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.