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  • Sunday, November 20, 2005


    White Phosphorus and Chemical Warfare

    [Update 11/22/05: In a textbook example of the word "irony," a recently declassified 1995 Pentagon document calls Saddam Hussein's military use of WP as an offensive weapon against the Kurds "chemical warfare." Yet when American forces use WP in that manner, they claim it's not a chemical weapon. Quelle suprise.]

    Recent attention to the use of White Phosphorus (WP) as an offensive weapon by American armed forces in the siege of Fallujah, Iraq point up how little most Americans know about the war and the methods used in prosecuting it. The offensive use of WP is strictly forbidden by chemical weapons treaties. Some military apologists argue that if WP is used solely against military personnel and not civilians, it is legal. In point of fact, it is illegal to use it as an offensive weapon in any manner against anyone. The US use may actually be a war crime.

    When used as an offensive weapon, WP acts on humans in a similar manner to Napalm. Where it touches skin, it burns and is able to burn right down to the bone. Because WP interacts violently with moisture, the moisture in the body actually fuels the reaction. Water will not put it out. WP is often used as a smoke screen for military action and the smoke also absorbs infrared radiation.

    In a recent BBC interview Lt. Col. Barry Veneble spoke about the US rationale:

    "White phosphorus is a conventional munition. It is not a chemical weapon. They are not outlawed or illegal," he said on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme.

    "We use them primarily as obscurants, for smokescreens or target marking in some cases. However it is an incendiary weapon and may be used against enemy combatants."

    Asked directly if it was used as an offensive weapon during the siege of Fallujah, he replied: "Yes, it was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants".

    He added: "When you have enemy forces that are in covered positions that your high explosive artillery rounds are not having an impact on and you wish to get them out of those positions, one technique is to fire a white phosphorus round into the position because the combined effects of the fire and smoke - and in some case the terror brought about the explosion on the ground - will drive them out of the holes so that you can kill them with high explosives," he said.

    Despite recurrent bluster about how "honorable" the individual US soldier is, I have doubts. Loyal, yes. Brave, yes. Devoted to their "band of brothers," yes. But war is not pursued on a small, individual scale; it is waged from the perspective of command structure and rules of engagement. Combat is no longer an honorable endeavor. It is an occupation of conquest, of domination and destruction. We find rationales to disguise the darksome process of soul theft on both sides.

    If this seems too critical of our gallant military men and women, assigning guilt and impugning their motivations in wartime, please consider this point: When was the last US military action that might be termed "defensive?" Defending your country in times of military need may be honorable and necessary but I contend the US has rarely engaged in such action since WWII (or before it for that matter.) The US has mostly used military force to intimidate the world and further imperial designs for the direct benefit of corporations.

    This is my cynicism speaking. This is my faith in the venal and grasping greed of government. Behind the screen of fine and noble words about freedom and spreading democracy, I perceive only coldly calculated cruelty and refined robbery. This is the dismal truth hidden in the shadows. Our blind trust cripples us and benefits the war merchants.

    How do you deal honorably with the dishonorable? How do you fight the unscrupulous? I don't know. I'm trying to figure it out.

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