Jus in bello

2005 11 21
White Phosphorus

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.>
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2004 07 28
Kerry on Iraq

Did Kerry flip-flop on the Iraq War? Rodger A. Payne attempts to defend Kerry with the novel tactic of actually examining his speech before the war vote in the Senate.

Does Payne succeed in this effort? In a word, no. If speeches were anything to go on, Bush would be the greatest force for democracy in the entire world. Kerry’s speech is a nice effort, and it places all kinds of sensible qualification and restrictions on his support for Bush. But Kerry had to have known that Bush would disregard those qualifications and restrictions, and he had to have known that by then it would be too late for Kerry to do anything about it. A vote for Bush at the time really was a vote allowing Bush to wage war if he deemed fit, and by that point, it was clear Bush deemed fit.

Kerry said in October 2002:

When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security and that of our allies in the Persian Gulf region. I will vote yes because I believe it is the best way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. And the administration, I believe, is now committed to a recognition that war must be the last option to address this threat, not the first, and that we must act in concert with allies around the globe to make the world’s case against Saddam Hussein.

As the President made clear earlier this week, “Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable.” It means “America speaks with one voice.”

Yada yada yada. Except that Bush was obviously lying about the practical effect of the resolution. There is simply no way that Bush would have built up that many troops in the middle of the dessert and then sent them home. There was going to be a war, come hell or high water. Kerry’s speech was an agonized response to the agonizing position which Bush deliberately placed Congress (and the country) in: Either support Bush (thereby essentially granting him the right to wage war) or support a humiliating climbdown before the entire world. That’s a tough spot to be in, but let’s be clear that no amount of fine speechifying changes the fact that Kerry knowingly chose the first horn of the dilemma.

Now, I agree with Payne that Kerry didn’t want a war, and would have preferred to let inspectors continue their job. But that wasn’t what the vote was really about, and Kerry either knew it or he doesn’t deserve to be president.

Howls of outrage (3)

2003 08 09

This piece claims that the U.S. used Napalm during the recent campaign in Iraq, despite denying it at the time (the basis for the denial was, apparently, that this was a new kind of napalm, with a different name). I’m not sure what the difference is, morally, between using napalm and using any other sort of chemical weapon. (Please e-mail me if you see a difference. Seriously. I’m curious what sort of case you could make for treating napalm differently.)

Now, I’ve complained in the past about the category of WMD: it treats as similar weapons which are in fact very different. There is a huge difference between nukes and bio and chemical weapons, and it always struck me as dishonest for the U.S. to conflate these when it discussed the so-called “WMD issue”.

Still, napalm ought to count as a chemical weapon, so it’s only fair to point out that – by the standards of its own rhetoric – the U.S. recently used WMD in Iraq.

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2003 05 21

The first attempts to assess the level of civilian casualties in the recent war are just trickling in. Click here for a piece in the Christian Science Monitor. This is only the opening round of what will no doubt be a long debate about the level of casualties . . . stay tuned.

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