By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Smoke and light

The New York Times and weigh in on the phosphorus story today. The Times article, by Scott Shane, is so oriented toward dismissing it that it’s hard to know what to think. It’s not that Shane is necessarily wrong; it’s that he lacks evidence. The Post’s contribution comes, once again, in William Arkin’s national-security blog.

Shane gets off to a bad start by stating the Italian documentary that unleashed this story “incorrectly” referred to white phosphorus as a chemical weapon. Farther down in the piece, Shane circles around the issue, in effect conceding that the documentary was incorrect only in referring to the substance as an “illegal” chemical weapon. Legal or not, phosphorus is a chemical, and it is used as a weapon. Can we agree on that?

Shane also writes, “The half-hour film was riddled with errors and exaggerations, according to United States officials and independent military experts.” And there is this from Shane’s story:

“It’s discredited the American military without any basis in fact,” said John E. Pike, an expert on weapons who runs, an independent clearinghouse for military information. He said the “stupidity and incompetence” of official comments had fueled suspicions of a cover-up.

“The story most people around the world have is that the Americans are up to their old tricks — committing atrocities and lying about it,” Mr. Pike said. “And that’s completely incorrect.”

Now, this may all be true. Pike is a respected military analyst. The problem is that Shane presents no real evidence to disprove the claim that civilians were injured and killed by white phosphorus in the battle for Fallujah last year. The Pentagon has already had to backtrack and admit that phosphorus was used to kill insurgents. Is it really such a stretch to think that civilians were caught in the crossfire?

Arkin’s blog entry is considerably more enlightening than Shane’s article. His target is Lt. Gen. Walter E. “Buck” Buchanan III, who, in Arkin’s view, told the Associated Press “three brainless things” in an interview. Here’s what Arkin says about Buchanan’s remarks concerning the phosphorus reports:

“It is purely used as a marking round, not as a weapon. It marks the target so it becomes very clear,” Lt. Gen. Buchanan told the AP. Sir. In all due respect, have you not been reading the newspapers? The Pentagon and State Department have both acknowledged at this point that the Army used white phosphorous as an anti-personnel weapon during the battle of Fallujah in November 2004.

Was white phosphorus used as an incendiary specifically against civilians? I guess that’s still the $64,000 question. But to utter the boilerplate crap that it is only used as [sic] to create smoke or to mark targets is ignorant and insensitive.

What’s still lacking is any commitment on the part of the American media to investigate whether U.S. forces used chemical weapons (sorry, Mr. Shane) against a Fallujah population that included civilians. The whole world is watching. Just today, South Africa’s Globe & Mail has a story headlined “US used chemical weapons, then lied.” That’s just one example out of many.

Do Bill Keller and Len Downie want to wake up tomorrow only to find that the BBC, Robert Fisk or Al-Jazeera has rooted out the truth about what happened in Fallujah?

Also, Danny Schechter has some phosphorus links today.

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  1. Mike Stucka

    This is one of those classic stories where shades of gray are quickly framed as black-and-white issues.As far as civilians go: White phosphorus could have been used deliberately against civilians. White phosphorus could have been used indiscriminately in an area packed with both civilians and figthers.White phosphorus could have been used deliberately against fighters in an area with many civilians. White phosphorus could have been used against fighters in an area in which civilians had fled. These subtleties are getting lost in the argument.There’s a substantial difference between _targeting civilians_ and targeting fighters in an area with civilians. There are substantial questions about the use of force in heavily populated areas.I suspect what the military is trying to do is explain that they were targeting fighters with an incendiary to draw them out — not even to use WP as the main killing mechanism. What much of the rest of the world seems to want to believe is the United States deliberately targeted civilians with chemical weapons. The United States seems to be saying it tried flushing out fighters with incendiary weapons in an area that had some civilians.It’s easy to be appalled by both, but war is not a nice thing. It’s not nice to spray a person with Raid, nor is it nice to set a person on fire. It’s also not nice to shoot a guy. What’s legal, what’s appropriate and what’s readily accepted by cililians in a peaceful environment are often greatly different.Iraq is, unfortunately, one of the scenes of the more recent uses of chemical weapons: post this here not as a suggestion that the Iraqis are significantly better off now, but just because it’s more modern than any other account I know of. I think the otherwise last major use of chemical weapons may have been by Italy in the 1930s against Ethiopia.

  2. Anonymous

    4 people care about this story. Move on.

  3. Anonymous

    Jefferson Morley’s World Opinion Roudup blog at has also given some exposure to this story – see the 11/23/05 8:23 a.m. and 11/16/05 3:22 p.m. posts, for instance. But it’s not getting nearly enough play, although I expect it still could.One thing for sure: a hell of a lot more than 4 people care. And many, many more should care. I see no ethical basis for moving on.

  4. Anonymous

    WP is not banned by any treaty where the US is a signatory.

  5. Bill Baar

    Anonymous on an earlier post on the same topic asked “who’s this Bill Baar guy” and my thought many Americans would just as soon flatten this city as opposed going door-to-door with WP.Remember our aversion to using ground troops in Bosnia and Kosovo.We avoid committing troops to fighting like this when-ever possible and the alternative is the arial bombardment. It’s clean and antisceptic for us but well for the folks below.There is no atrocitiy on our part in this story.Sadly, I think if the press picked up on it more, the question asked by the American public was why would we risk troops this way in the first place.I don’t think it’s far fetched to think Americans would react that way.It’s to Bush and Rumsfeld’s credit we didn’t fight that way (although Clintion certainly did).

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