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Have you ever heard a story that you just can’t shake? Something that bothered you to no end until you looked up everything you could find about it?
That happened to me in the summer of 2003, during my first week of training at the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal school in Florida. We were learning that if we studied hard and paid attention, we could very likely defuze most any weapon in the world given the right equipment — with one notable exception: the BLU-97 bomblet.
These submunitions, which look like bright yellow tallboy cans of beer, gave our instructor pause. Like other models, they were released hundreds at a time from individual cluster bombs and failed to explode about 20 percent of the time when they hit the ground in combat conditions. But unlike other bomblets, the BLU-97’s fuse was so sensitive that the only safe thing to do with a “dud,” or a bomblet that failed to explode when it hit the ground, was to blow it up in place without touching it. “We call these things the engineer killers,” he said. “Back in Desert Storm, a bunch of Army engineers got killed messing with these things.”
He didn’t elaborate. Two years later, I was going through advanced training at China Lake, Calif., and the small bomb-disposal detachment there warned us of the dangers present on base by showing us photos of a civilian scrap-metal hunter killed by a BLU-97 after sneaking onto a bombing range. A couple of years later, in Iraq, I dealt with the bloody aftermath of old BLU-97s that exploded years after they were dropped. In 2009, I witnessed the Navy attack an apparent terrorist training camp in Yemen with BLU-97s dropped from special Tomahawk missiles. The attack reportedly killed 55 people, including 14 women and 21 children. Then the military tried to deny it, perhaps not realizing that duds would be left behind, definitively pointing to American involvement.
In my mind, these bomblets were hot garbage that caused more problems than they solved.
Several years later, right after I graduated from journalism school, I decided I needed to find a research project to occupy my time and use the new skills I’d just learned. I figured I’d go back to what I knew: bombs. Specifically, this one little bomblet, which had caused so much suffering around the world.
After I moved to Los Angeles, I finally figured out who that scrapper was and retraced his last moves before he sneaked onto the bombing range. In Irvine, I sat down with a retired engineer who worked on the BLU-97 in the late 1970s and tried to download everything he could remember about how the weapon was developed. And somewhere along the way, I found a decades-old Army War College paper online that said that on Feb. 26, 1991, the 27th Engineer Battalion’s Alpha Company lost seven soldiers at the As Salman airfield in southern Iraq when a pile of BLU-97s exploded.
I had my first solid clue that my old instructor was onto something. Something really bad happened in 1991, and the Army’s official histories of Desert Storm didn’t breathe a word of it.
Going through the National Archives’s casualty database, I quickly found those seven soldiers’ names. The more I dug, the more names I found of other troops with suspicious or unclear causes of death. Eventually, I had a story. Rather, I had a lot of stories. And this week, At War published two of them.
The first is a deep dive into the history of cluster munitions and an exploration of what happened at As Salman. The second is about the BLU-97’s likely first victims: two civilians at the Army ammunition plant in Parsons, Kan., who died when one of the bomblets being assembled exploded on a hot July day about a year before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, in 1990.
A lot has been written about civilian victims of America’s cluster munitions in places like Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia, but precious little has addressed the fratricide they’ve caused among American troops. These deaths often occur in relatively small numbers, spread out in both space and time. Put them together, and you see a pattern of deaths that seems to undercut the Pentagon’s own rationale for keeping these weapons around.
Finding the names of American troops who were killed or wounded by unexploded cluster weapons from World War II to the present is incredibly hard, and they are often not recorded as such in official reports. If you know someone who you think was killed or wounded by dud bomblets either at home or abroad, please send me an email. There’s a lot more to report.
John Ismay is a staff writer who covers armed conflict for The New York Times Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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