Wednesday, November 16, 2005

[politics] WP - (hopefully) my last word

In an earlier post, I listed information that I thought was a reasonable summation of current US military policy on the legitimate uses of white phosphorus (WP) munitions. RTO Trainer, an Army National Guardsman, left some comments that raised issues with my documentation and/or conclusions. R.T. raised some objections over a line in a training manual for senior command staff (ST 100-3: "It is against the law of land warfare to employ WP against personnel targets."), and also pointed out that if Forward Observers (FOs) were properly employed in Fallujah, then the odds of war crimes having been committed were slim. So I went back and reread both documents in their entirety, ST 100-3 and the Field Artillery article, and I must say that while the case is less clear, I still have my doubts. Serious doubts. First, FOs. According to the Field Artillery piece, FOs were deployed in the city with some operational difficulties. The article also states that they had one observer outside the city who had a commanding view of their entire area of operations. The article runs down the ways in which the in city FOs were operationally degraded, but it is unclear from the article what effect, if any, that had on their fire missions. There are also conflicting accounts as to the numbers of civilians left in Fallujah as well - my own take on it is that the numbers will be impossible to ever nail down. Can we agree that the numbers are larger than what the Pentagon reports (only 10% of the population remained behind, so approx. 30,000 people) and less than what the more extreme reports are from various human rights organizations? Even if the number is 'only' 50,000 people (which seems reasonable to me), the use of WP in such an environment with less-than precise accuracy can be criminal. I will cede that some of the documentation being cited as 'proof' that WP was used indiscriminately really isn't. For instance, Darrin Mortenson's account of mortar fire:
Another first-hand account from the battlefield was provided by an embedded reporter for the North County News, a San Diego newspaper. Reporter Darrin Mortenson wrote of watching Cpl Nicholas Bogert fire WP rounds into Fallujah. He wrote: "Bogert is a mortar team leader who directed his men to fire round after round of high explosives and white phosphorus charges into the city Friday and Saturday, never knowing what the targets were or what damage the resulting explosions caused."
A mortar is an indirect-fire weapon - you don't point the business end of it directly at a target, you rely upon called-in coordinates to fire it in an arc up over the battlefield. A mortar team is highly unlikely to ever see their targets unless their position is about to be overrun... Ditto for the Paladin 155mm howitzers described in the Field Artillery article. But the above account doesn't exonerate either - from it, we have no way of knowing at all how well-directed those fire missions were. Now, on to ST 100-3. While I agree with R.T. that the statement occurs within the context of discussing large-tube artillery, I disagree that the statement is limited to that context. Why? Because first of all, in no other place does ST 100-3 go into the other uses for WP munitions. Second, it is the first mention of WP in the manual (actually, it is the only place in the manual where the differences between different kinds of munitions are explicitly spelled out). Third, its tone strikes me as very definitive, particularly when there are clearly some nuances in the battlefield use of WP. Fourth, the discussion of mortars in ST 100-3 seems to implicitly differentiate between WP and other fire support (FS) missions:
The FSO should plan and control mortar fires to ensure they are integrated into the overall fire plan. Mortars are very effective against lightly protected personnel and for obscuration, illumination, and close-in defensive fires. Mortars:
  • Are the most responsive FS assets of the battalion.
  • Provide highly responsive WP and illumination to the T[ask ]F[orce] commander.
  • And there's a fifth - the Field Artillery article talks about the 155mm howitzers providing WP fire as well. That's large-tube artillery, providing the same kind of mixed WP/HE (high explosive) anti-personnel fire support as the mortars. I won't dispute that WP is a legitimate munition; I won't even dispute that it can be used as a weapon without breaking the law. What I will say is that reading these articles still suggests to me that international law may have been broken by choosing to use WP in a primarily anti-personnel role. It's like this: tracer ammunition (phosphorus-tipped bullets used for target acquisition and, to a much lesser degree, setting things on fire) is a legal munition. On the other hand, if you decided that you were going to have your troops armed with tracers as every other round, you might have committed a war crime. Why? Because the intent with which you're using the weapon has changed. You are no longer using it in the manner that is protected under law - you are using it because it inflicts greater damage and/or fear, and that starts to edge out of the realm of protected behavior. To the folks who are reading this who share R.T.'s point of view, let me say this: I do not think that our troops are all criminals. I know that most soldiers want to do the right thing, so it is entirely understandable that folks like R.T. will want to come to their defense. My own military experience is over 15 years old, and is charitably described as partial at best, but I do think I have more than a little understanding of the motivations of people who want to serve. And as an RTO (Radio/Telephone Operator), R.T. has more than likely participated in fire missions (I haven't read enough of his blog to know), so he certainly brings hands-on familiarity to this debate, something all-too often lacking. That said, I think that this administration's actions have made it much easier to believe that we are operating with much less regard for international law. If the Geneva Conventions covering torture are 'quaint', what about the rest of them? Are those Conventions and Protocols quaint, as well? From the circumstances under which this war was prosecuted to our conduct regarding detainees to our initial official denials that WP was even used on the battlefields of Fallujah - our actions are certainly convincing a lot of people around the world and at home that we regard international law as irrelevant. This continued course of behavior makes it more and more likely that war crimes will be committed, if they haven't already. And it will take a long time for us to repair that damage to our reputation.

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