One of the most indelible images of the Vietnam War was of a naked, severely burned Vietnamese girl screaming in pain and terror as she ran down a road in 1972. The girl, Kim Phuc, had torn off her burning clothes after a South Vietnamese aircraft had mistakenly dropped an incendiary bomb containing napalm — jellied gasoline — on her home. The accidental use of this gruesome weapon against innocent civilians, immortalized in Nick Ut's iconic photograph, helped to turn world public opinion against the war.
Now, more than three decades later, the United States faces a storm of criticism, particularly overseas, over its use of another incendiary weapon, white phosphorus, against Iraqi insurgents during the battle for Fallouja in November 2004. Nicknamed WP or Willie Pete, white phosphorus ignites spontaneously when exposed to air and continues to burn fiercely unless deprived of oxygen. The incandescent particles stick to exposed skin, melting flesh down to the bone and producing third-degree chemical burns that, when not fatal, are excruciating and slow to heal.
The Bush administration has justified the U.S. military's use of white phosphorus on the grounds that it is a tactically effective weapon with potent psychological effects, and it has noted that WP is not banned by any treaty to which the United States is a party. But this legalistic hairsplitting obscures the real issues. Using an incendiary weapon in Fallouja, where combatants and civilians were intermingled, was a serious mistake on three counts: It was morally wrong; it was counterproductive to U.S. policy goals in Iraq; and it was blatantly hypocritical, fueling the international outrage against the United States that is a potent recruiting tool for jihadist terrorists.
First, the moral argument. A hallmark of civilized nations is the conviction that certain types of warfare are intolerable, either because they are indiscriminate and more likely to harm civilians than combatants, or because they inflict hideous and unnecessary suffering that is disproportionate to their military value. The prologue to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use in war of chemical and biological weapons, stated that such weapons have been "justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world." Indeed, given the widely shared belief that warfare with poison gas and germs is taboo, the Geneva Protocol has achieved the status of customary international law, meaning it is legally binding even on states that have not signed and ratified it.
Today, the United States is one of the very few Western democracies that have rejected treaties banning antipersonnel landmines and prohibiting the use of incendiary weapons such as napalm and white phosphorus in areas, including cities, where civilians are at risk. But Washington cannot evade its moral responsibility so easily. If the United States wishes to set an inspirational example for other countries, it must accept certain constraints on its own actions, even if that means renouncing weapons that have military utility in some situations.
The second reason the U.S. use of white phosphorus is wrong is that it has undermined the administration's efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and played into the hands of the insurgents. Employing an indiscriminate and inhumane weapon during urban warfare suggests a devaluing of innocent Iraqi lives, a perception that reinforces jihadist propaganda about the evils of the U.S. military occupation.
Finally, the U.S. refusal to be bound by the international ban on the use of white phosphorus in proximity to civilians reflects a double standard that the rest of the world finds unpersuasive and arrogant. Whether the white phosphorus was fired from artillery, as permitted by international practice, or dropped from a plane, which would not be permissible, may be of legal significance to the United States, but it is irrelevant to world public opinion or the basic moral acceptability of using such a weapon in an urban area.
The Bush administration's most compelling rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was that Saddam Hussein had used poison gas in violation of the Geneva Protocol and that he was continuing to stockpile chemical and biological weapons in defiance of United Nations resolutions. It is therefore the height of hypocrisy for Washington to claim the right to employ white phosphorus in a manner that most of the civilized world considers illegitimate, while lecturing other countries about human rights.
Arguments of military necessity and legalistic evasions distract from the real issue, which is U.S. moral leadership. The shameful abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the scandal over covert CIA prisons overseas and the use of white phosphorus in Fallouja are all of a piece. They reflect the loss of a moral compass by this administration, which has turned the United States into a rogue state in the eyes of the world.
Jonathan Tucker, a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is the author of "War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda"
© 2005 Los Angeles Times