The New York Times
ran an article
by Scott Shane this morning on the U.S.'s use of phosphorus weapons in Fallujah. The article ridiculed the U.S. response to the allegations as incredibly inept, which they were. However, the article went on to discount the various allegations.
As you may recall, the story of U.S. use of phosphorus seems to have originated with an Italian TV documentary. What troubled me about today's article is that it impugned the Italian documentary with a broad brush. For instance:
The half-hour film was riddled with errors and exaggerations, according to United States officials and independent military experts.
Yet, the article never details what those errors and exaggerations were (with two exceptions, one noted later), leaving the reader with the distinct impression that the allegations of U.S. mis-deeds were totally unfounded.
One of the specific critiques of the Italian film in the article was:
Italian public television showed a documentary renewing persistent charges that the United States had used white phosphorus rounds, incendiary munitions that the film incorrectly called chemical weapons, against Iraqis in Falluja last year.
This may be technically true, but it is my understanding that international conventions have banned the substance, and the U.S. has decided to thumb its nose at those conventions. Indeed, the article itself seems to suggest this at a later point when it says,
Daryl G. Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit organization that researches nuclear issues, was more cautious. In light of the issues raised since the film was shown, he said, the Defense Department, and perhaps an independent body, should review whether American use of white phosphorus had been consistent with international weapons conventions.
But, then the article goes on to state unambiguously,
It [the Italian documentary] incorrectly referred to white phosphorus shells - a munition of nearly every military commonly used to create smoke screens or fires - as banned chemical weapons.
So, what are they, banned or not? As I said, my understanding has been that the U.S. is largely alone in having failed to recognize the international conventions banning the use of phosphorus as a weapon and, particularly, its use when civilians are at risk. The Times
may be technically correct in some sort of word-smithing sense, since if the U.S. says they are not banned, it is, of course, true that they are not banned by the U.S. But, what about worldwide standards? After all, the President says we do not torture detainees, but he defines the techniques we use as non-torture when any normal person believes they are torture. I tried to Google the question to an authoritative source to determine whether their use is common or not, but was unsuccessful in finding anything on the net. So as it stands, I really don't know. I doubt the Times
writer does either, which is what bothers me about this article. Basically, Mr. Shane seems simply to have swallowed and regurgitated what his Pentagon sources told him without going much further. If true, this is the sort of stenographic reporting which I have found so distasteful in the Times
since father Sulzberger turned the paper over to his son.
Because of this, the reader is left with the possibly false impressions that a) the Italian documentary was some irresponsible foreign rant against the U.S., and b) that the U.S. was not culpable in any way for its use of phosphorous in Fallujah. Of course, the real point of the article is that the U.S. bungled its attempt to cover up the non-crimes it had committed in Fallujah, a conclusion with which we can all agree.
If anyone has more definitive information on the status of phosphorus as a weapon in international weapons conventions, let me know.