White Phosphorous – The Rest Of The Story

As it turns out, white phosphorous is not a chemical weapon. Not surprisingly, even when they’re right (sort of) they are wrong and have turned a technical distinction into a broad based vitriolic smear against political and ideological opponents. As Dave is fond of saying It’s What They Do.
The moral issues were clarified in an L.A. Times editorial this morning, but first I’d like to examine the question of just exactly what type of weapon white phosphorous really is.


What is a chemical weapon?

Under the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) chemicals are divided into three groups, defining their purpose and treatment:
* Schedule One Chemicals are those typically used in weapons such as sarin and mustard gas and tabun;
* Schedule Two Chemicals include those that can be used in weapons such as amiton and BZ;
* Schedule Three Chemicals include the least toxic substances that can be used for research and the production of medicine, dyes, textiles, etc.

Nope. No white phosphorous there. Let’s check the U.S. Chemical Weapons Convention website. I’m no chemist, so I can’t say whether the chemical compounds composed of phosphoramidocyanidates or phosphonothiolates, which are listed under the category of Schedule One Chemicals, have anything to do with phosphorous itself.
Let’s keep looking. Schedule Two Chemicals also include phosphorothiolate as an ingredient of the chemical weapon Amiton and phosphorous is listed as a precursor element for various chemical weapons.
Now that we have a general idea what chemical weapons are, let’s get specific and ask What Is White Phosphorous? According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), white phosphorous is:

a colorless, white, or yellow waxy solid with a garlic-like odor. It does not occur naturally, but is manufactured from phosphate rocks.
White phosphorus reacts rapidly with oxygen, easily catching fire at temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature.
White phosphorus is used by the military in various types of ammunition, and to produce smoke for concealing troop movements and identifying targets.
It is also used by industry to produce phosphoric acid and other chemicals for use in fertilizers, food additives, and cleaning compounds. Small amounts of white phosphorus were used in the past in pesticides and fireworks.

Interesting. A chemical compound that catches fire at 10 to 15 degrees above room temperature. That’s very flammable indeed. The answer to what kind of military weapon white phosphorous can be used as is provided by the good folks at Global Security.org who inform us that phosphorous is a chemical used as an incendiary weapon:

The main incendiary agents are thermite (TH), magnesium (MG), white phosphorous (WP), and combustible hydrocarbons (including oils and thickened gasoline).
Thermite incendiaries are a mixture of powdered aluminium metal and ferric oxide and are used in bombs for attacks on armoured fighting vehicles. Thermite burns at about 2000°C and scatters molten metal, which may lodge in the skin producing small multiple deep burns.
Magnesium (Mg) burns at about 2000ºC with a scattering effect similar to that of thermite. Its particles produce deep burns.
At ordinary temperatures, white phosphorus (WP) is a solid which can be handled safely under water. When dry, it burns fiercely in air, producing a dense white smoke. Fragments of melted particles of the burning substance may become embedded in the skin of persons close to a bursting projectile, producing burns which are multiple, deep and variable in size. The fragments continue to burn unless oxygen is excluded by flooding or smothering.

Now that we have a litttle bit of background in the facts about chemical weapons and chemicals that are used as incendiary weapons, let’s turn to Jonathan Tucker’s editorial in today’s L.A. Times. Tucker is a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute’s Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is the author of War Of Nerves: Chemcial Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda. The L.A. Times titled his editorial The wrong weapon in the wrong place: The U.S. use of white phosphorus against insurgents in Iraq is immoral, counterproductive to our aims and has helped to solidify world opinion against us.

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.

There you have it. White phosphorous is not a chemical weapon. It is only a highly flammable chemical that can be used as a deadly incendiary weapon. I hope that STF readers are as relieved as I am to know that technically the U.S. military cannot be accused of using a chemical weapon in Iraq. Let’s see what Jonathan Tucker has to say about the distinction:

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.

So far so good. What about white phosphorous?

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.

As it turns out, the whole brouhaha about whether or not white phosphorous is a chemical weapons is a defense of the indefensible. As far as the moral arguments go, it does not make one whit of difference whether white phosphorous is classified as a chemical weapon or an incendiary weapon.

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.

Shades of Abu Ghraib! The President who is so fond of talking about a culture of life and winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people has permitted the use of an inhumane weapon that devalues innocent Iraqi lives. Is anyone surprised?

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.

Tucker isn’t finished with our good President quite yet:

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.

Bottom line: Not only is George Bush a failure as a President and a Commander-in-Chief, he is a moral failure as a man and as a human being.

3 thoughts on “White Phosphorous – The Rest Of The Story

  1. Gary, thanks for the excellent research. There’s a problem with “room temperature” that I ran into when I’d described some research I’d done and those in another country tried to duplicate it and couldn’t. It turned out that “room temperature” is generally thought of as around 72 degrees in the US and can be as low as 50 degrees in other countries. When those assuming that 50 degrees should be OK raised the temperature to 72 degrees, the experiment worked fine. What would “room temperature” be in Iraq?
    Also, when describing white phosphorus as not a chemical weapon, the assumption is that it’s going to be exploded in the air as flares or to produce smoke, not shot at people.

  2. Thanks Jimbo. I bookmarked both sites. I’m always interested in a different perspective. All things considered, we may not actually be that far apart on a large number of issues.
    I think a lot of the confusion about WP was a result of a lack of information and bad information. I’m still not sure we’ve gotten a good account of how WP was actually used in Fallujah.
    A lot more confusion was caused by the understandable confusion about a phosphorous based weapon that is not a chemical weapon. A surprising amount of the military commentary about this incident was both arrogant and unenlightening. Until I did my own research, nothing I read explained what WP was or why it could not accurately be described as a chemical weapon.
    I’m still not sure why one of the comments I read at Black Five was mocking a comparison to napalm. Frankly, it’s not an important distinction to me and I have no interest in tracking down the answer. I can live quite comfortably with that small gap in my knowledge base. If reputable military bloggers are interested in communication and better understanding of military voices and military issues, they may wish to consider adding a wee bit of light to the heat they direct at civilian commentors.

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