American troops that handle them. Reporter John Ismay spent the last five years investigating problems with cluster bombs. He writes about it for The New York Times magazine this week, and he joins me now.


JOHN ISMAY: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So I want to note your background. You were a bomb disposal technician in the Navy before you became a journalist. Is that right?

ISMAY: That's right. I started training in 2003 and then got out in the end of 2010.

KELLY: And so when did you first start thinking about cluster munitions and the problems that come with them?

ISMAY: Well, actually, it was the first week of training I had in 2003. Our instructor was giving us a lesson on cluster weapons. And he took particular time to talk about this one called the BLU-97. so the BLU-97, he said, is incredibly dangerous because they dud out or fail to explode about 20% of the time. And then almost as an aside, he just said, we call these things the engineer killers because a lot of army engineers got killed picking these things up during Desert Storm in 1991. And that's just stuck with me.

KELLY: There's a moment in your reporting that I want to let you tell us about this, which is from 1991 - February, to be precise. This is Iraq. U.S. troops had just entered Iraq - U.S. ground troops - but American planes had been bombing the area. You describe an incident at the As Salman airfield and what unfolded. What was it?

ISMAY: So a joint French-American force took this airfield, which was supposed to be an important logistics hub. And there was a battalion of U.S. Army engineers with them. And their job was to clear the runway so that American cargo planes could land. They surveyed it and found a number of dud bomblets on the south end of the runway. And they had a four-man Army EOD team with them. These are bomb tech specialists. And a disagreement arose between the engineer leadership and the EOD techs. And the EOD techs informed them that these bomblets, BLU-97s, could not be moved and had to be blown in place. And the engineers basically said, we'll be careful, and go sit in your trucks.

So the bomb techs were sent away. But the engineers ended up picking these things up and stacking them. And a pile of these exploded, and it killed seven soldiers.

KELLY: It's sickening, obviously. Seven American service members killed by weapons that had been put in that battle space just weeks before by other American troops. How common were incidents like this?

ISMAY: Well, this was certainly the deadliest single incident caused by unexploded munitions. But there were dozens of incidents, both during the brief ground war and probably even more incidents after the cease fire was signed all the way until American forces largely withdrew from Iraq back into Saudi Arabia. So I don't have a exact number because the records are incredibly hard to pin down, but I'm actively trying to keep reporting that out.

KELLY: What is the Pentagon rationale for keeping these weapons in its arsenal?

ISMAY: Well, the Pentagon still says that these are the most effective weapons for certain types of targets. But the research I've done just shows that the Pentagon has plenty of other weapons that it's developed that are both far more effective, and they're much more reliable and don't have the same unexploded ordinance problem leftover.

And if you look at old Pentagon reports, say from the 1970s and '80s, you find reports saying, you know, as soon as we have precision-guided munitions, laser-guided bombs and such in enough numbers, we won't need cluster bombs anymore. But it seems like the Pentagon, even though now it has, you know, pretty much all precision-guided munitions, just for some reason decides to keep moving the goalposts and keeping cluster bombs around.

KELLY: That is John Ismay.

Thank you.

ISMAY: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: His piece for The New York Times is headlined "America's Dark History of Killing Its Own Troops With Cluster Munitions."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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