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Cluster bombs

Of butterflies and dragon seeds

Welcome to listeners of PRI’s The World, where Lisa Mullins today interviewed me about Unspeak, on the occasion of the announcement of a treaty to ban “cluster bombs” (which hasn’t been signed by the major users and manufacturers of “cluster bombs”). The term “cluster bomb” itself, as previously noted here, is Unspeak — since a cluster is a collection of things that are “close together” (in two OED definitions), and yet a “cluster bomb” is designed to spray its separate explosives over a large area. (One of its applications is “area denial”, as in southern Lebanon in 2006.)

The phrase is so familiar nowadays that it is one of those Unspeak terms (like “concentration camp”) that has been leached of all its obfuscatory power. We know that the thing it denotes is nasty. However, it’s interesting to note that the first usage recorded by the OED, from a 1967 Guardian report, shows the writer knew what was up: it’s handled gingerly, in scare quotes:

‘Cluster bombs’ which, on impact, spray bullets around.

Actually, we can antedate that right away, thanks to Google News Archive, which records this inspirational Washington Post headline from 1965:

Speedy Jets Using New Cluster Bomb Against Viet Reds ((Presumably these were the same “cluster bomb units” that had been tested in an exercise reported in the Great Bend Tribune (full text paywalled) of November 9, 1964: google news archive’s earliest result.))

Quite. Meanwhile, another result from a 1967 New York Times article shows that the official terminology back then was not “cluster” bombs but “fragmentation bombs”. Update: see correction here. Perhaps that fell out of favour after the negative publicity that attached to the phenomenon of “fragging” among US forces in Vietnam, in which dangerously incompetent officers were killed (originally with fragmentation grenades) by their subordinates. ((I can’t quite decide whether the fact that “fragging” now just means shooting someone’s avatar in a videogame should count as a trivialization of the word’s origin or as a llinguistic tribute to the soldiers who took such action.))

Sources agree that “cluster bombs”, before their enthusiastic adoption by the US, were first invented by the Nazis, but they were Unspoken differently back then. The German armed forces in 1939 called their weapon the “Butterfly” (Schmetterling or Sprengbombe Dickwandig ), which actually named the individual “bomblets” whose casings hinged open like wings. (Later, the Soviet version was popularly called “Molotov’s breadbasket”.) More ominous than the term “butterfly” was the name for an advanced new “cluster bomb” announced by West Germany in 1971: the “Dragon Seed”.

One American “cluster bomb dispenser unit”, the SUU-30, can be modified into an LBU-30, which drops leaflets instead of “bomblets”. LBU stands for, and I kid you not, “Leaflet Bomb Unit”. You know, because words are weapons too!

  1. 1  WIIIAI  May 30, 2008, 4:45 am 

    An etymological question: the term “cluster fuck” was coined roughly the same time as “cluster bomb,” but which came first?

  2. 2  graham  May 30, 2008, 8:15 am 

    Etymology online says: Clusterfuck “bungled or confused undertaking” is from 1969, U.S. military slang, earlier “orgy” (1966).
    According to the origin of cluster bomb is suggested as 1960-65.
    But I’m sure Steven will pull out his OED and give you precise dates and citations.

    I had thought the “cluster” referred to all those cute little baby bomblets snuggly nestled inside the protective, big mother bomb until being rudely awakened (or, more lethally, not, until being woken up by a curious child).

    On a side note, Australia has been involved in the Dublin talks, seeking exemption for its SMArt 155 which apparently would be covered by the treaty but isn’t really a cluster bomb because it only has two bits. According to The Age, “Each round contains only two sub-munitions, has independent, reliable and redundant self-destruction mechanisms, and a self-neutralisation mechanism, and as such cannot reasonably be categorised as risking unacceptable harm to civilians.”

    The question is, what would be “acceptable harm to civilians”?

  3. 3  leinad  May 30, 2008, 10:08 am 

    I think they mean ‘will blow the limbs of kids ten years after the cessation of hostilities’ instead of a humane three or five.

  4. 4  Steven  May 30, 2008, 12:00 pm 

    Thanks Graham: OED gives:

    1965 E. Village Other Oct. 2/3 As soon as they legalize ‘pornies’ I’ll be the first producer to hit the neighborhood theatres with my now in progress epic film titled ‘Mongolian Cluster Fuck’!

    1969 B. E. HOLLEY Let. 12 Mar. in Vietnam 1968-9: Battalion Surgeon’s Jrnl. (1993) 143 These are the screwups that the American public rarely hears about. They happen often enough over here that we have a term for them{em}‘cluster-fuck’!

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the military slang usage was already current in 1965, since it would seem to make the first quotation a slightly more sophisticated joke.

