News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Gen. Pace, the Bullet, Fire on the Skin, and Judgment Day

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Gen. Pace, the Bullet, Fire on the Skin, and Judgment Day

In yesterday's Defense Department news conference, chairman of the Joint-Chiefs of-Staff, General Pace said that white phosphorus is simply an incendiary device and that it is a lot better than being shot by a bullet. He also said that the substance is not banned by international law and is a viable weapon against enemy personnel. This is misleading to some extent and does not adequately show how the events at Fullujah may have been contrary to international and US law, as well as the very military regulations in place for using the substance.

According to Pace:

White phosphorus is a legitimate tool of the military. It is used for two primary purposes. One is to mark a location for strike by an aircraft, for example. The other is to be used -- because it does create white smoke -- to be used as a screening agent so that you can move your forces without being seen by the enemy.

It is not a chemical weapon, it is an incendiary (sic) [It is not an incendiary weapon as defined by the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons], and it is well within the law of war to use those weapons as they are being used for marking and for screening.

No armed force in the world goes to greater effort than your armed force to protect civilians and to be very precise in the way we apply our power. A bullet goes through skin even faster than white phosphorus does. So I would rather have the proper instrument applied at the proper time as precisely as possible to get the job done in a way that kills as many of the bad guys as possible [my emphasis] and does as little collateral damage as possible. That is just the nature of warfare.
While this contorted logic seems somwhat out of shape, it is best to remember that the ones who were there remember things differently. In a recent article, "White death," Michael de Yoanna interviews the man at the center of the Italian documentary that started this entire effort at exposing the truth about white phosphorus and how it was used in the US siege of Fallujah.
Army veteran Jeff Englehart made international headlines after he was featured in an Italian news documentary alleging that U.S. troops used white phosphorus on Iraqi civilians.

A former Army soldier living in Colorado Springs describes the assault on Fallujah a year ago as a “massive killing” in which civilians, including women and children, allegedly died in horrific fashion after a substance melted their skin but left much of their clothing intact. ....

As part of a security detachment, Englehart watched two days of the massive Marine-commanded assault in November 2004 from a command center 500 yards from the action. He says he heard numerous radio requests for white phosphorus to be fired at areas inside Fallujah, and he saw at least one body on which the skin was burnt away.
Having to live such experiences and to see such devastation has obviously played darkly on Engelhart's mind. These dark visions will be with him for years to come, if not until death.

The article also quotes another Coloradan who was Fallujah. Giving the lie to the offcial Pentagon take on the siege, Garret Reppenhagen recalls a different scene and a different use of white phosphorus:
...Reppenhagen says that during a recent tour of Iraq, he was issued white phosphorus grenades, but not told whether or not to throw them at human targets.

“You can use them as an actual weapon. We were never told not to,” he says.
Obviously, whoever issues these devstating weapons have not understood what terrible uses untrained soldiers will and can put them to.

The question then becomes, who's morally culpable? The untrained soldier trying to survive in a desperate, life-and-death struggle, or those commanders whose responsibility it is to make sure that they know the moral use of the terrible weapons at their disposal?

And what about Gen. Pace and his easy dismissal and apparent ignorance of both the facts on the ground and the conventions covering the leigitimate use of these weapons? When will he have his judgment day, the same that these two young Coloradans must live with each day for the rest of their lives?

Who or what is responsibile these days has become a thorny question. Perhaps that is why the President's easy categorization of "if you're with us you're good, if against us you're bad" framework makes life so much easier for the rest of us. Such black and white demarcations are like moments of clarity compared to the dark, gnomic sayings of a thinker like Derrida, who at the end of his life could only, "we are all responsible, no-one is responsible." I myself lean toward Derrida's approach, if only because it makes actually thinking about what it means to be responsible a serious and not so easily solvable riddle--something that task should be, since it is so easy to fall prey to the facile logic of Bush et al.

And one must put into the mix here, the questions posed by Gordon Marino some time ago. In this essay, Marino notes how much self-delusion and easy solutions we are willing to provide when it comes to our own moral responsibility. Marino notes, though, that in the present age we are prone to either over-think the question or under-think it. Even more troubling, however, Marino notes that "being able to think" this question through is bound up with how we grow up--the circumstances of our lives. He takes very seriously the notion that upbringing detrmines what moral states we can and cannot experience.

So how's that answer the question of the Generals and the grunts and using white phosphorus? It all relates to how people are trained. In a military context, people are trained to survive--to kill and not be killed. And given the backgrounds of many grunts, the most preparation they have for dealing with stress and danger comes from the utilitarian, "fix it, don't break it" mode. That is, you have the tools to do a job and whatever works and gets the job done makes whatever you do right.

Such a view in a military whose ability to visit mass destruction and death on the enemy is a recipe for many moral incertitudes. And when faced with questions about whether it's right or wrong to do something--if that question even arises--is simply a matter, like the General says, of using the right tool in the right way. The right way here, of course, means making it work--getting as many "bad guys" as possible. And should others die, well "that is the nature of war." As though death and destruction were a natural force like tornadoes or hurricanes and not the decisions and responsible actions of men and women.

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