William Arkin on White Phosphorus in Fallujah: “It is a representation of a losing strategy”

William Arkin not only organizes what we know about the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah, but he puts in context — which just makes it all the more depressing. This is a rich posting, and I urge you to go read more than the excerpt below. (More kudos to the Washington Post for giving Arkin a platform!)

“White Death” Is A Losing Strategy: … When used in artillery ammunition, “Willy Pete” as it is called, can produce white smoke and illumination, and is particularly useful for target marking. It has been a standard and inexpensive weapon in world arsenals for decades.

… The [Italian TV] documentary shows close-ups of Fallujah civilians, badly burnt, their skin dissolved or caramelized. An Iraqi biologist in Fallujah is interviewed, saying “a rain of fire fell on the city,” burning people’s flesh, but strangely leaving “their clothes intact.”

…White phosphorus, though used, the Pentagon said, is “simply another conventional munition” that is neither outlawed nor illegal.

Well not simply. …

I for one am reluctant to pronounce whether the use of white phosphorous for “shake and bake” missions in Fallujah and the evident blundering use of white phosphorous in areas known to be occupied by civilians is illegal. Neither am I buying the State Department’s line that the use of white phosphorous in this way — that is, to possibly inflict unnecessary suffering — is not “illegal” use. What I’m sure of is that the use of white phosphorous is not just some insensitive act. It is not just bad P.R. It is the ill thought out and panicked use of a weapon in an illegitimate way.

U.S. military forces have the most stringent legal rules, the most aggressive internal lawyer class, the most constraining rules of engagement with regard to the laws of war and civilian casualties — even under the shoot-em-first-ask-questions-later Bush administration. Those rules are scrupulously followed, as long as everything is going well and the chain of command is strong and in control.

When the chain of command breaks down and military formations turn into a mob, Abu Ghraib’s result. …

When soldiers and commanders are discouraged and following a losing strategy, “taking” Fallujah, let’s say, not for the first or second or even third time; when they are trying to use “psychology,” that is, demoralize the enemy, then it is not enough to just defeat them. That is where shake and bake comes in, the desire to do something in a different way, to “shock and awe” the opposition, to sow chaos. …

In Fallujah, the Army employed a terribly ill-conceived method for using white phosphorous, evidently interested only in the immediate tactical gain and its felicitous shake and bake fun. Higher level commanders were either absent or oblivious to the larger issues. They did not impose order and encourage precision. They should be held accountable. They won’t.

It really is Vietnam all over again, isn’t it?

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