FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Problem Isn’t Willie Pete, The Problem is War Crimes

The New York Times reports that US and/or US-allied forces in Syria may be using white phosphorous munitions in the assault on Raqqa, capital city of the Islamic State in Syria. The use of white phosphorous in war is a perennial complaint among human rights activists. And while it’s valid as far as it goes, it misses a larger and more important point.

White phosphorous — nicknamed “Willie Pete” by the US mortar, artillery and air forces who use it — produces highly visible plumes of white smoke, justifying its use to mark targets or screen movements.

It’s also highly incendiary. It sets things on fire, it causes terrible burns, and it can’t be put out with water (it must be smothered and deprived of oxygen). For that reason, international law prohibits its use “on personnel” and in populated areas.

When I worked with 81mm mortars in the US Marine Corps, those restrictions were treated jokingly. Sure, we couldn’t use Willie Pete on personnel, but we could use it on equipment. Rifles, rucksacks and helmets are equipment, right? If someone happens to be wearing or carrying that equipment, that’s THEIR problem, right? One of our favorite training missions involved firing white phosphorous rounds, theoretically to “mark the target,” followed by high explosive rounds. That kind of mission was nicknamed “shake and bake.”

I’m glad that I was never called upon to fire white phosphorous at other human beings in combat (I was, for all intents and purposes, a rifleman during the Gulf War). But when I tremble in retrospect at that possibility, it occurs to me that the focus on a particular munition doesn’t do justice to the problem of war crimes as such.

In war, people die. While there are better and worse ways to do so, it seems to me that we should be less worried about how people die than about which people die and why.

The problem with bombarding Raqqa, or any other populated area, isn’t that it’s being done with white phosphorous, it’s that it’s being done at all. In addition to Islamic State combatants — fair game, so to speak — the area is full of civilian non-combatants. Killing them is a crime whether it’s done with white phosphorous, sarin gas or just plain vanilla bullets and artillery shrapnel.

Of course, we’re frequently and piously informed that innocent civilians killed by US or US-allied forces are accidental “collateral damage” or even “human shields.” The US Department of Defense always thoroughly investigates such killings and always ends up absolving US troops of responsibility. It’s only a crime to kill non-combatants if “the enemy” can be blamed for the killing, and — mirabile dictu! — that always turns out to be the case.

But in reality, when you pull a trigger and send a round of any kind downrange, you are responsible for where it lands and who it kills. Until and unless US forces accept that military responsibility, it’s our civic responsibility to treat them as the war criminals they are.

More articles by:

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

December 18, 2018
Charles Pierson
Where No Corn Has Grown Before: Better Living Through Climate Change?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Waters of American Democracy
Patrick Cockburn
Will Anger in Washington Over the Murder of Khashoggi End the War in Yemen?
George Ochenski
Trump is on the Ropes, But the Pillage of Natural Resources Continues
Farzana Versey
Tribals, Missionaries and Hindutva
Robert Hunziker
Is COP24 One More Big Bust?
David Macaray
The Truth About Nursing Homes
Nino Pagliccia
Have the Russian Military Aircrafts in Venezuela Breached the Door to “America’s Backyard”?
Paul Edwards
Make America Grate Again
David Rosnick
The Impact of OPEC on Climate Change
Binoy Kampmark
The Kosovo Blunder: Moving Towards a Standing Army
Andrew Stewart
Shine a Light for Immigration Rights in Providence
December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Vacy Vlanza
The Australian Prime Minister’s Rapture for Jerusalem
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail