Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Has the U.S. used chemical weapons in Iraq?

Specifically in Fallujah.

The BBC: "Italian state TV, Rai, has broadcast a documentary accusing the US military of using white phosphorus bombs against civilians in the Iraqi city of Falluja." The Christian Science Monitor has more.

The Independent: "Powerful new evidence emerged yesterday that the United States dropped massive quantities of white phosphorus on the Iraqi city of Fallujah during the attack on the city in November 2004, killing insurgents and civilians with the appalling burns that are the signature of this weapon."

Juan Cole has a great post: "The Americans' moral fibre is being destroyed from within by things like Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and other atrocities. In the end, America may not any longer be America. The country that began by forbidding cruel and unusual punishment is ending by formally authorizing torture on a grand scale, and by burning small town Iraqis down to the bone with white phosphorus."

Needless to say, I am saddened. My America, the America I love, would never do this. Would it?

More on this story as it develops.

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  • Fair enough, but the reports suggest that the U.S. may have used it as a weapon.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 10:08 AM  

  • I hate to say this, but this is one of the things that drives me crazy about liberals; this ostensibly shocked attitude that "we" never do things like this and that this can't be the America that I love. Yes, it can be. You don't love the America you see in Iraq; you love the America that is in the United States. That's not necessarily the same thing.

    I love America, but we are no virgin. I dated a woman from Chile whose father was thrown in jail by Pinochet; she blamed the CIA. I don't think the rest of the world is surprised when the US or any other country--such as France--does nasty things. There seems to be two kinds of attitudes that liberals adopt toward actions they don't like: (1)oh, we are too good for that; or (2) we are the most evil country ever. I'm not defending this particular action--I don't really know anything about it--but the idea that we are (or should be)somehow above any kind of underhanded activity is naive. Do you really want to know about everything that happened in World War II?

    And Juan Cole is even more of a jackass. Apparently, America was still America after Hiroshima and after My Lai and after Chile, etc., but now is not America because of the things happening in Iraq. That's just hyperbolic, ideologically driven rhetoric.

    I don't know what happened here; I would be careful about jumping to conclusions. I seriously doubt that the United States has adopted a policy of "let's kill civilians in the most blatantly and publicly cruel way we can--that will shore up our position there." I'm not defending whatever happened because i don't even know what happened. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's not what people think. We were accused of using chemical weapons in Korea and that turned out to be a fabrication.

    The US has done a lot of things in Iraq that I wish it hadn't, such as actually invading the country, Abu Gharib, etc. And it's obvious that a lot of our policies in Iraq have been counterproductive. But I have little tolerance for this romantic notion that "America is losing its soul." America (or rather the United States) is a country like any other country that does some good things and some bad things according to what it sees as its interest at any given time. Look at the United States as an actor in an amoral international system, not some goody two-shoes in our 9th grade civics class.

    Look, I'm not saying that the United States should not have moral standards or that we should condone everything that the country does. Clearly, this war, like ANY war, has compromised the morality of the country because war is essentially immoral. I blame Bush for getting us in this damned war and getting us in this position. I'm just saying don't react with this shocked outrage that we do things that we perhaps should not or pretend that we are above it all.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:26 AM  

  • To take Susan's point further, white phosphorus is a commonly used incendiary weapon. It is not considered a "chemical" weapon, and it is a mischaracterization to define it as such.

    Phosphorus is certainly a chemical. Trinitrotoluine (TNT) is also a chemical. For that matter all things are made up of chemicals, combined together in one fashion or another. So under one reading, I suppose that all weapons are chemical weapons.

    Phosphorus bombs, grenades, etc are pretty commonly used. Nasty things for sure. But not "chemical" weapons in the sense that they are usually defined.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:33 AM  

  • No matter how many times I see it, it's always sad to see an American giving credence to blatantly anti-American propaganda. The fact that Juan Cole is propagating this story makes it all but certain to be false.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:07 PM  

  • I say nay!

    By Blogger Daniel Christianson, at 9:45 PM  

  • hey, whta's wrong with using white phosporus? It's a war going on! How is phosphorus any worse than bombs?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:06 AM  

  • Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I'm more of a fan of Juan Cole than, say, Marc is -- though otherwise Marc makes some excellent points.

    It seems that this story was pushed by Italy's RAI and picked up by the anti-war Independent in the U.K. Then the BBC and the CSM reported on it. Is it propaganda? Maybe. But, Jeff, I think we need to know more about what actually happened in Fallujah. It may not be as bad as what the documentary claims, and I recoil from such anti-Americanism generally, but it's important here to get the facts straight.

    Of course, there was a reason the title of this post is a question. It's true, as Susan has pointed out, that phosphorus isn't generally regarded as a chemical weapon (and hence as a WMD), and, indeed, as Danny remarks, it may not be any worse than a bomb.

