The Liar’s Case for White Phosphorus

Stepping once more into the melee of claims and counterclaims about the US military’s use of white phosphorus (WP) in Falluja, I wanted to make one last point about it. But first, here’s some opinion from nonproliferation expert Jonathon B. Tucker in today’s LA Times op-ed section: The wrong weapon in the wrong place.

Today, the United States is one of the very few Western democracies that have rejected treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and prohibiting the use of incendiary weapons such as napalm and white phosphorus in areas, including cities, where civilians are at risk. But Washington cannot evade its moral responsibility so easily. If the United States wishes to set an inspirational example for other countries, it must accept certain constraints on its own actions, even if that means renouncing weapons that have military utility in some situations.

The second reason the U.S. use of white phosphorus is wrong is that it has undermined the administration’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and played into the hands of the insurgents. Employing an indiscriminate and inhumane weapon during urban warfare suggests a devaluing of innocent Iraqi lives, a perception that reinforces jihadist propaganda about the evils of the U.S. military occupation.

Finally, the U.S. refusal to be bound by the international ban on the use of white phosphorus in proximity to civilians reflects a double standard that the rest of the world finds unpersuasive and arrogant. Whether the white phosphorus was fired from artillery, as permitted by international practice, or dropped from a plane, which would not be permissible, may be of legal significance to the United States, but it is irrelevant to world public opinion or the basic moral acceptability of using such a weapon in an urban area.

The Bush administration’s most compelling rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had used poison gas in violation of the Geneva Protocol and that he was continuing to stockpile chemical and biological weapons in defiance of United Nations resolutions. It is therefore the height of hypocrisy for Washington to claim the right to employ white phosphorus in a manner that most of the civilized world considers illegitimate, while lecturing other countries about human rights.

Moving on to the point I wanted to make, I was thinking about that piece by reporter Darrin Mortenson in the North County Times (White phosphorus debate grows white-hot). In particular, I was thinking about this part:

The Marines did not act as if white phosphorus were different than any other weapon they used. They did not try to hide it from us. It was just another item to select from a lethal menu handed them by their Corps and made familiar by repetitious training and indoctrination.

In fact, the leader of the mortar section later told me that other weapons would have been more effective in that case: Napalm would have more easily set the palm grove ablaze; and CS gas, similar to tear gas, would have been better to flush the insurgents out into the open.

But the use of napalm (Mark-77) was not approved by commanders, he said, and the CS was considered a chemical weapon, so they used the best tool they had: white phosphorus.

It occurs to me that one of the reasons WP remains a part of the US military’s arsenal is precisely because it allows military leaders a degree of dishonest, but plausible, deniability. Napalm would actually work better, but napalm doesn’t come with a ready-made cover story, since pretty much the only thing it’s good for is burning stuff up.

Because WP has another, more-publicly-palatable use (that is, as a marker to guide incoming fire, or in air bursts to illuminate the battlefield), it makes it easier for the brass to lie that it isn’t being used as an anti-personnel weapon. Which is exactly what they initially tried to do in this case, and at which they were succeeding pretty well until the Italian documentary came out, and other evidence (including Darrin Mortenson’s firsthand reports) became more-widely disseminated, making their cover story untenable.

Yeah, I realize that the Italian documentary made misleading and dishonest arguments of its own. And I’m not willing to get on the same moral high horse that Jonathon Tucker did in the op-ed peice quoted above. When you’re killing people in an illegal and dishonest war, arguments about whether or not you’re using “humane” methods to do so seem to miss the point somewhat.

But I did want to mention what seems to me self-evident from the sequence of events in this case: The military uses WP, at least in part, precisely because it is relatively easy for them to get away with lying about it.

14 Responses to “The Liar’s Case for White Phosphorus”

  1. Craig Says:

    While we are talking about LA Times Op-Ed’s, here is another recent one.

