Jonathan B. Tucker / The Los Angeles Times & Robert Scheer – 2005-12-09 22:35:55
The Wrong Weapon in the Wrong Place
Jonathan B. Tucker / The Los Angeles Times
(December 1, 2005) — One of the most indelible images of the Vietnam War was of a naked, severely burned Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror as she ran down a road in 1972. The girl, Kim Phuc, had torn off her burning clothes after a South Vietnamese aircraft had mistakenly dropped an incendiary bomb containing napalm — jellied gasoline — on her home. The accidental use of this gruesome weapon against innocent civilians, immortalized in Nick Ut’s iconic photograph, helped to turn world public opinion against the war.
Now, more than three decades later, the United States faces a storm of criticism, particularly overseas, over its use of another incendiary weapon, white phosphorus, against Iraqi insurgents during the battle for Fallouja in November 2004. Nicknamed WP or Willie Pete, white phosphorus ignites spontaneously when exposed to air and continues to burn fiercely unless deprived of oxygen. The incandescent particles stick to exposed skin, melting flesh down to the bone and producing third-degree chemical burns that, when not fatal, are excruciating and slow to heal.
The Bush administration has justified the US military’s use of white phosphorus on the grounds that it is a tactically effective weapon with potent psychological effects, and it has noted that WP is not banned by any treaty to which the United States is a party. But this legalistic hairsplitting obscures the real issues.
Using an incendiary weapon in Fallouja, where combatants and civilians were intermingled, was a serious mistake on three counts: It was morally wrong; it was counterproductive to US policy goals in Iraq; and it was blatantly hypocritical, fueling the international outrage against the United States that is a potent recruiting tool for jihadist terrorists.
First, the moral argument. A hallmark of civilized nations is the conviction that certain types of warfare are intolerable, either because they are indiscriminate and more likely to harm civilians than combatants, or because they inflict hideous and unnecessary suffering that is disproportionate to their military value.
The prologue to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use in war of chemical and biological weapons, stated that such weapons have been “justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.” Indeed, given the widely shared belief that warfare with poison gas and germs is taboo, the Geneva Protocol has achieved the status of customary international law, meaning it is legally binding even on states that have not signed and ratified it.
Today, the United States is one of the very few Western democracies that have rejected treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and prohibiting the use of incendiary weapons such as napalm and white phosphorus in areas, including cities, where civilians are at risk.
But Washington cannot evade its moral responsibility so easily. If the United States wishes to set an inspirational example for other countries, it must accept certain constraints on its own actions, even if that means renouncing weapons that have military utility in some situations.
The second reason the US use of white phosphorus is wrong is that it has undermined the administration’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and played into the hands of the insurgents. Employing an indiscriminate and inhumane weapon during urban warfare suggests a devaluing of innocent Iraqi lives, a perception that reinforces jihadist propaganda about the evils of the US military occupation.
Finally, the US refusal to be bound by the international ban on the use of white phosphorus in proximity to civilians reflects a double standard that the rest of the world finds unpersuasive and arrogant. Whether the white phosphorus was fired from artillery, as permitted by international practice, or dropped from a plane, which would not be permissible, may be of legal significance to the United States, but it is irrelevant to world public opinion or the basic moral acceptability of using such a weapon in an urban area.
The Bush administration’s most compelling rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had used poison gas in violation of the Geneva Protocol and that he was continuing to stockpile chemical and biological weapons in defiance of United Nations resolutions. It is therefore the height of hypocrisy for Washington to claim the right to employ white phosphorus in a manner that most of the civilized world considers illegitimate, while lecturing other countries about human rights.
Arguments of military necessity and legalistic evasions distract from the real issue, which is US moral leadership. The shameful abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the scandal over covert CIA prisons overseas and the use of white phosphorus in Fallouja are all of a piece. They reflect the loss of a moral compass by this administration, which has turned the United States into a rogue state in the eyes of the world.
Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is the author of War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda
© 2005 Los Angeles Times
Ugly Truth: US Occupation Comparable to Hussein Regime
Robert Scheer / Robert Scheer.com
So, it is Mission Impossible that Bush has accomplished: A terminally inept US occupation of Iraq now threatens to make the despot we overthrew look good by comparison. But don’t take my word for it; hear it from the United States’ No. 1 ally in that increasingly nightmarish land.
“[Authorities] are doing the same as [in] Saddam’s time and worse,” former interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told the London Observer, of human-rights abuses by the US-backed Iraqi government. “It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.”
Allawi, one of Hussein’s victims, became a trusted CIA asset and later was handpicked by the United States to be the leader of the new Iraq. He now is the leading secular alternative to the Shiite theocrats expected to win the Dec. 15 election.
What Allawi decries is the brutal behavior of new security forces empowered by the US invasion but beholden, according to most reports, to Shiite religious parties intent on controlling Iraq. To accomplish their mission, they’re using the kind of “ethnic cleansing” terror seen so recently in Rwanda and the Balkans.
“We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated,” said Allawi. “A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations. We are even witnessing Shariah courts based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them.”
Allawi was not alone in painting a grim picture this week of what our president trumpets as an emerging democracy.
“Hundreds of accounts of killings and abductions have emerged in recent weeks, most of them brought forward by Sunni civilians, who claim that their relatives have been taken away by Iraqi men in uniform without warrant or explanation,” reports the New York Times.
“Shiite Muslim militia members have infiltrated Iraq’s police force and are carrying out sectarian killings under the color of law, according to documents and scores of interviews,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
Through our careless and uncaring attempts at “nation-building,” the United States has put itself in the position of providing a convenient shield for what is increasingly looking like a takeoff on the Cambodian Killing Fields — down to the continued targeting of academics of all ethnicities by self-appointed executioners. Civil war is no longer a possibility; it is a reality.
Amazingly, in Bush’s Iraq, just as in Hussein’s, you’re a victim or a victimizer — often both. The grim ironies of this Darwinist nightmare are everywhere. For example, while the military is defending the use of white phosphorus on the battlefield — “shake and bake” in US military slang — by citing chemical weapons restriction loopholes, it can’t look good to the world that one of the human-rights crimes Hussein himself is charged with is — you guessed it — shelling Kurdish rebels and civilians with chemical weapons in 1991.
When presented with such consensus depictions of Iraq as it is, not as our cloistered and purposely ignorant president believes it to be, those who still defend the occupation make two main claims: This is all just the birthing pains of a democracy, and the civil war will get worse if we leave. I don’t agree with either prediction; the US presence fuels both the Sunni insurgency and Shiite radicalism.
The argument, however, should be moot anyway, because both the Iraqi and American publics have clearly signaled they want us to get out, starting now.
Yet, as investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reports in the current issue of the New Yorker, it is unclear what it’s going to take to convince our increasingly isolated commander in chief to change course. Bush, according to a highly placed unnamed source Hersh cites, thinks his razor-thin win in 2004 is “another manifestation of divine purpose,” and that history will judge him well.
“The president is more determined than ever to stay the course,” a former defense official told Hersh. “He doesn’t feel any pain.
Bush is a believer in the adage, ‘People may suffer and die, but the Church advances.’ ”
Maybe that is not the thinking that motivates Bush, but can anyone come up with a more rational explanation for his determination to stay the course that leads into the abyss? It is time we called a halt to our mindless messing in other people’s lives.
As we wind down the third year of an occupation that has killed and maimed tens of thousands of Americans and Iraqis and cost US taxpayers upwards of $300 billion, isn’t it time to give the Iraqis the chance to see if they can do better — on their own?
© 2005 Robert Scheer
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