Thursday, November 17, 2005

Phosphorus in Fallujah

Last week, I reported on the story of the possible use of phosphorus as a weapon by U.S. forces in Iraq, specifically in Fallujah. Essentially, the story originated with a documentary broadcast by Italy's RAI TV network. It was then picked up by the BBC, The Independent, and The Christian Science Monitor.

That post elicited some excellent comments from readers and I invite you to check it out -- see here.

Phosphorus may or may not be classified as a chemical weapon, and it may or may not be a legitimate incendiary weapon, but what's interesting, as Steven Benen points at The Carpetbagger Report today, is that the Bush Administration has flip-flopped in its response to the story.

Initially, the Bush Administration called the story "disinformation". Now, however, the Pentagon has acknowledged, according to CNN, that "U.S. troops used white phosphorous as a weapon against insurgent strongholds during the battle of Falluja last November" -- but not, it stresses, against civilians.

Why deny it, then un-deny it? Again, phosphorus may not be a "chemical" weapon in the sense of a WMD (TNT is also a chemical, the argument goes -- indeed, everything is "chemical," strictly speaking, but that's just postmodern flattening), and there may (repeat: may) be good reasons for using it on the battlefield, but the Bush Administration must know that the use of phosphorus as a weapon doesn't look good. That is, phosphorus may not be a chemical weapon, but it could be perceived as one. And this revelation that the U.S., reputation already severely tarnished throughout much of the world, used it in Fallujah won't be received well by those whose "hearts and minds," as Steve reminds us, we are seeking to win over.

I think Bush should explain himself (and his Administration), don't you? A flip-flop is a serious matter, after all.

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  • I love it how The Bush administration for the past two months has not been able to avoid political fiascos breaking out in the press. Yet, the novelty is not in the scandals, it's the attention that the press is finally giving to the corruption. Mike, Why do you think the press finally has actually begun pursuing certain questions more aggressively? Did the Tide just turn because all the little things combined into a huge problem? Or do you think there was one specific thing that began the debaucle? Was it really just the Harriot Myers case that began it all??? When the rank and file Conservatives turned on the President?

    I'm puzzled...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:04 AM  

  • Perhaps the best explanation, rather than the implication of a sinister coverup is good old Occam's Razor? Iraq is an enormous operation, and it is likely the DoD and the White House will not remember every detail of it w/o some reserach. Remember the bogus NY Times report about the missing explosives in Iraq? Same sitaution applies here.

    And as for the contention that WP "could be perceived" as a chemical weapon, the U.S. is not obligated to respond to every instance of ignorant commentary or reporting by anti-American propagandists. It may very well be in our interest, but instead of questioning the Administration's response, shouldn't you be questioning the motives of those trying to make something out of nothing?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:04 AM  

  • You may be right, Geopol, but I do think the U.S. needs to consider how it's perceived around the world -- not in Europe, perhaps, but at least in Muslim countries where Islamofascism/jihadism has such a pull on people's hearts and minds.

    Susan, I'm not sure if I have a problem with the use of WP as a weapon. But that's because I would like to know more about why it was used (was it really necessary?) -- and, yes, that means that someone from the Pentagon should come out and respond to the story. As I mention in the post, the problem is the flip-flop -- first a denial, then an admission. Which is it? And why the flip-flop?

    But I agree with you on this: Whether we like it or not -- and we can debate whether or not the U.S. should be in Iraq at all -- this is war, and U.S. troops are in an incredibly difficult situation against a brutal insurgency, not a traditional, conventional enemy. No, rose petals and cotton buds won't do. U.S. forces need to be able to defend themselves and to do what they are being asked to do as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

    Does WP cross the line? Again, I'd like to hear the Pentagon's side of the story, not more spin from the White House.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 9:58 AM  

  • Occam's Razor indeed.

    My understanding is that it was the State Department that issued the denial and not the Pentagon. So it's likely that it was classic case of the Administration not being in sync. No conspiracy, another honest mistake.

    For more, see

    By Blogger Johnnie Oz, at 11:18 AM  

  • I don't know much about this particular weapon, but I do know that phospherous rockets were used during World War II and were considered by soldiers to be a particularly painful and lethal weapon.

    The problem here is that there is always a dichotomy between the way war is fought and the way we like to think it's fought. I'm sure from the military's point of view, it's just another weapon in the arsenal that you use in the most effective way. From a political point of view, though, using a weapon like this looks bad, especially given how controversial the war is. My guess is that the weapon is probably no worse than many other weapons that we have used, but, in a controversial war that much of the world considers illegitimate, any type of non-conventional weapon will draw fire because it's the war that is really at issue, not the particular weapon.

    I'm sympathetic to the military's problem and to the fact that the insurgents have no constraints on the tactics and weapons that they use on US troops. And there is no doubt that the insurgents are, in part, trying to provoke the US into using disproportionate force. But there is no way that the world's superpower can get away with using arguably "inhumane" weapons and not get blasted. At bottom, it really gets down to whether you think we should be there in the first place.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:58 AM  

  • The reason this is an issue is all about perception and the reality of war. Guns and bombs? Yeah, we know we're using them, we also know that civilians get caught in the crossfire because fighting in Iraq isn't on a battlefield, it's in a city where innocent people are trying to live. We wish that weren't true, but it is the reality. However, putting those civilians in danger of being exposed to skin-eating chemical weapons seems, well, not right.

    Yes, a debate over "humane weapons" seems pretty absurd, but what about the idea of us using chemical weapons when we supposdly went to war because Saddam gassed and tortured people? We're supposed to be the liberators, let's not stoop to the cruel tactics of our enemy, it does make us look bad, especially when you add it to the torture debate. It does not make us look good, at all.

    By Blogger zoe kentucky, at 2:08 PM  

  • Outside of total wars like WW II, there is always a question about what kind of force is proportionate to the mission. Is it legitimate to use weapons that are (more) likely than others to cause severe injuries to civilians if those weapons also help protect our troops. I don't think it's an easy question. If you assume that we are legitimately there and that our presence will, in the long run, benefit the Iraqi people, that implies that such weapons might be acceptable even if they cause "collateral" damage. If you think we shouldn't be there in the first place, then it's hard to argue that it's ok to inflict additional suffering on civilians (assuming that you are,which is not clear to me), even to protect the troops.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:16 PM  

  • geopol, I think when a story like this appears in major international media, not just some anarchist webpage, it's pretty obvious that a response is needed.
    This response was just disastrous. I'm still not clear, from reading the Pentagon spokesman's quote in the BBC report, how it was used as a weapon. As a straight-out napalm-type anti-personnel weapon, or was he referring to its use as a 'psychological' weapon, to smoke out combatants from sheltered positions so that HE rounds can kill them ('shake and bake')?
    Why the Heck didn't they do a better job of telling us they were used, and how and why? Whatever the truth is, it's not going to be as bad as what the various anti-X conspiracy spinners are going to come up with.
    Jeff Rubinoff

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:30 PM  

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