Tuesday, November 15, 2005

White Phosphorous - Setting the Record Straight

The Pentagon today has finally admitted that White Phosphorous was used as a weapon in Fallujah.

The money quote is in the lead paragraph (gotta love the British press sometimes):


"It was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants," spokesman Lt Col Barry Venable told the BBC.


From this we know that the 30% or so Americans (and higher percentage of bloggers, it seems) who will defend absolutely anything that the U.S. military does, no matter how heinous, are now required to lean pretty much exclusively on the "White Phosphorous is not a banned munition" argument.

It is true that White Phosphorous is not a banned munition. That's because its primary purpose - illumination - is specifically allowed under Protocol III of the Geneva Convention, even if there may be an incidental effect of fire, burns, etc.

HOWEVER, Protocol III also states the following:


It is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons.


This ends the argument. The U.S. fired incendiary weapons into Fallujah, a densely populated city. It is illegal to fire incendiary weapons into a densely populated city. Period.

There are a lot of old teaching stories that deal with the human desire to argue. A man who fancies himself wise will come upon two men having an argument, and he'll explain the disagreement simply and clearly and in such a way as to moot the entire affair.

The men generally fall upon the "wise man" and kill him. What the wise man was not quite wise enough to realize is that the two mens' objective was to argue, not any higher goal.

This, at least in part, is the reason that you will not find any major newspaper that will print the portion of the Geneva convention I quote above. There's no angle in ending an argument definitively by pointing out the obvious.

NOTE: The U.S. has not ratified the portion of the Geneva convention that this is excerpted from. This makes the use of WP legal under US law. I would be overjoyed to see the White House mount this defense. It would be honest, and it would allow Americans to see what their government is really like. We have refused to sign this portion of the Geneva convention specifically so that we will be able to legally fire incendiary weapons into crowded cities, which activity of course has the entirely foreseeable consequence of burning to death many innocent men, women and children.

53 comments:

Gary said...

It will not end the arguments. The United States has not signed Protocol 3.

Adam P. Short said...

I actually mentioned this in the post, as you can see. Once again I would love to see Bush on television explaining that it's OK for us to fire incendiary weapons into population centers because we didn't sign part of the Geneva Convention.

RBP said...

Daniel Ellsberg writes about white phosporus and it's use in Vietnam in his book Secrets. Here's an excerpt:

[ White phosphorus explodes like a blossom. It spreads out brilliant white petals, whiter than anything else, with crimson tips. It's a gorgeous sight. When white phosphorus touches flesh, however, it burns down to the bone; you can't put it out with water. In Vietnamese civilian hospitals Vann and I visited, I'd seen children who had been burned by it and others who had been burned by napalm, which leaves a different kind of scar. You can't put napalm out with water either. I'd seen both of these in the Marines, in demonstration exercises, and I know they're very effective weapons. We think of them as saving the lives of our troops, especially when we're the only side using them, as in Vietnam, but when I was a marine, I didn't want to be saved by them, any more than I wanted to be saved by nuclear weapons. And that was before I'd seen firsthand what they did to humans.]
I recommend this book highly.

Glaivester said...

I remember once I was arguing with a European friend over whether or not it was right to send a newspaperman to jail for publishing the photo and new name of a recently released child-killer (in Britain, the government helps the newly released to cover up their identities as part of "rehabilitation.")

At one point, the European friend said soemthign to the effect of "we don't have a first amendment, so we don't need to worry about freedom of the press" being a barrier to jailing journalists."

A good retort (that I did not think to use at the time) was that the first amendment does not create a freedom of speech, it simply states that the government shall uphold it; freedom of speech precedes the existence of the government; so by not having such a provision, a government is essentially stating that it reserves the power to violate one's freedom of speech.

It seems that the U.S. position on the use of white phosphorus (hey, it's okay 'cause we didn't sign a treaty!) can be seen in much the same way.

Adam P. Short said...

Exactly, glaivester. The right not to be melted to death in one's home exists independently of the Geneva Convention.

Though I am thankful for our first amendment, sometimes when I read the British press I am reminded of Mark Twain's quip that "Americans demand freedom of speech as a substitute for the freedom of thought that they never use. "

Uncle Kevin said...

You are attempting to bring a moral sense to war. Folks who support war, under any circumstances, tend to avoid such concerns. You can see in much of the arguments that opponents of torture use. They generally assert that torture is either a risk for our troops (opponents might be encouraged to torture our guys) or vanity (it makes us look bad). You generally won't find folks arguing that it is immoral to torture another human being. Basically, folks who have accepted, or supported, war long ago decided that morality had no role there.

Adam P. Short said...

Uncle K:

This seems more appropriate as a comment on the previous post re: liberal hawks. The issue here is not morality per se but adherence to international norms. I think there is a very hard core of war supporters that does not care if the US adheres to the Geneva Convention, but the vast majority understands that these norms have a value outside of any sense that could be considered strictly "moral."

Eli said...

Discussion of this whole issue, including Protocol 3, in the Times online (that's the Times UK) here

Uncle Kevin said...

Neither of us can prove it of course, but I might dispute any expression of "large majority". If there is a dominant point of view, I suspect it is that "War is hell and anything we do to win is okay". Folks like the idea of rules of war and international law as well as war crimes tribunals right up until it applies to "our guys" and then they ain't quite so keen on the concept.

Adam P. Short said...

Actually you're now confusing elite opinion with popular opinion. Polls always show that Americans overwhelmingly support adherence to international law. I will find some numbers and post a link.

Elite "liberal" opinion is much more in line with what you are describing.

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