Letter: No surprises

This is in response to Jenette Sturges’ November 29 column, “Becoming the Enemy.” In her column, the author characterizes the use of white phosphorous by U.S. forces against personnel as the illegal employment of a banned chemical weapon. This characterization is used as the central point in the overall argument that we are “becoming the enemy.” While I concede that the military has earned a degree of skepticism from the public over the inexcusable torture developments, I disagree with the centerpiece of the author’s argument.

The author states that we “should be surprised” by the use of the phosphorous. Quite the contrary. For many decades and for several wars, U.S. forces have employed the phosphorous against enemy personnel. For perspective, one can visit the Army’s official archives for Medal of Honor citations (http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/Moh1.htm). There you will quickly find multiple citations from WWII, Korea and Vietnam which include descriptions of the recipients’ use of white phosphorous against enemy personnel. Such citations are particularly prevalent in WWII actions against German troops in violent house to house urban fighting – the exact conditions in which our troops fought in Fallujah. This history does not in itself provide legality. Principles of ethics and legality certainly evolve over time, but on this issue our nation has been quite consistent both in action and on paper.

Protocol III of the Chemical Weapons Convention describes proposed restrictions on the use of WP. In 1980, the U.S. (and other nations) did not agree to Protocol III and did not sign it. Through this, we announced internationally that we still view the use of WP against enemy combatants as acceptable. There is no surprise.

Nothing I have argued condones the employment of any weapon indiscriminately against civilians. Like with any weapon, the use of white phosphorous is subject to the principle of proportionality in the laws of land warfare and appropriate discretion must be applied to each particular use. One can commit war crimes with bullets just as easily as with the phosphorous. The use of any weapon indiscriminately against civilians should of course be aggressively prosecuted.

My point is that, in the general sense, the U.S. has long viewed the use of white phosphorous against enemy combatants as legal, has made this view clear to the international community, and has employed it consistent with this view since its invention. To describe the violent nature of the phosphorous or the chemical reactions involved is not to argue that it is illegal. One can offer surprisingly violent affects from many of our conventional weapons and most kinetic weapons involve chemical reactions.

It is a healthy attitude to abhor many aspects of warfare. Wise soldiers do the same. It is fine to disagree with the war. It is even understandable to suggest that we, as a nation, should perhaps re-examine the use of white phosphorous given current ethical standards. But it is not factual to characterize our military as suddenly using illegal chemical weapons. In fact they continue to apply due restraint in this area – and rightly so.

Jason Hester

graduate student