Friday, November 25, 2005

White Phosphorus in Fallujah

Update: November 28, 2005

This post seems to have a good debate going on in the comments section, so I'm going to move it back up to the top.

To summarize my motives for writing this post. I support the US military 100% and would like to see them successful in their objective of transforming Iraq into a peaceful and prosperous place. However, over the past two years the US forces have sometimes used methods that have been viewed by Iraqis as being heavy-handed or even cruel, and this has turned many Iraqis against them - even Iraqis who had previously been supportive of them. Incendiary weapons are one of these methods that, while they may be useful on the short-term, the long-term negative consequences far outweigh these short-term benefits. I would like to see the US military successful in their objectives, and this is one reason I am disagreeing with their use of harsh methods (like incendiary weapons) that do not serve them well in that aim.

According to a number of news articles, the US forces used napalm on Iraqi troops during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. To quote Colonel James Alles, commander of Marine Air Group 11: "We napalmed both those [bridge] approaches. Unfortunately there were people there ... you could see them in the [cockpit] video. They were Iraqi soldiers. It's no great way to die. The generals love napalm. It has a big psychological effect."

The usage of napalm against Iraqi troops in 2003 was also acknowledged in this US State Department publication: "First, napalm or napalm-like incendiary weapons are not outlawed. International law permits their use against military forces, which is how they were used in 2003."

While napalm may have been mildly useful during the invasion, the aftereffects are horrible. Each of those Iraqi soldiers immolated or scarred by napalm has a family who probably now hates America, and may even be a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. Which suggests the question, "was the use of napalm really worth it?" - especially when you consider the overwhelming military advantage the US forces had going into Iraq.

The debate regarding Fallujah is about the use of white phosphorus, a substance that is usually used for a smoke screen, but also has the potential for use as an incendiary weapon (on a much smaller scale than napalm). There is no uncertainty about whether WP was used in Fallujah - the key question is whether it was used as a smoke screen or as an incendiary weapon. That is the debate that has been going on in the comments section of this post over the last few days.

Original Post: Sunday, November 20, 2005

Over the past two weeks, there has been a lot of discussion on the Internet about white phosphorus and the American military's admitted use of it in Fallujah. The March/April edition of the US Army's Field Artillery Magazine described their "shake and bake" strategy of using white phosphorus in Fallujah:

WP [White Phosphorus] proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spiderholes when we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosives]. We fired “shake and bake” missions at the insurgents, using WP [White Phosphorus] to flush them out and HE [High Explosives] to take them out. c. Hexachloroethane Zinc (HC) Smoke and Precision-Guided Munitions. We could have used these munitions. We used improved WP for screening missions when HC smoke would have been more effective and saved our WP for lethal missions.

For those of you who are not from North America, the military was making a rather macabre reference to a type of chicken seasoning called "Shake and Bake", where you are supposed to shake the chicken parts together with the seasoning in a bag, then bake it in the oven. In this case, they are referring to the use of a combination of white phosphorus and high explosive rounds: first, they use white phosphorus to "bake" the insurgents out of their hiding places, and then high explosive rounds to "shake" them out of existence.

Some bloggers such as Riverbend, and some media outfits have referred to white phosphorus as a chemical weapon. This is really incorrect: a chemical weapon is a poison that kills by its toxic properties. White phosphorus kills by burning - something that is called an incendiary weapon, not a chemical weapon. And, while the use of chemical weapons are banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which the US is a party), incendiary weapons are not. Perhaps they should be...

Incendiary weapons have been used extensively over the past hundred years. Flame throwers were used by both sides in World War I. In World War II, the Americans developed napalm, a very nasty weapon made of jellied gasoline - jellied to make it stick to its victims and burn slowly so as to do more damage. In the Vietnam War, napalm and other incendiary weapons were heavily used, often with gruesome results. Victims of incendiary weapons rarely die instantly - they either spend a few agonizing minutes feeling their flesh burning away off their bodies, or if they survive, they spend years recuperating from painful and extensive burns.

The gruesome and indiscriminate nature of incendiary weapons is perhaps best embodied by the little girl in the picture at left. Many Americans who were alive during the Vietnam War may rememeber seeing this badly burned little girl's screaming face as she ran away from her burning village naked (after the napalm burned the clothes off her). Fortunately, this particular story had a happy ending - Nick Ut (the Associated Press photographer who took the picture) rushed the girl (named Kim Phuc) to the hospital in his van. Despite having third-degree burns to over half her body, she survived. She spent over a year in hospital and underwent a number of painful surgeries. She is now a Canadian citizen, living in Toronto, and is married with two children. In 1997, Kim Phuc had the opportunity to meet and publicly forgive John Plummer, the former US Air Force officer who had ordered the napalm dropped on her village, and who had been tormented by thoughts of it over 25 years. You can read more about Kim Phuc here.

The horrors of incendiary weapons are well known, and as a result, the United Nations created the Protocol III Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, which limits the use of incendiary weapons and prohibits their use against civilians or against military targets in close proximity to civilian populations. The attacks in Fallujah would almost certainly have been covered by this ban, except that the United States has not ratified Protocol III and thus is not bound by it. Thus, they are free to do whatever they want with incendiary weapons like white phosphorus.

However, just because something is legally permissible does not make it a good idea. The US went into Fallujah with greatly superior firepower - did they really need to use incendiary weapons like white phosphorus to achieve their objectives? I think not. Given that answer, was it really a justifiable risk to use these weapons in a built-up area like Fallujah, knowing that they may inadvertently immolate or maim civilians in the area of the fighting? Look at the picture of Kim Phuc and try to imagine her being a Fallujan in 2005 rather than a Vietnamese in 1972, and consider how badly a photograph like that would hurt the US war effort both in Iraq and elsewhere. Even from a purely military perspective, given the political ramifications that could result from such a debacle, the use of white phosphorus seems a foolhardy gamble. And, when you factor in the humanitarian aspects of incendiary weapons (let's face it, being burned alive is not a fun way to die), it seems even more obvious that white phosphorus should not have been used in Fallujah.