Excerpted from John Pilger’s book, “Hidden Agendas,” The New Press 1990.

“The price of one British Aerospace Hawk is roughly the amount needed to provide 1.5 million people in the Third World with fresh water for life.” Campaign Against the Arms Trade

Beneath the Union Jack a BL755 ‘multi-purpose’ British cluster bomb gleamed in the soft backlight, like the latest showroom Jaguar or an exhibit at the Ideal Home Exhibition. Spruced salesmen of the Hunting Engineering company of Bedford hovered with color brochures. A large display photograph showed the bomb mounted on a Hawk aircraft, beneath which the company promised prospective buyers ‘containers suitable for world-wide transport’, an ‘extended shelf life’ and a ‘truly competitive price’. I asked one of the salesmen what it did.
‘I beg your pardon?’ he said.
‘What does it do?’ I repeated. ‘You know, what’s it for?’
‘Just a minute please,’ he said. ‘Public relations will have to handle this.’

A public relations man arrived and my question was whispered to him. ‘Is there a problem here?’ he said.
‘No,’ I replied. ‘I would like somebody to explain what the multi-purpose cluster bomb does.’
‘I shall need that request in writing,’ he said, ‘for MoD [Ministry of Defense] approval. All media inquiries must go to the MoD. An ad hoc reply from me here and now might be taken out of context. We’ve had this problem before. I’m not saying you would take it out of context, but context is all important, and policy is policy…’
At this point I realized I was speaking to an incarnation of Major Major from Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22.’
‘What does the BL755 do?’ I tried again.
‘That’s classified,’ said Major Major.
‘That’s classified too.’

Refined absurdity is always close at hand in the arms business. It squeezes into bed with secrecy, corruption and stupendous greed. The public relations man’s reticence was quite understandable. The BL755 is not really a bomb at all, but an ‘area denial sub-munition’, a land mine in all but name. It is dropped from the air and explodes into forty-seven little mines, which are shaped like spiders. These are scattered over a wide area and ‘deny’ life to anything that moves or grows. They have been found in Bosnia and Croatia, where between two and four million mines threaten to maim and kill long after the end of that war against civilians.

My exchange with Major Major took place at the Farnborough Air Show, which is really an arms market offering everything from aircraft, missiles and bombs (and ‘bomblets’) to razor wire. Seated beneath a ‘Welcome!’ sing, the representative of the Birmingham Barbed Tape company looked like Father Christmas in a department story. He was surrounded by coils of razor wire.
‘What does it do?’ I asked.
‘It fills a niche market for a more aesthetically pleasing product.’
‘Spikes are more aesthetically pleasing?’
‘It depends whether they are traditional or de-luxe.’
‘Who are your customers?’
‘We’re at Heathrow airport, and we’re in Angola and the Far East, wherever there is the need.’
‘How do you distinguish between customers who want to secure an airport and those building concentration camps?’
‘Very difficult, very difficult… I keep an eye on the TV news for our products. This business is strictly commercial. You can’t imagine the competition we’re up against.’
‘Cut-throat, is it?’
‘I’ll say. The French are always looking over our shoulder. Take our electro-foil concept…’
‘What does it do?’
‘Depends. We offer the option of a standard electrical current, or the de-luxe mesh concept that combines the traditional razor wire with electrification.’
‘What is the effect on people?’
‘I’m not with you…’

At the Paris arms fair, I asked a salesman to describe the working of a ‘cluster grenade’ the size of a grapefruit. Bending over a glass case, as one does when inspecting something precious, he said, ‘This is wonderful. It is state of the art, unique. What it does is discharge copper dust, very very fine dust, so that the particles saturate the objective…’
‘What objective?’ I asked
He looked incredulous. ‘Whatever it may be,’ he replied.
‘Well, er…if you like.’

The one pleasure to be had at these events is in helping the salesmen relieve their verbal constipation. They have the greatest difficulty saying words like ‘people’ and ‘kill’ and ‘maim’. I have yet to meet one who has seen his products in use against human beings. The ‘unique’ grapefruit bomb took me back almost twenty years: to a hot, still day at the end of the war in Vietnam. Broken masonry and shattered cooking pots crackled underfoot like bracken as I walked through the ruins of Hongai, a northern provincial capital on the Gulf of Tonkin. American aircraft had flown fifty-two sorties against the town, round the clock, and had dropped a new type of bomb, the size and shape of a grapefruit.

At the town’s school, which was destroyed, I found a letter pinned to a classroom wall. It read, ‘My name is Nguyen Thi An. I am fifteen years old. It was a sunny, glorious day when my mother had just told me to lay the table for lunch. The next think I heard was the air-raid siren and I hurried to the shelter. But when I came out my mother and father were lying there covered in blood, and my sister, Binh, had pieces of metal in her, and so did her doll. My street had fallen down.’

The street had been hit by the new bombs, which sprayed small darts. These had entered Binh’s body and continued to move about inside her for several days, causing internal injuries from which she died and agonizing death. The darts look like metal, but they were a type of plastic difficult to detect under X-ray. They were first tested in Hongai, although, to my knowledge, this was not reported at the time; so much of what happened in this ‘laboratory war’ was a precursor to the way wars of the future would be fought, using ‘anti-personnel’ weapons such as the BL755 and the cluster grenade, against both military and civilian targets. (pp 99-102.)

“Hidden Agendas” is available at Amazon.co.uk. Other books by John Pilger available at: Amazon.com