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.

February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail