Apr 1 2006

Now It’s a Chemical Weapon, Now It’s Not

White phosphorus and the siege of Fallujah


U.S. Air Force dropping white phosphorus on NLF guerrillas in Vietnam, 1966. (photo:  National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

U.S. Air Force dropping white phosphorus on NLF guerrillas in Vietnam, 1966. (photo: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force)

Gearing up for an invasion of Iraq in 2002, U.S. media vividly evoked the cruel effects of unconventional weapons. Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland referred repeatedly to Saddam Hussein’s imagined stockpiles of “horror weapons” and “weapons of horror,” and later to the “horrors” of Saddam’s past use of chemical weapons (7/11/02, 10/25/02, 9/24/03).

Leading outlets had their correspondents produce feature stories on former Iranian soldiers and Kurds still suffering from Iraqi mustard gas and other agents used in the 1980s. “We came under heavy bombardment, but there was no shrapnel,” Newsweek (3/19/03) quoted an Iranian veteran. “Then my eyes and lungs burned like they were on fire.” Another veteran told the New York Times (2/13/03): “We were wearing gas masks because we expected Saddam to use chemical weapons. . . . But there was too much gas. I suddenly felt a bitter taste in my mouth, and then my mouth filled with blood.”

This humane concern largely eluded the press corps, however, when persistent reports emerged that U.S. forces had used white phosphorus weapons in the siege of Fallujah in 2004. On the excruciating effects of the substance, which burns the skin to the bone and cannot be extinguished with water, there’s little dispute: A New York Times article from the mid-1990s (3/22/95) explained that despite its ambiguous legal status, white phosphorus is one of “the worst chemical weapons” in existence, and noted that many of its civilian victims during World War II “were shot by German troops to end their suffering.”

In the end, the U.S. media’s treatment of the story recalled the old joke told by Sigmund Freud about the man who returned a borrowed kettle with a hole in it: Asked about the hole, he first claimed he had never borrowed a kettle, then he said the kettle already had a hole when he borrowed it, finally he insisted that there was no hole in the kettle. Journalists couldn’t seem to make up their minds how to justify their refusal to take the story seriously.

When the Italian broadcaster RAI aired a documentary in November (11/8/05) that suggested that the U.S. had used white phosphorus in Fallujah against both fighters and civilians, the silence in the U.S. was at first deafening. Despite being picked up by newswires (AP, UPI, Reuters, 11/8/05) and the foreign press (e.g., BBC Online, 11/8/05; London Independent, Irish Times, Calgary Sun, 11/9/05), the only initial coverage in the U.S. was a six-sentence squib on page 9 of the Seattle Times (11/9/05).

That’s not to say that the big U.S. news outlets were unaware of the story. In an online “Ask the Washington Post” chat forum (11/9/05), an inquisitive reader asked the paper’s assistant managing editor why the Post had ignored the white phosphorus allegations. The Post’s David Hoffman replied that the paper had reported the use of white phosphorus at the time of the battle, and pointed the reader to a front-page dispatch on the Fallujah fight from November 2004. A diligent reader who located that year-old article (11/10/04) could indeed find—22 paragraphs into the story—a three-sentence passage confirming the use of white phosphorus as an anti-personnel weapon, including this: “Insurgents reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorous burns.”

The New York Times took a different tack. It did mention the allegation that white phosphorus had been used as a weapon—but it cited this to illustrate the kind of flimsy anti-American charges that foreigners have a habit of putting in their newspapers. In a feature article about an American intelligence unit that monitors the foreign press (11/13/05), reporter Scott Shane signaled to readers how preposterous this particular charge was by giving his assurance that “the mainstream American news media” had “largely ignored the claim,” since its “reporters had witnessed the fighting [in Fallujah] and apparently seen no evidence” of white phosphorus weaponry.

For the Post, then, white phosphorus wasn’t a story because it had already been reported (albeit almost invisibly), while for the Times, it wasn’t a story because American reporters hadn’t mentioned it.

Perhaps buoyed by the U.S. media’s determination to ignore the story, the U.S. ambassador in London, Robert Tuttle, went on the offensive against the British press. In a letter published in the Independent (11/15/05), which had been devoting prominent attention to the story, Tuttle insisted that “these reports are not true” because “U.S. forces do not use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons,” but only “as obscurants or smoke screens and for target marking.” A statement posted on the State Department’s website (“Did the U.S. Use ‘Illegal’ Weapons in Fallujah?” usinfo.state.gov, 12/9/04) had similarly insisted that white phosphorus shells were only “fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.”

Unfortunately for Ambassador Tuttle and the State Department, a blogger (Cat’s Blog, 11/9/05) had already discovered an article published by three U.S. military officers in an online Army magazine (Field Artillery, 3-4/05) in which they recounted their use of white phosphorus in the Fallujah battle. Describing the chemical as “an effective and versatile munition” and a “potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes,” the officers explained that they had decided early on to stop using phosphorus for illumination purposes and instead “saved our WP for lethal missions.”

Thus, the same day Tuttle’s denial was published in the Independent, Pentagon spokesman Col. Barry Venable was forced to reveal to BBC Radio that it was false: The U.S. had in fact used white phosphorus in lethal missions at Fallujah. “It was used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants,” Venable told the radio program PM (11/15/05).

Embarrassed U.S. officials now focused their justifications elsewhere, claiming that various overseas news reports had been wrong to call white phosphorus a “chemical weapon,” or incorrect to label its use illegal, or irresponsible for suggesting that civilians were hit. All of these assertions are debatable: The Pentagon itself had called white phosphorus a “chemical weapon” in describing its possible use by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, according to a declassified 1995 document found by the blog Think Progress (11/21/05).

On the legality of the weapon, an official with the U.N. body that enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention told the BBC that it depends (BBC News Online, 11/16/05): If the purpose is “to produce smoke, to camouflage movement,” its use is legitimate. But if it is “specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited,” since “any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.” In other words, the “lethal missions” described by the Field Artillery writers would be war crimes.

As for the possibility that civilians were burnt by white phosphorus, reporter Dave Lindorff has pointed out (CounterPunch, 11/17/05) that claims that the U.S. military didn’t target “civilians” in Fallujah don’t mean much, since all “men and boys of fighting age” were treated as combatants by U.S. forces and not allowed to flee the city. “Anyone still in the city will be regarded as a potential insurgent,” the London Observer reported (11/7/04), paraphrasing U.S. strategy. The Iraqi Health Ministry has reportedly launched an investigation into possible attacks on civilians in Fallujah, but the results won’t be known for some time (CNN.com, 11/18/05).

For Scott Shane, the New York Times reporter, the only apparent cause for concern in all of this was that the U.S. had bungled its damage-control response. A week after publishing the story that dismissed the possibility that the U.S. might have fired white phosphorus weapons, Shane wrote a new article blaming U.S. officials for not defending the practice with the requisite public-relations aplomb. He deemed the Italian documentary “riddled with errors and exaggerations”—citing as his source unnamed “officials and independent military experts”—and accused it of “inaccurately” labeling white phosphorus a chemical weapon (11/21/05).

Yet because U.S. officials had “bungled their response,” Shane wrote, there are now “dozens of stories in the foreign news media and on websites suggesting that the Americans used banned weapons and tried to cover it up.” If readers were left with the distinct impression that Shane thinks it unimportant that U.S. soldiers fired white phosphorus rounds into a densely packed city, the reporter did nothing to disabuse them. Shane later told the Columbia Journalism Review website (CJRDaily.org, 12/13/05): “From a news point of view, what actually happened here? I think the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah is less remarkable than the bungling of the response to it when the charges were raised.”

Shane was right about one thing: The bungled U.S. response almost certainly brought more attention to the story than it would have otherwise received in the U.S. media. The Los Angeles Times ran a front-page analysis story on white phosphorus (11/28/05), followed by dueling op-eds by defense specialists, one condemning and the other defending its use (11/30/05, 12/1/05). CNN’s Pentagon reporter did a segment on it (11/16/05), and the New York Times (11/29/05) published a strong editorial calling for the Army to stop using the chemical.

But in the end, a Washington Post reporter summed it up accurately in a story on European attitudes to the Iraq war. A month after the Post’s chief foreign editor had plaintively insisted to a reader that “we wrote about this at the time,” reporter John Ward Anderson (12/9/05) admitted that “U.S. troops’ use of white phosphorus in combat in Iraq has generated considerable attention in Europe, though little in the United States.”