Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Much as I'd like to get away from the topic of biological and chemical weapons, the good news keeps pouring in.

An Italian documentary claims to detail the United States' alleged use of white phosphorus as an offensive weapon against civilians in Iraq. According to the linked article, US officials claim that the use of phosphorus shells over Fallujah was intended strictly for "illumination" of enemy positions.

That's an interesting claim, because as far as I know, the main non-offensive use of white phosphorus is as a smokescreening agent. I've never heard of WP being used in illuminating shells; those usually comprise magnesium and chlorate mixtures. It seems to me that WP would be a poor, and extremely hazardous, substitute.

Even if they'd work as illuminating ammunition, detonating white phosphorus shells over a city for that purpose would be criminally negligent, at best. And the fact that we've refused to sign the Geneva Protocol on Prohibitions or Restrictions on the Use of Incendiary Weapons remains both suggestive and troubling.

Another article on this growing scandal makes an interesting argument:

[T]his amounts to the illegal use of chemical arms, though the bombs are considered incendiary devices.
The language of warfare is endlessly fascinating. White phosphorus is, technically speaking, a chemical weapon. But technically speaking, so are bombs. Whether the chemicals that constitute a given weapon kill or maim by blowing human beings into pieces, burning them to the bone, or poisoning them receives, I think, too much attention from armchair ethicists. Given a choice between being severely burned by white phosphorus, mustard gas, or red-hot shrapnel, I'd be hard-pressed to make up my mind.

Sometimes I wonder if a certain amount of the horror that ordinary weapons should inspire has been deflected onto chemical weapons and their ilk, as though the distinction between blowing people up and poisoning them constituted a clear and decisive line between civilization and barbarism. Chemical weapons, properly so called, are inherently of limited use on the battlefield; their real utility, perhaps, lies in their ability to make other forms of mass murder seem relatively acceptable.

1 comment:

Kate said...

Exactly, Phila. Another excellent post.