The BLU-97 bomblets at As Salman were the latest offering in roughly 60 years of cluster-munition evolution, a process started by German arms designers before World War II. In 1932, Luftwaffe munitions handlers repackaged incendiary bomblets conceived in World War I in aerodynamic containers that opened in the air, near the ground. This allowed bomblets to land closer to one another than if they had been dropped individually. A tight pattern meant a density of flame. The goal was to spark “fire storms” and consume cities.
Kaiser Wilhelm II forbade incendiary bomblet attacks on Paris in 1918. But Hitler had no reservations and used the Spanish Civil War to test his generals’ secret new weapons. In late 1936, German pilots began dropping incendiary cluster munitions on Madrid while propaganda officers, the public-affairs wing of the growing Nazi war machine, lied to the press and denied German involvement, even as the cluster-bombing campaign expanded. In this way, the use of cluster munitions from the very beginning was coupled to official lies. The weapons’ most memorialized victim was Guernica, the Basque village burned to ashes in 1937. George L. Steer, a reporter for The New York Times, visited Guernica’s charred ruins after the attack and found dud bomblets bearing German markings. The era of cluster munitions had begun.
Soviet, Japanese, Italian, British and American engineers soon rolled out their own versions, and these new models were dropped across Europe, Asia and parts of Africa during World War II. In America’s first airstrike on Japan, in 1942, Lt. Col. James Doolittle led a mission that dropped incendiary bomblets on Tokyo alongside high-explosive munitions. With thermite and white phosphorous, British and American incendiary cluster bombs torched German cities, including Dresden, where tens of thousands of people were killed. In one day alone in March 1945, American napalm-filled cluster bombs started fires that killed an estimated 100,000 Japanese citizens. Maj. Gen. Curtis LeMay, of the Army Air Corps, used the same weapons to destroy 65 of Japan’s 68 largest cities. Nuclear weapons leveled two more.
In the early years of the nuclear arms race, American engineers experimented with cluster bombs that dispensed radioactive submunitions, dropping them on a Utah proving ground. Air Force bombers in Korea flew the United States’ first large-scale missions with antipersonnel cluster bombs, scattering them freely over suspected North Korean supply routes. Other bomblets in the development pipeline around that time dispersed chemical or biological weapons, including insects that could be infected with communicable diseases, like the bubonic plague. Later, the Pentagon fielded a submunition that dispensed spools of carbon fibers designed to shut down electrical power by shorting out part of a grid.
For all the indiscriminate killing and apocalyptic arms-testing, it wasn’t until the Vietnam War that these weapons entered public consciousness when some antiwar protesters mobilized specifically against their use. One such movement was started by Marv Davidov, an Army veteran, in 1968 when he launched an initiative called the Honeywell Project, which staged large protests against the Honeywell Corporation’s production of cluster bombs in Minnesota.
In an eight-year period during the war, according to declassified records, the Air Force dropped nearly 350 million bomblets in Southeast Asia. But the weapons enabled the killing of American troops, as bomblet duds gave the Viet Cong small explosive charges they adapted into improvised explosive devices. (Marine Corps guidance to its forces in 1969 stated that early in the war as many as 75 percent of its casualties came from such booby traps, and 90 percent of them incorporated American supplies — often bomblet duds.) From 1964 to 1973, American pilots dropped more than two dozen distinct cluster-munition models on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, raining bomblets into the jungle to try to disrupt supply lines from Laos and deter surface-to-air missile crews who had been knocking American warplanes from the sky.