    What I don’t appreciate in Tucker’s opinion piece is the inference that WP was used as a weapon against civilians simply because it was used in an urban setting (Falluja). There is no clarification regarding the efforts made to clear nearly the entire civilian population (despite the obvious result of allowing many of the enemy to slip out as well) for a week ahead of the assault.

    What hurts the “hearts and minds” campaign more? The use of a military tool of war in as responsibile and appropriate of a way as possible, or internet and media sources who purposely misconstrue a weapon as a chemical one being purposely delivered against innocents? Don’t think for a second that anti-American sources in the Middle East are hesitant to use any credible (or credible-looking) source they can to bolster false claims that they can expand into even bolder lies!

    I don’t agree that the fact that the military talking heads stumbled over themselves in their initial denials means that the use of WP in Falluja has got to be evil. For as long as military operations have been chronicled, misstatements and screwed-up public announcements have routinely ocurred. To put it broadly, the fog of war often extends to the press room as well. This seems even more likely as the culprit when you have military magazines giving straightforward acknowledgement of WP (as weaponary)in Falluja well before this whole tempest in a teapot developed. Not to mention, soldiers of all stripes matter-of-factly talking about WP use, and its distinction from chemical weapons.

    Not exactly a close-to-the-vest, insidious, dirty little secret by an evil military machine!

    Also, since the press and the military already have a wary view of each other, I can easily see an accusation made by the press regarding WP as a chemical weapon and its reported “illegal” use eliciting a reactionary early response of “oh no, we didn’t use this” until further investigation showed how and when WP was actually used, which brought a more accurate answer. (The cynics would say it was ONLY because of documented discrepancies.)

    So, I guess we’re left with arguing whether the military lies about how its weaponary is used, versus screwing up the communication of war actions through official press channels. Obviously, people’s pre-conceived ideas of the trustworthiness of the military is going to rule opinion.

    There are better ways and arguments that the anti-war crowd can certainly make in this whole war issue than to waste air and bandwidth over nuanced definitions of chemicals and framing WP use in a way that could delve into gray areas of international weapon protocals.

    If this group ever decides to focus on bigger-picture issues rather than chasing fragments that lead nowhere, they might actually make traction in the minds of those they want to reach.

  2. enkidu Says:

    It isn’t sophistry to state that the US considered Saddam’s (admittedly nasty and horrible, clearly inhumane) use of WP against the Kurdish rebels as use of chemical weapons. So which way do you want to have it Craig? Your preconceptions seem to always point in a certain (shall we say right leaning?) direction.

    As I stated in previous posts, our men and women over there are in general decent honest people with good, decent command and oversight. WP can be delivered as ‘lawful munitions’ via artillery shells. Whether that is smoke, illumination or ground burning ‘shake n bake’ is up to the commanders in the field. Most of the world is pissed we won’t outlaw WP entirely (not to mention our refusal to sign on to land mine treaties). So it was kinda dumb to use something we as a nation have accused Saddam of using (pretty clear he did use WP).

    We used WP against insurgents and probably burnt civilians in the process. Regretable, but that is war (a stupid, counterproductive illegal war, but there we are).

    – – – – – – – – – –

    enkidu Says:
    November 26th, 2005 at 12:19 am
    WP is legal munitions if used against combatants (ie not just for lighting and smoke screens). Agreed.

    errr, maybe not?

    I’ll clip the lead bit for you Craig: “SUBJ: IIR 2 243 1050 91/POSSIBLE USE OF PHOSPHOROUS CHEMICAL

  3. Craig Says:

    Make sure you emphasize the point that WP was stated to have been used purposefully on the Kurdish civilian population too. A distinct legal difference, regardless of the “chemical” debate.

  4. jbc Says:

    For what it’s worth, Craig, I’m not actually asserting some of the things you’re refuting. If you’re going after others in the discussion, more power to you, but to the extent your comment was directed at me, I think you’re arguing with a strawman to a certain extent.

