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Conkers, cluster bombs and American double standards

Playing conkers is a formative experience in any self-respecting British playground. For curious foreign friends who haven’t heard of this brilliant game, it requires two conkers — nuts which fall each autumn from horse chestnut trees — each with a small hole drilled through the centre so it can be hung on a two foot string. The first player dangles his conker in front of their opponents. The second player must hit his own conker against the others as hard as possible. They get one swing, and then swap roles. This is repeated until one of the conkers breaks or is a bruised pulp. Duels between classmates occur every break-time for weeks. Eventually, via a complex and hotly competed tournament system, a champion conker is declared, and its owner is the victor.

Sadly, I’m told that “Angry Birds” tweeting on smartphones has now drowned out the sound of conker smashing. This is a great tragedy for our gilded land’s traditions, not least because it deprives so many children of important life skills. For the future mechanics, inspiration might be found in the advanced trebuchet technique, formed by lacing the string over your thumb and tensioning the string until the conker leaps off into the air, swinging down with ten times the vigour in an ingenious act of childhood engineering.

Others might learn Machiavellian strategy, performing surreptitious reconnaissance on the trees ahead of the conker season, then asking Mum to drop them off at the school gates ten minutes earlier than usual, just on the morning that the conkers have fallen. The sneaky little terrier scuttles with victorious ambition to the biggest, toughest, meanest-looking conker available. Reaching it before the others do could bring eventual victory, school-wide glory and whatever the spoils of war look like in a playground these days.

There are also rules, which are important things for children to understand. Other than some technical matters regarding the dual itself, these regulations typically fall into two sets. The first are rules regarding the location of where competing conkers can be picked up from, often fixed by setting the playground’s perimeter as the outer limit. This regulation is crucial in towns where trees planted in fully tarmacked playgrounds are just a smidgeon malnourished compared to their leafy cousins basking in the luscious green park next door. In some schools, the rule is applied differently from the “Playground-Only” standard, so that a designated tree in town – normally the one with the best conkers — can also be used.

The second issue lawmakers must deal with is hardening, a controversial practice in which players can lightly bake, soak in vinegar or coat their conker in varnish. This makes conkers much harder to break. This is an attractive option for dirty cheats, who know that many of these illicit techniques are invisible to the naked eye. Cheats caught applying any of these techniques are typically outcast and banned from taking part in any further duels. Hardened conkers are regarded as barbaric weapons which undermine the ethos of the game.

In a particularly infamous season, the playground bully of our year was caught enhancing his chosen Chestnut of Death illicitly in order to sneak himself an unfair advantage. This was frowned upon passionately by all of the serious conker players, who advocated a season-long ban. However, the bully and cheater protested that as he had been off sick on the first day that the conkers had fallen off the trees, he had missed the best of the crop and deserved a special advantage. He wanted one rule for himself, and another for us. It was a good lesson in fairness that day, especially as he was finally shouted down, and – reputation bruised — curtailed his bullying activities considerably in the following months.

Thank you for bearing with me through that rambling analogy. Now onto current affairs. My apologies for deploying an analogical cliché as a finale but, you guessed it, if we take the fields of conker glory as an analogy for events on the world stage, a certain United States of America might be represented by that duplicitous school bully I just told you about.

America has perfected the “One Rule for Itself” doctrine. The US has applied it to climate change (the Kyoto Treaty), war crimes (it refuses to recognise the International Criminal Court), weapons of mass destruction (no UN inspectors go anywhere near US nuclear, chemical or biological arms stores), executing juveniles and those with mental illness, Guantanamo Bay, and pre-emptive invasion of sovereign nation states. There are numerous other examples, yet America listens to none of its critics, because it is exceptional.

One particularly barbaric transgression in America’s potted history of failures to comply with basic levels of global decency is its approach to cluster bombs. These weapons are horrible. Exploding in mid-air across an area the size of several football pitches, they rain hundreds of bomblets down onto the ground. They are meant to explode all at once, but many bombs don’t work properly and leave hundreds of unexploded munitions scattered for anyone, civilian or soldier, adult or child, to stumble upon later. In the past decade, these monstrosities have struck a bloody rash through conflicts in Syria, Libya, South Sudan and Sudan, Ukraine, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Georgia, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

You might expect the leaders of the free world to call time on the manufacture, supply or use of cluster bombs, but no; video footage found by Human Rights Watch shows that US-made cluster bombs were dropped over Yemen just last week by Saudi and Emirati pilots. The bombs in question were manufactured by Textron Systems Corporation, an American arms merchant, and supplied to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with the assistance of the US government. They were dropped on Yemeni civilians. Seventy-six major financial institutions on Wall Street invested $27 billion in the cluster bomb industry last year, using the pension funds of tens of millions of ordinary Americans.

This is a long national love affair, an obsession almost, stretching back to the secret American bombing of Laos in the sixties, the first mass deployment of cluster bombs in history, orchestrated by the US Air Force. Before Laos, only Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany had experimented with these dastardly weapons. The Pentagon, though, has deployed the little horrors in every major conflict since the sixties, despite protestations from human rights groups and chiding from the international community.

It’s time that Washington stopped reprising the role of the playground bully. Fairness is a system based on the equal application of the rules. Justice is a system by which lack of fairness leads to disgruntlement. Disgruntlement leads to dissent. These lessons are ignored by American exceptionalists; that one’s moral credibility outside the West is severely dented each time you adopt another hideous double standard.

Just as our playground bully insisted that his decision to bake his conker weapon covertly the night before the contest was in some way justified, American policy makers have excuse after excuse. In the case of cluster bombs, it is that they only export them to countries which “won’t use them on civilians”. This is clearly a farce; Saudi Arabia and UAE have had no problem ignoring this rule, at the very first opportunity.

And as the United States chooses to fight more Middle East wars through their Gulf and Egyptian proxies, this excuse will be used more and more often: don’t blame us in Washington, blame our irresponsible friends to whom we sold the weapons; we couldn’t possibly know they were going to use them in such a horrid manner, wink, wink. Or if the Americans use such weapons themselves — as they have done in the “war on terror” – they insist that they drop them only on military targets, forgetting that civilians after the war will call the abandoned positions their home and find unexploded bomblets everywhere.

It’s time for the USA to sign up to the 2008 international treaty banning cluster bombs. The whole of Western Europe, most of sub-Saharan Africa, most of Latin America and South East Asia have banned their use. Of the great world powers, only Russia, China and the United States continue to use them; that’s some company in which the Americans find themselves. If we’re to believe for a second that Washington retains any moral credibility on the world stage, stopping the mass manufacture, trade, investment into and deployment of cluster bombs, by American airplanes or their proxies, must cease immediately.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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