"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

No Controlling Legal Authority 

You have probably heard about the Italian documentary which alleges that the United States military used "chemical weapons" - i.e., white phosphorus and a napalm-like substance known as MK77 - in the assault on Fallujah in November, 2004. If you want to see the documentary itself, and have a very strong stomach, it may be found dubbed in English here.

I recently watched the entire presentation, and I must say that it strikes me as inconclusive in some respects. Much of the dramatic weight of the piece comes from the eyewitness testimony of two American soldiers, Jeff Englehart and Garret Reppenhagen. As I sit here now, I have no way of evaluating the reliability of these two sources. Englehart, in particular, has come out as a strong critic of the war - which neither confirms nor negates his credibility. It is Englehart who offers the greatest detail regarding the use of white phosphorus, describing it without ambiguity as a chemical weapon.

I should note before proceeding that, as a technical matter, Englehart is wrong about this - whatever else it may be, white phosphorus is almost certainly not a "chemical weapon" in the sense that the phrase is used in applicable international law and treaties. It is most readily classified as an incendiary device, and according to Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, a spokesperson for the U.S. military:
White phosphorus is used for marking targets for both air and ground forces. White phosphorus is used to destroy equipment and other types of things. It is used to destroy weapons caches. And it is used to produce a white smoke which can obscure the enemy's vision of what we are doing.

Perhaps. However, when one watches the video (which includes footage of what the producers claim is white phosphorus bombardment, and which to my untrained eye certainly appears to be the use of some kind of incendiary ordnance), it seems obvious that the weapons in question are being directed at targets on the ground - not deployed aerially, as a flare might be. Use of white phosphorus as a tool for illumination of targets or as a smokescreen seems to be permitted by international law; its use as an anti-personnel weapon, however, is prohibited by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (to which the United States is not a party). And its indiscriminate use against civilians - as alleged by the Italian presentation, and apparently illustrated by the video footage, to my eyes, at least - is, of course, prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

So whether white phosphorus is technically a "chemical weapon" or not seems to me beside the point. Its use in this instance (to the extent that the purpose for such use is apparent from the video evidence) is prohibited by international law, but not by international law recognized by the United States. Legally - technically - the question is a wash. As a practical and moral matter, however, the question ought to be an easy one.

Many (but by no means all) of the victims shown in this footage are civilians - children, women, old men in their beds - maimed or horribly killed by a weapon that melted their flesh and left exposed their charred bones. The footage of incendiary devices being deployed shows large tracts of urban landscape blanketed with white fire. Spec. Englehart claims that the white phosphorus devices have an effective killing radius of 150 meters; if true, that means that each one kills over an area of about 17.5 acres (then again, if these are specifications provided by the manufacturers, who have every incentive to exaggerate, then they could be inflated by a wide margin). While I await additional facts from those with better information than I have, it certainly seems as though this is an example of the use of a weapon of mass destruction.

I am equivocating here. Much like the now well-documentated allegations of torture by agents of the American government, use of banned weapons would represent an enormous step in our adoption of methods of warfare that were, until recently, generally accepted as unethical and illegal in the extreme. Thus, I would prefer to believe that there is some other explanation for these claims. (I will add that the use of MK77 - the latest incarnation of napalm - is totally prohibited by the same Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons mentioned above, but that the United States military admits to having used in in 2003.) I would also prefer to believe that Spec. Englehart is mistaken or is untruthful when he claims that the assault on Fallujah was timed to avoid conflicting with the 2004 Presidential election - even though the coincidence of timing is difficult to ignore.

Furthermore, what I would prefer to believe is only part of my reluctance to accept all of this on face value. The fact is, the war party takes great solace in those occasions where antiwar voices overreach and make fools of themselves. We see this today in the news that antiwar propagandist Jimmy Massey is a lying sack of dung, and without even looking I know that there are zillions of warfloggers who are crowing about the news even as we speak. No, let's not assume the worst - we are the reality-based community, and we ought not jump to conclusions.

We must, however, ask the important questions. Was white phosphorus used in Fallujah? If so, how was it used - as an anti-personnel weapon, or otherwise? Was MK77 used in Fallujah? Why is the United States not party to the international agreements against using incendiary devices as offensive weapons? Was the timing of the Fallujah assault altered to coincide with political concerns? We need the answers to these questions, and we need them from reliable sources. We need to examine, fully and without prejudice (either way) whether the United States committed what are generally regarded to be war crimes in the assault on Fallujah.

And we should not be relying on the Italian media to ask and answer these questions for us.




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