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Morality, Research and Debate

11 March 2024

5 mins

By Ginerva Grant  

In my capacity as institute representative for IDIG, my peers and I put on a debate in the parliamentary style which asked the question: ‘Would you support the use of cluster bombs in the conflict in Ukraine by the Ukrainian government?’ 

For those unaware, cluster bombs are a type of cluster munitions that the United States announced they were sending to Ukraine last July as part of a new aid package. These munitions are banned in over 100 countries for their high dud rate and violent dispersal.   

I don’t come from an international relations background. My experience is limited to the news, television shows, and the literature I have read and work I have done in aid of a post-graduate degree in the subject. As one of the selected debaters for the ‘pro’ side of the argument, research was required, so I employed the usual methods.  

This involved me drawing on information I remembered from news stories, opinion pieces, academic literature, as well as examining NGO websites. I even managed to find a technical guide to cluster munitions!   

Yet as I sorted through the articles to craft my own arguments, a singular intrusive thought saturated each attempt: ‘all wars are crimes’. I recognized it immediately for what it was, a quote from ‘The West Wing’, an American television series written by Aaron Sorkin, where the White House Chief of Staff realizes that in bombing a military target, he had, in fact, killed 11 civilians.   

I would search for a counter argument to reporting discrepancies in dud rates and it would be there whispering: ‘all wars are crimes’; I would move on to explain inefficiencies in unitary munitions or supply shortages and it would tap me on the shoulder with a simple insinuation. Was it meant to absolve me? Wars are, after all, lose-lose situations where the only thing being decided is who loses how much. Or was it a censure against casualness? My arguments seemed so logical and straightforward, that at the conclusion of my research, the opposing side seemed grounded in mere moral equivocations.   

My thoughts were so muddied by the end that only after a tea break was I able to right the ship and remember, mine was not to question the right or the wrong side of it but to argue my side the best, to foresee all possible counter-arguments and be ready to proudly address the other side with a jaunty, ‘this is why you are wrong’. So that’s what I did, nose to the grindstone and it produced an inconclusive result because though the pro-side was better argued, audience members remained unwilling to approve of the usage of cluster munitions in any way.   

Following the debate I briefly interviewed my colleagues on (1) how they felt about cluster bombing prior to their research (2) whether emotions played a role in the way they researched or the formation of their arguments (3) and if the debate changed their stance on cluster munitions. Both members of the con team were against cluster bombs prior to the debate and their stances did not change at its conclusion, though both believe their research was emotionally driven, one felt they maintained their rationality. My partner and I on the pro side entered the debate slightly left of neutral and exited it the same, though while my partner found his approach to be evenly rational, I found my own research to be a tumultuous trip between pragmatism and guilt.   

Dramatic, right?  

It was merely a debate over a decision that had been taken months ago that no one in that room had the power to influence.  

And yet…  

We don’t have the decision-making power, so we do this instead. Argue and debate because we all have opinions and, for an academic especially, nothing is better than someone with a well-argued and well-reasoned opinion. Arguing our point well is what we are trained to do, after all. So, when I took the stage on Thursday the 15th of February, almost two years into the war in Ukraine, I argued to win. Because of course they had a right to use cluster munitions, they were deployed on their own land, no party involved was or is a member of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, ‘armchair’ assessments are superfluous, these munitions are important for tactical advancement-  

And on and on it goes.  

But whether it is civilians or soldiers that are dying, now or in the future, because of these munitions’ usage, by either side, there will be bloody and violent deaths.   

All wars are crimes.  

Because of course they are. 

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