    Which is one of the curious things about the whole discussion of WMDs. I suppose one of the problems with chemical or biological weapons (I'll leave nuclear aside) is that they can't be controlled and that they can wipe out entire civilian populations. (In this sense, biological weapons are highly problematic.) And conventional bombs, of course, are now highly accurate. But are conventional weapons more humane than, say, chemical weapons?

    Perhaps, and it may be quite silly even to talk of a weapon's humaneness in this sense, but our opposition to the use of such un-conventional weapons -- and I do think that there ought to be a universal policy against using them -- shouldn't have the effect of dismissing the similar un-humaneness of conventional weapons.

    But, Susan, are you suggesting that the U.S. should use phosphorus in Iraq (whether it's classified as a chemical weapon or not)? And what if it was used against Fallujah's civilian population, as the documentary alleges? Is this not a serious problem? Does it not look bad, given that one of the stated reasons for going to war was Saddam's use of un-conventional weapons against his own people?

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:13 PM  

  • My general belief is that almost any story of this kind, even if it's true, is more complicated than a simple black and white morality play. First, I don't anyone really knows what happened there factually and I suspect that one's analysis is going to be colored by his or her general attitude about the war. The fog of war applies to reporters as much as soldiers and I am skeptical about drawing conclusions on such limited information. So, anything I say is conditioned an the fact that i don't really know what really happened.

    I doubt that US officials are consciously or arbitrarily targeting civilians with horrible weapons--aside from the immorality, it would make absolutely no sense given everything that has gone before. I suspect that those drawing conclusions have some ulterior (ideological) motive for doing so. That doesn't, of course, mean they are wrong.

    But there is a more basic issue here and that relates to the obligation of the US Government and the military to protect its troops. If insurgents are using civilians as shields, you can't give them blanket sanctuary and, say, in effect, our troops are fair game. Yes, they are professional soldiers but they are there because the government sent them. Whether we agree with the war or not (and I don't), the military has a duty to protect its troops. It puts the military in a difficult situation--do you give them sanctuary (and I'm obviously making a lot of assumptions here for arguments sake) or do you use weapons that might inflict higher casualties on civilians?

    My point is that stories like this are rarely as simple as they appear on the surface. I would agree with Michael that IF the US is intentionally using unconventional weapons against a civilian population with no apparent justification, this would clearly be a war crime. But I doubt that that is what is happening.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:54 PM  

  • This is a reference to a conservative blog, so it might be considered suspect to those of a liberal bent. It does pretty accurately describe white phosphorus use in munitions, and gives some history and background. It also documents the fact that the use of WP was known - and reported - in the press as the Fallujah operation unfolded. In other words, this is all old news, simply recycled with Bold New Headlines.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:02 PM  

  • You're right, Jim. It's a good post. I may be on the center-left (I call myself a moderate liberal), but I'm open to reading the better voices from all across the spectrum. If you've seen any of my recent round-ups of reaction to major stories, or even just some of my other posts, you'll know that I regularly quote from conservative blogs (and I don't necessarily do it negatively!). I stand up for what I believe in here, but I like to be challenged.

    Marc: Certainly this post isn't meant to take attention away from what the other "side" is doing. As I mentioned in my posts on Gitmo and Abu Ghraib over the summer, I do not think there is any moral equivalency here, and I balk at the notion that we are just as bad as they are.

    On this, I certainly don't think the U.S. is targeting civilians. I suspect that America's critics are playing up this story, implying that the U.S. is doing so, but it's more likely that civilians were unfortunately and unintentionally caught in the crossfire.

    And, of course, war is war, and it can be brutal. If insurgents are hiding behind civilians, there may be no way to avoid civilian casualties.

    I can't imaging what it's like to be a U.S. soldier leading a charge into a place like Fallujah, and I would want as much protection as possible. Was phosphorus used for that purpose? Maybe. Again, I'd like to know more about this.

    Finally, I highly doubt this is a war crime.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 4:26 PM  

  • There is a military journal that discusses using "shake and bake."

    Dropping artillery shells containing white phosperous that burns through the skin while the structures fall around whoever is in the target.

    Damn that liberal Anti-American "US Army Field Artillery" March/April edition.

    By Blogger Gary, at 2:57 AM  

  • The "evidence" cited for the use of WP as anti-personnel weapons doesn't match with the known armament. I watched the Italian piece. The corpses shown as "evidence" of WP use were just corpses, several days to a few weeks dead and unburied in the heat, with normal decomposition effects. WP burns everything it touches. It doesn't spare clothing. It doesn't spare anything.

    WP is used in tracers, area illumination rounds (air burst), and "target marking" (low air or ground burst) rounds. It's also a component in some smoke-screen rounds. It's not a very good AP weapon at all. If you could get a round on target, you'd use something better. If a marker round went off too near you it could do you major damage--but mostly it would be an excellent indicator that conventional (and much deadlier) artillery was about to annihilate your ass. If a smoker round goes off near you, it's time to run away or die, as you're about to be overrun. It's not a "banned" weapon, save in use against civilian populations, and it's not a "chemical weapon."

    By Blogger Tully, at 3:58 PM  

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