White Phosphorus Round Up George

White Phosphorus Round-up

George Monbiot of the Guardian weighs in on the current state of the debate on the US military’s use of white phosphorus at Fallujah.

I think he is too categorical about many ambiguous issues. Long-time readers know that I am from a military family, and I want to be very careful about charges made against US troops, especially of behaving in ways they knew to have been illegal. Monbiot argues for the latter. I don’t think he has proved his case.

By the way, Scott Peterson of CSM went back to Fallujah fairly recently and concluded that “the battle of Fallujah has yet to be won,” and that the security situation there is still very chancy.

My own discussion of the white phosphorus issue when it first broke is here. I generally stand by it, though as usual, the US military shot itself in the foot by the way in which it initially denied and then had to acknowledge the story. I should be clear that I think the US ought to sign the protocol banning the use of incendiary bombs, and I oppose their use. The charge that is being made, however, is that WP use is already forbidden in US law and US military regulations by virtue of the chemical weapons ban, and that the US military knew this and employed it anyway.

I said last Friday:

“The US military is puzzled about the outcry over the use of white phosphorus at Fallujah. After all, a 500-pound bomb is also destructive. My guess? You can’t go to war against Saddam on the grounds that he has stockpiles of chemical weapons, and then turn around and use incendiary bombs of a sort that much of the world regards as a form of chemical weapon. It is the hypocrisy factor. Not to mention that the international community is trying to get such weapons banned.”

This analysis is borne out by the condemnation on Thursday of WP use in Iraq by the Russian Parliament. The parliamentarians said that they “consider the use, under cover of the noble aims of the fight against terrorism, of any type of weapon banned by international conventions, particularly phosphorus bombs, as absolutely unacceptable.”

This is a public relations issue, not an issue of war crimes, as Monbiot and many others apparently want to have it.

On to the article:

*Monbiot maintains that the the Battle Book, published by the US Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, says that use of white phosphorus “against personnel targets” is against the law of war. [Cole: We'd need to see the text, and know more about military procedures, here. Use of incendiary weapons against *civilian* personnel is forbidden. I do not know if the Battle Book really widened it from there, or why, or what its legal standing is to do so.]

*Monbiot argues that although white phosphorus as an incendiary weapon is covered by a protocol that the US has not signed, it does have toxic lung effects that very possibly justify its categorization as a chemical weapon. [Cole: I'm not qualified to pronounce on this subject, but I do not believe any international forum has actually held that white phosphorus is forbidden on grounds of being a chemical weapon. See my posting above for the precise protocols involved. Note that the British have also used WP in Iraq, and Col. Tim Collins defended it on Friday.]

*Monbiot says that there may have been tens of thousands of civilians left in Fallujah when the US launched its assault, which damaged 2/3s of the buildings in the city. Use of thermobaric weapons in such a context is certainly questionable and very possibly illegal. [Cole: I don't think there were as many as 60,000 civilians left in the city at the time the US launched its assault. Most observers thought it was closer to 5,000. Given the immense fire power deployed, civilian casualties would have been much higher if there had been so many civilians left. Moreover, as long as US forces did not actively target civilians with white phosphorus in the assault, they were not acting criminally in the light of US law or military regulations. White phosphorus cannot burn through concrete and wouldn't have been very useful as an assault weapon against guerrillas holed up in such places. It seems to have been used in part to spook them and get them on the run.]

*The evidence given by Italian television channel RAI as to the effects of white phosphorus in Fallujah, of photographs of decomposing bodies, is not dispositive. The bodies pictured are simply what dead bodies look like after a while. [I agree with Monbiot about this.]

*Monbiot accepts journalist and film maker Gabriele Zamparini’s characterization of a US Defense Department document he discovered recording a conversation between Kurdish fighters that spoke of Saddam’s own use of white phosphorus as “a chemical weapon.” [Cole: As many web commentators have pointed out, this document is not a Pentagon-generated report, but simply a Pentagon record of a third-party conversation. No known Pentagon-generated document issuing from the US military characterizes white phosphorus as a chemical weapon.

A big irony: Kurdish troops took part in the Fallujah assault. If the Kurds do want to continue to charge that Saddam was deploying WP as a chemical weapon, then they made themselves open to the same charge from Sunni Arabs in 2004. This irony is also an argument against too much self-righteousness when it comes to Iraq.]

*Monbiot: All this occurs in a context of illegal warfare in general, since the US and Britain had no casus belli for their war on Iraq and it was not authorized by the UN Security Council.

[Cole: I agree that the invasion in 2003 was illegal. However, the assault on the guerrillas in Fallujah was not illegal. It had a UN Security Council resolution behind it authorizing Coalition troops to carry out such operations, and recognizing the transitional government of Iyad Allawi, which also backed the operation. What was done to Fallujah was so horrible that it is now often forgotten that there was every reason to think that the city was a base for the worst kinds of terrorism against innocent civilians in Baghdad and Karbala; there were very bad characters there. Black and white depictions of the Marines as villains and the guerrillas as good guys are silly and morally poisonous. If I had known the full extent of the damage that would be done to the city, I would have been against the Fallujah campaign; it is just terrible counter-insurgency tactics for one thing, and was a humanitarian disaster. But to say that the US military wilfully contravened its own regulations and knowingly broke US and international law on chemical weapons by deploying white phosphorus there would have to be proven from better evidence than has been presented.]

Since exactly what I am arguing seems to be hard for some readers to understand, I just have to repeat that I am challenging the narrative that the US government recognizes white phosphorus as a chemical weapon; that it is so categorized in the convention banning chemical weapons; or that US military commanders deployed it in contravention of US law despite knowing or believing that it was illegal. That is, if you actually put the officers in charge of the operation in the docket, I am saying that no conviction could be obtained. It is worth saying, because allegations to the contrary are being seriously made by serious persons.