2005 11 21
The NYT has a piece today about the U.S. government’s response to allegations made in a recent Italian documentary that U.S. forces used white phosphorus during the assault on Fallujah. There’s a lot to say about this issue – I’ve seen reasonable doubts expressed about some of the documentary’s claims – but I’d like limit myself to a modest point or two about the NYT’s coverage of the debate. I excerpt the piece in full under the fold – something I rarely do, but I invite the Times to sue me for it, since it would really help me to make my point.
Recall that the U.S. used napalm during the major combat operations phase of the Iraq War. True, they used a newer and more effective kind of napalm, which technically has a different name. But it’s basically napalm, which is why everyone in the field calls it “napalm.” When questioned about its use, the military denied that had ever used napalm in Iraq. When the truth came out, the explanation was that what they call “napalm” now isn’t what used to be called “napalm.”
OK, so I would call that lying or, in a pinch, stretching the truth in such a way as to raise serious doubts about the credibility of any future claims. The first point about the piece, then, is that it completely omits any mention of that context. But I think it’s relevant to the current debate about white phosphorus. Without that context, it’s a lot harder to figure out why critics of the administration think that no one in her right mind would take the administration at its word.
But let’s give the reporter a break, huh? After all, if he searches his own paper’s archives, there’s nothing about this incident, something I complained about at the time (1, 2, 3). It’s nice that the NYT has finally clued into the fact that the use this sort of weapon creates a public relations problem. It’s just a pity they’ve clued in so damn late. And this is one of those interesting cases where providing the relevant context might raise uncomfortable questions about the NYT’s credibility, as well as the military’s: They used what? Why didn’t I read about that at the time?
Second point. The story ends with an unchallenged statement by a Pentagon spokeman:
While he said he could not rule out that white phosphorus hit some civilians, “U.S. and coalition forces took extraordinary measures to prevent civilian casualties in Falluja.”
Again, a little more curiosity on the part of the reporter might have led to a little more context for the reader. U.S. forces appear to have turned back fleeing men, civilians, into Fallujah because they were military age. This is a violation of the laws of war. They shut down hospitals, restricted information, and then bombed the shit out of neighbourhoods filled with people unable to leave. This too is a violation of the laws of war. I’ve said repeatedly in the past that it’s hard to see how chemical weapons create some special sort of moral problem. As far as I can see, the real moral issues, when we consider U.S. behaviour, are raised by these serious violations of the laws of war. But as long as we’re debating special moral problems that might be raised by the use of white phosphorus or napalm or whatever, let’s not allow military spokesmen to whitewash the past unchallenged. That would be letting them get away with murder.
Update: Oh yeah, and Steve Laniel points us to the fact that once upon a time, the U.S. government did want to call white phosophorus a chemical weapon.>