News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Willy Pete--When Night Becomes Day

Monday, November 28, 2005

Willy Pete--When Night Becomes Day

Usually, when you hear someone say something like, "when night becomes day," you think they're talking about a time when things miraculous will happen. In the case of white phosphorus, called Willy Pete by soldiers in Iraq, the miraculous comes in the form of seeing the enemy mvoing around so you can pick them off.

I've spent several weeks writing about the use of white phosphorous in the US military siege of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. I've linked to numerous articles from Iraqi, Italian, Pentagon, and other sources. These sources conflict on the exact nature of how this substance was uued in the siege of the city. At first, I called it a "chemical weapon," believing that 1) phosphorus is a chemical and 2) it was used as a weapon of war.

My simplistic way of looking at the world can't seem to capture the intricacies of what constitutes a weapon to military experts and especially munitions folk--those who spend their lives either designing these weapons or deploying them for use in the "theater of war." These intricacies do not categorize Willy Pete as a weapon at all. Instead it is simply an "incendiary device" used to illuminate the skies during night battle.

Yet, as some reports from Iraq have shown, when Saddam Hussein used the chemical, the US intelligence agencies called it a chemical weapon. It also came out--after repeated denials--that the US military had used the incendiary devices during its siege of Fallujah--but not against civilians, in compliance with international laws and treaties. As several commentators have shown, the language in those documents refers to anyone human, not just civilians. Unless you categorize combtatants as non-human, then using the weapon against them must be illegal.

The evidence for the use of Willy Pete as a combat weapon is widely disputed still. Those Iraqi doctors and others who reported seeing civilians and others burned to the bone are accused of lying by the Pentagon. The word of anyone in Iraq--unless they have an American uniform and speak English--carries no weight.

Given these circumstances, we may never really know what happened at Fallujah, and whether you believe it happened or not a matter of faith which will ultimately depend on some form of misplaced allegiance: either to a mindless pacifist mentality or a mindless "love America or leave it" schizophrenia.

In other words, it has the potential to become something like an updated version of the 1,001 nights: another mirage emanating from the desert war and its terrible flames. But such a poetic image cannot and should not keep us from seeing that this story says something about all of uss. Not just about "us," the US, those in power,or some ill-defined ghost that cannot take responsibility for anything. No, this crime is my fault, your fault, and those we know's fault. It is our fault that we let our soldiers go over there, for letting ourselves be decieved because we were afraid--afraid for ourselves but not afraid enough for the innocents in those other places.

Yes, we all have blood on our hands. Blood for creating and living in a society that sees killing other human beings as somehow justified as a natural result of war--when they do not die naturally at all, but at the end of a gun or bomg pulled or dropped by us. Yes, let's look into our own hearts and ask what it is in our way of life that makes killing such a matter of mechanical necessity. For,no matter how precise the weapons are, and how restricted their devatstating effects, innocents still die. And we have the gall to turn away our spiritual gaze by calling them "collateral damage," like so much trash or road-kill discarded along the highway of death called American freedom and democracy.

Now see the NY Times Editorial: Shake and Bake, November 29... After an article that whitewashed the use of this weapon at Fallujah, this editorial provides important perspective on the political implications of using this weapon, as well as some of the ehtical aspects:

The United States should be leading the world, not dragging its feet, when it comes to this sort of issue - because it's right and because all of us, including Americans, are safer in a world in which certain forms of conduct are regarded as too inhumane even for war. That is why torture should be banned in American prisons. And it is why the United States should stop using white phosphorus.
Now, all that needs to be done is for the Pentagon to take the advice in the article and to investigate what happened at Fallujah with regard to Willy Pete. The story has made the rounds of the media worldwide--suck it up, Rumsfeld, and show that the US is honest when it comes to its own use of weapons that "look like" those same weapons you and the President accused Saddam Hussein of using.

For an excellent analysis of the international and US conventions and laws dealing with the use of Willy Pete, see her recent article, "White Phosphorus, the CWC, and U.S. legislation," at 'Just World News'.

Related story: Use of Chemical in Iraq Ignites Debate -- This is a good background report but it does not refer to 1) the Pentagon calling Willy Pete a chemical weapon when Hussein used it, 2) the eyewitness account of Dahr Jamail, an unembedded reporter at Fallujah, and 3) the words of US soldiers themselves that were quoted in an Italian documentary on the use of the weapon at Fallujah. In most cases the article is too dismissive of counter-charges--but then the evidence is either dead, an enemy combtatant, or Iraqi.

Also see US Used Chemical Weapons Against Iraq, Compiled by Sunil K. Sharma

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