    I also think you’re being naive if you believe the Pentagon spokesperson’s initial denials were some sort of innocent “fog of war” misstatement. Yes, there were soldiers in the field, and authors of pieces in military magazines, speaking matter-of-factly about using WP for shake-and-bake in Falluja. And yeah, that’s not exactly indicative of a “close-to-the-vest, insidious, dirty little secret by an evil military machine.” But again, that’s more of a strawman argument of yours than an honest response to what I wrote.

    For myself, I think it’s clear that, as with the pre-war WMD intelligence, the professional analysts and the soldiers on the front lines had a pretty clear picture of reality. The farther up the chain of command you went, though, and the closer you came to the civilian appointees of the Bush administration, the more the truth receded into a fog of self-serving spin and deliberate lies.

    The current Republican leadership in this country is thoroughly corrupt and dishonest, with the extent of that corruption and dishonesty becoming more apparent with each day’s headlines. I don’t question your desire to retain some sort of wall between these events and your own principled conservatism, but to the extent you’re willing to twist logic and perception into pretzels to argue that black is white and deliberate misleading is some sort of innocent mistake, I think you’re making yourself look kind of foolish.

  5. Craig Says:

    Also keep in mind that this intel data that you are passing along is a low-level descriptive narrative of a report gleaned from a Kurdish rebel source, not US military policy on how WP is defined.

  6. Craig Says:

    I ‘m sure the more wise and learned people on this site can dismiss me as naive and a fool, but I’m just trying to (almost entirely unsuccessfully) give some counterpoint for consideration on various issues.

    If you want to believe that the military was obviously trying to be “deliberately misleading” with something that isn’t even illegal in how it was used, that is your right. I choose to offer an alternative in this specific situation since it is quite unclear why a routine weaponary activity would elict a muddled initial response. It may not be the right one, but I think the point that the military brought unnecessary suspicion upon itself by its actions is worth examining various reasons why it came about. To critique my opinion on the basis that I’m just clearly rationalizing for known liars doesn’t really give any thought to the points of discussion at all.

    I try to add comment that isn’t full of slogans and unthinking parrot talk, while understanding that I have certain beliefs and ideas that pre-dispose me to thinking certain ways on issues. If that makes me naive and foolish to some people, so be it. But to give lip service to the idea that the same mental traps of inherent beliefs and pre-conceived notions can affect your own thinking, but in reality dismiss contrary arguments as patently biased and lacking merit on their own terms, you risk looking pompous and smug with your opinions.

    Those who profess to know “the” truth often really know “their” truth.

  7. enkidu Says:

    I think that guy has been sipping a bit too much of his own “balloon juice” (makes cuckoo sfx – twirls finger like Ali). Hilarious! I loved this bit!
    “I am so sick of these people pulling this crap. And don’t be confused- this is ALL about bringing down Bush. Whatever the cost. I am so angry I can barely type right now.” Yeah and we libs/progressives/sane people are all full of rage, anger and despite! Yaaaaaaarrrrgh! (howard dean sfx – very loud) rofl

    The USgov called WP use on Kurdish rebels and civilians (yes I already mentioned that Craig) a use of Chemical Weapons. I am sure I could google other instances where Saddam used WP, or maybe napalm or nerve gas or worse. Maybe WP is only a chemical or illegal weapon when used in massive quantities (ie a bomb from a plane) rather than a artillery shell (smaller quantity, more accuracy in targeting ie not indiscriminantly frying the whole village when you want the guys holed up outside the palm grove).

  8. Craig Says:

    He is a bit unhinged in his rage on that site, but the point was to reference the information about that piece of intel that is being used to falsely say that the US Government claimed that WP itself was a chemical weapon due to Saddam’s use of it.