    In turn I would suspect that the construction clusterfuck was predicated on the pre-existence of “cluster bomb”, but it seems we can’t be sure at least from these authorities.

  5. 5  Andrew  May 30, 2008, 1:42 pm 

    A certain music critic and obituarist has also written about cluster bombs recently.

  6. 6  Ken  May 30, 2008, 2:20 pm 

    Bomblet sounds cute – but at least they didn’t call them “fun size” bombs.

  7. 7  Sohail  May 30, 2008, 6:45 pm 

    Hello Steve

    It’s of course entirely appropriate, granted the thrust of your work, that you rightly hack away at the term ‘cluster bomb’ and draw attention to the monstrosities it seeks to obfuscate.

    I of course agree with the sentiments behind your concerns. Which sane and civilised person wouldn’t? But I’m wondering what would be a more fitting and accurate term? What ought the bastards who make these things to call them? And who but the wilfully ignorant is taken in by their crap?

    For surely a cluster bomb by any other name would kill as lethally.


  8. 8  Alex  May 30, 2008, 8:16 pm 

    First up, “Sprengbombe Dickwandig” means “high-explosive bomb, thick-walled”; German bombs were categorised as either dickwandig or cylindrisch, i.e. armour-piercing or blast types.

    Fragmentation weapons are ones that scatter pieces of themselves, rather than further weapons – I mean, what kind of a bloody cluster bomb could you throw?

  9. 9  Steven  May 31, 2008, 12:06 am 

    Thanks, Alex (though I believe Schmetterling does actually mean “butterfly”). You’re right, “fragmentation bombs” are bombs designed to scatter shrapnel. Most “cluster” “bomblets” are fragmentation bombs. So the 1967 NY Times article referred to (abstract) was talking about fragmentation bombs dropped as “cluster bombs”.

  10. 10  Gregor  May 31, 2008, 10:50 am 

    Notice that the ‘left wing’ websites (the Guardian/ Independent) didn’t get too carried away praising Gordon Brown for signing up to the treaty.

    As for Ollie, I thought that even ‘Melanie Phillips’ would have difficulty arguing in favour of cluster bombs.

  11. 11  graham  June 2, 2008, 2:03 pm 

    Dickwandig does sound like something a US President might wave over a Middle Eastern country…

  12. 12  hardindr  June 2, 2008, 5:22 pm 

    Doesn’t the “cluster” in “cluster bomb” refer to the fact that the small bomblets are clustered together in the warhead before they are released?

  13. 13  Steven  June 2, 2008, 7:06 pm 

    Very possibly, though I am not aware of the phrase being applied to MIRV warheads, or any firearms being referred to as “cluster guns” because their bullets are tightly packed in a magazine before being fired at someone.

  14. 14  dsquared  June 3, 2008, 11:01 am 

    It’s a “cluster of bombs”, though, isn’t it? As in, the bomblets are clustered together within the larger bomb that disperses them. Just as a “cluster fuck” (if one can envision that as having any physical meaning at all, which might be doubtful) would surely have to be analysed, when considered truly rigorously, as a large cluster of individual fucks.

  15. 15  hardindr  June 3, 2008, 1:48 pm 

    Re #14


    Great minds think alike, eh?

  16. 16  Steven  June 3, 2008, 4:04 pm 

    Well, a MIRV warhead is a cluster of nukes. On the other hand, a hazelnut cluster is indeed a cluster of hazelnuts.

    I agree that a clusterfuck must be a congeries of lots of separate fucks. I guess the implication is that it’s not just one thing that goes wrong, but many things at the same time.

  17. 17  dsquared  June 3, 2008, 5:17 pm 

    Googling around I find that quite a few people agree that a MIRV is basically a cluster bomb. I guess the distinction here is that each individual warhead is powerful enough to be a bomb in its own right, while “cluster” sort of implies a cluster of small things.

    My understanding of “clusterfuck” is that it’s a disorganised mess; as opposed to a reasonably well-thought-out orgy, it’s just a seething mass of poorly planned “fucklets”. Quite why the Mongolians should have been considered to be particularly bad at this branch of the administrative arts I am unsure.

  18. 18  Roger  June 3, 2008, 5:29 pm 


    You have coined a new word of extraordinary utility and, dare I say, beauty, dsquared, and I am certain that we will see it in the OED before very long. Already I imagine “frenched fucklets” as an exotic preprandial offering on a weekend in the country.

  19. 19  Steven  June 3, 2008, 5:48 pm 

    Freedom fucklets, please.

  20. 20  Sohail  June 14, 2008, 12:10 pm 

    How about “pedocidal explosives”?

  21. 21  copernicus  June 20, 2008, 2:01 am 

    Bit of a double standard approach re “fragging” – ie murder of post-adolescent officers. I think the “dangerous incompetence” motive is questionable to say the least.

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