The Pentagon has admitted using White Phosphorous (WP) on ‘enemy combatants’ (a term which apparently embraces anyone in Fallujah at the time of the U.S. assault on that city). WP eats flesh down the bone, leaving clothing and structures intact. It has been widely reported that U.S. forces are also using MK-77, a form of napalm in Iraq. Additionally, the Marines have recently introduced a new shoulder mounted assault weapon that uses a fuel-air thermobaric mixture, which has been compared to a micro-nuke, intended to flatten buildings and incinerate any inhabitants.
There may be sound military reasons to use these weapons – force protection, maneuver cover, even their very lethality – but what remains problematic is whether incendiaries such as these raise the same ethical concerns as other banned chemical weapons, such as nerve or blistering agents. So far, the Administration is defending the use of such weapons as a military neccesity, when used with due care to avoid civilian deaths.
There is no sign of the Bush Administration soon repudiating the use of any of these munitions.
of the most attractive properties of these weapons is they are area
effect and don’t require line of sight by American forces. They wreak
terrible damage on multiple enemies, even if you don’t know exactly
where they are. This is a force multiplier as well as a compensator for
poor ‘on the ground’ intelligence; both features are vitally important
for current American operations in Iraq. This feature is also why they
are ethically analogous to other chemical weapons. Their effect is more
localized and is less subject to unintentional drift into non-combat
areas than are ‘chemical’ weapons, but they are weapons that may be,
and often are, used essentially blind. Thus they tend to subject
civilians to accidental exposure at a much greater rate than targeted
If one is killed by an ‘conventional’ explosive, or by its pressure
wave or shrapnel, one is just as dead as if one is cooked by napalm or
WP or a fuel-air explosive. Both types of demise are, more or less, the
result of a chemical’s reaction with the human body, and they both
leave your dead: so where’s the ethical distinction?
One distinction is hidden by a common, but ethically problematic use of
a ‘conventional’ munitions – aerial bombing. The ‘collateral damage’
caused by aerial bombardment has come to be accepted as a normal and
unavoidable feature of warfare, but there is still a school of thought
that considers aerial bombardment of areas inhabited by civilians to be
a war crime in and of itself. Aerial bombardment, because it is an
indirect and thus inherently indiscriminant use of force presents the
same ethical issue I touched on in the previous paragraph. The ethical
distinction between death by ‘conventional’ and ‘chemical’ weapons ought
to be the likelihood of unintended civilian casualties, but the
distinction is buried under the mountain of civilian deaths caused by
aerial bombardment. But just because the distinction is concealed by
‘collateral damage’ doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Another distinction is that there is something viscerally horrifying
about death by immolation. It shocks the conscience, as I’m sure the
picture I led this post with shocks many readers. Is that reason enough
to ban the use of a class of weapon? It’s the best reason. Our ethics
are the product of our evolutionary adaptation to social existence.
Such a ‘gut check’ is a good way to know that we are doing something
terribly inimical to social order and our long-term survival by using
such weapons, even if it is beneficial from a purely utilitarian
viewpoint, i.e. serves military mission goals admirably.
Despite the fact that military and political leaders may claim that
using these weapons aid us in ‘winning’ the ‘war on terror’ – and even
if they are right about that – using such weapons is impermissable
because of their indiscriminate and inhumane effects. We might win
battles by use of these awful weapons, but we will lose the war.