  9. enkidu Says:

    ummm Craig I hate to beat a dead horse, but this is the third time I clipped this for you… the Kurds made the report, the DIA guys wrote it up and put their own title/summary which clearly states that US DIA officials felt the WP use was a Chemical Weapon (banned under treaties which we partially subscribe to – we do NOT subscribe to the articles relevant to WP)

    It isn’t very clear cut, but it is a war crime to intentionally target civilians or urban areas (again, it was supposed to be nothing but baddies in there, but there was [tragic] collateral damage) with incindiary weapons. I think our troops wouldn’t fire on civs. Period. Full stop.


  10. Craig Says:

    I’m still asking how a intel report created by some analysts equals US official policy declaration that WP is a chemical weapon, even in the face of international opinion that it is not. You know, of course, how many thousands of such reports are created every year? Does cherry-picking certain reports that used the “c” word in the sentence with WP make it the official stance of the DoD?

  11. enkidu Says:

    You have that backwards Craig, US policy is that WP is NOT a WMD or Chemical Weapon (we aren’t signitory to those articles of those treatys). It is the rest of the civilized world that thinks we are lunatics for not signing those bits of the weapons conventions.

    I can’t honestly say if this one ‘cherry picked’ intel report had a large or little impact on bushco rationale for the Iraq war. It does fit the profile…

  12. Craig Says:

    One additional piece of refinement regarding my point on the relative significance of this hotly contested intel document. Here is what is stated at the top of the document:


    While I’ve seen some anti-war sites acknowledge this document for what it actually is, I’ve seen even more such sites use this document to generate such eye-catching headlines as “US Military says WP is a chemical when used by Saddam”, “Pentagon says…”, or in your case enkidu, “The US Government says…”.

    Not exactly an accurate assessment of the relative weight of this raw piece of intel data filed by an analyst.

    Look, I’m sure that while building a case regarding Saddam’s war crimes, that people were a lot more liberal in how they viewed some of his tactics being illegal actions. But most of it was pretty blatant stuff that didn’t need any refinements made to it.

    I just thing this whole “gotcha” game being played the select pieces of raw intel reports is, in my view, a silly exercise for silly people playing political gamesmanship.

    Let’s focus on the big picture issues like establishing some markers for when troop levels can start going down and work together as a Country on holding the Government accountable for an expedient, yet sensible, withdrawal from Iraq, that can give the Iraqi people back full control of their fates.

  13. treehugger Says:

    I keep hearing this agruement that the people of Falluja were given ample time to leave the city…

    Okay…but when this message was being delivered to citizens, did the message contain the fact that the military planned to dispurse a harmful chemical agent into the air above their homes? No, it didn’t.

    I mean think about it, a foreign occupying force is in your country saying, “leave the city now, we are going to attack it feriously”. The Iraqi people are a proud people; and a lot of innocent people simply refused to leave their homes. Does that make it okay that they may have been killed/maimed by a chemical agent? I don’t think so. Nothing to do with political gamemenship for me. To me the issue is a humanatarian one.

  14. Craig Says:

    In a town of hundreds of thousands, the realistic estimates (including some from liberal sites) that I’ve read where that there were about 3,000 to 6,000 civilians remaining by the time the assault started. Why they stayed is anyone’s guess (stubborn, refuse to leave their home unattended, incapacitated with no one to move them, to be a martyr, held by force by insurgents, etc.). They were told in no uncertain terms just what kind of danger they were exposing themselves to if they didn’t leave.

    Is it okay that they would die? No, you don’t like to see any innocents get killed. But they take direct responsibility for their choice in such a life and death decision. If you are told that the car you’re standing next to is going to explode in 10 minutes and you choose to stand there and die, doesn’t your own decision play a rather large role in your death?

    Let’s also be clear: it’s not like WP was the primary choice of weaponary for this assault. The vast majority of ordinance was regular explosive mortars and other such artillery, grenades, machine guns, assault guns, and weapons dropped/fired by planes. Much more deadly to all those outside OR inside buildings. The whole WP thing was used strategically per specific command (and most often for its primary purpose of illumination and marking).

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