Willy Pete

Lies, damned lies, and the… BBC?

I’ve stayed away from the “White Phosphorus in Fallujah” story, in part because it’s ridiculous and in part because I just haven’t had time to point out the ridiculousness. But even though I’m not following it very closely, it seems that it may have entered a new phase.

The first phase, of course, was the “US troops used chemical weapons in Fallujah” phase. This was obviously, even at first glance, a complete and total crock. Anyone who knows anything about weaponry could immediately see that it was a non-starter, so it only ran in the Legacy Media for about four or five days.

The next phase seems to have been the “It’s illegal to use white phosphorus” phase, with numerous treaties that may or may not apply to white phosphorus brandied about. This phase was a lot of fun because…well, um…Actually this phase was pretty stupid, too. As far as I can tell, the US hasn’t signed any of the treaties or agreements that appear to have anything to do with the situation. So this only ran for about four or five days, as well.

The latest phase could maybe be called the “America didn’t sign any of the damning conventions, so that means they intentionally target civilians” phase. This phase can also just be called the “Damn America” phase, and it’s the phase where nearly every issue ends up.

Now, as I stated, I’m not really following this story all that closely, so my analysis might be a bit off. But the whole “white phosphorus uses a chemical reaction to burn so it’s a chemical weapon” thinking is truly laughable. That logic, of course, makes rifles chemical weapons. Something overlooked, in fact, is that fact that if a human being pulls the trigger, rifles might also be biological weapons, might they not?

Anyway, J.D. Henderson at Intel Dump notes a BBC story that includes a section called What are the international conventions? which helpfully reads, in total:

Washington is not a signatory to any treaty restricting the use of white phosphorus against civilians.

White phosphorus is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits its use as an incendiary weapon against civilian populations or in air attacks against enemy forces in civilian areas.

The US – unlike 80 other countries including the UK – is not a signatory to Protocol III.

Not mentioned at Intel Dump is something that I’m particularly fond of in this: Note that they don’t say “Washington is not a signatory to any treaty banning the use of white phosphorus against civilians.” They say “restricting”, which might give one the impression that not only won’t we agree not to use it against civilians, but we don’t even want any restrictions on its use against civilians. Maybe it’s a translation thing.

Anyway, J.D. Henderson points out:

It is NEVER legal under international laws of land warfare to deliberately target civilians. You can not use WP – or any other weapon of any kind – against civilians. We don’t “carpet-bomb” like in WWII, when civilian populations were viewed by some as legitimate targets. We do not fire WP or any other weapon at civilians.

Any weapon that is “legal” under the laws of land warfare can be used against enemy forces in civilian areas, as long as the use of that weapon fits the “proportionality” test – you don’t kill 500 civilians to get one bad guy, etc.

This story makes it sound like the US is defending its right to use white phosphorus against civilians. That is not the case. The US is reiterating what is a legal and known fact – that WP is not a “chemical weapon” and that it is not a “banned” weapon. It is a conventional weapon like high explosive, bullets, bayonets, or hand grenades. The only restrictions on its use are those that apply to all other weapons – you don’t target civilians. If civilians are harmed, by any weapon, it is either an accident or a crime.

You really ought to go read the whole thing.


  1. Thanks for covering this. It’s beeing driving me absolutely nuts due the multiple levels of cluelessness which are required to buy into this. The worst part of it is, if you try to put someone straight on one issue, they throw another one in your face. It’s like trying to play wild-accusation whack-a-mole. I thought I should clarify something a little. I realize you probably didn’t want to add confusion to your post with all these details, but they do make a difference to the argument I think. If you read the Wikipedia article is does a fairly good job of explaining how WP burns: Phosphorus + Oxygen => various Phosphorus Oxides + heat Now, phosphorus oxides are somewhat toxic. They would be very toxic if they were more readily absorbed by our bodies. Note that this does not make P a chemical weapon because the toxicity is not a primary effect. Indeed, in ordinary usage, it’s not much of a concern, although those treated for WP burns would have any remaining fragments removed to avoid the possibility of absorbing them. But the interesting thing is what happens almost immediately after the oxides are formed. They absorb large amounts of water from the atmosphere, forming liquid droplets, which are what the ‘smoke’ really is. The Phosphorus oxides dissolve in the water, making Phosphoric acid, a weak acid which is one of the ingredients of Coca-Cola. This acid mist is a bit of an irritant, it can make your eyes burn and make you cough if you inhale enough of it. This is probably the best argument which you could make of why it could be a chemical weapon – it’s a little like tear gas. However, there are a few reasons why it’s not a chemical weapon despite this: * It doesn’t fit the definition. Toxicity is the *primary* purpose of a chemical weapon. The organization which enforces the CWC agree with this. * Its effect is quite weak and really is nothing more than irritating under normal circumstances, where smoke is popped outdoors. If fired indoors, it could be a lot stronger, but the only way this is likely to happen would be with a grenade, which would contain a lot less WP and thus not be as serious. * If you’re in a room with an exploding WP round you’ll probably be worried about the burning fragments flying around and I doubt the phosphoric acid would really enter your mind…

  2. I just read the after action report on the battle of La Drang Valley in Vietnam, November 1965, by then Lt Col Moore. Superior artillery fire helped to save the day. Specifically, Moore comments several times that WP rounds really tore up the NVA and made them get up and move and therefore becoming targets. He said that they would stay low when HE rounds came in on thier postions. I say pour on the WP.

  3. Look, what matters with weapons is how discriminate they are, pretty much. I don’t really think it matters if a weapon is explosive, incendiary, chemical, biological, nuclear, what.. as long as it hits the bad guys and not the good guys or innocent people. It’s not nice to use weapons that cause terrible pain and suffering, but in reality, most weapons can for the unlucky. I wrote a long, rambling article about this which nobody should bother reading, but here’s a link anyway: Weapons of Choice