some news accounts have claimed that U.S. forces have used “outlawed” phosphorus shells in Fallujah. Phosphorus shells are not outlawed. U.S. forces have used them very sparingly in Fallujah, for illumination purposes. They were fired into the air to illuminate enemy positions at night, not at enemy fighters.
White phosphorus burns spontaneously in air. Contact with these particles can cause local burns. These weapons are particularly nasty because white phosphorus continues to burn until it disappears. If service members are hit by pieces of white phosphorus, it could burn right down to the bone. Remove quickly all clothing affected by phosphorus to prevent phosphorus burning through to skin. If this is impossible, plunge skin or clothing affected by phosphorus in cold water or moisten strongly to extinguish or prevent fire. Then immediately remove affected clothing and rinse affected skin areas with cold sodium bicarbonate solution or with cold water. Moisten skin and remove visible phosphorus (preferably under water) with squared object (knife-back etc.) or tweezers. Do not touch phosphorus with fingers! Throw removed phosphorus or clothing affected by phosphorus into water or allow to bum in suitable location. Cover phosphorus burns with moist dressing and keep moist to prevent renewed inflammation. It is neccessary to dress white phosphorus-injured patients with saline-soaked dressings to prevent reignition of the phosphorus by contact with the air.
White phosphorus fume is an irritant of the respiratory tract and eyes; the solid in contact with the skin produces deep thermal burns. Exposure to moisture produces phosphoric acid. Prolonged absorption of phosphorus causes necrosis of bones. It is a hepatotoxin.
- It is prohibited in all circumstances to make the civilian population as such, individual civilians or civilian objects the object of attack by incendiary weapons.
- It is prohibited in all circumstances to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by air-delivered incendiary weapons.
- It is further prohibited to make any military objective located within a concentration of civilians the object of attack by means of incendiary weapons other than air-delivered incendiary weapons, except when such military objective is clearly separated from the concentration of civilians and all feasible precautions are taken with a view to limiting the incendiary effects to the military objective and to avoiding, and in any event to minimizing, incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.
The United States is party to the Convention, but has not signed that protocol.
Field Artillery, Mar. 2005 (PDF):
b. White Phosphorous. WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE. We fired “shake and bake” missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out.
One presumes that a sealed off city would qualify as “a concentration of civilians.” The screening missions, which I take to involve smoke screen, would be legal. It’s the air-delivered attacks on concentrations of civilians which are problematic.
Read the description of what WP does to bodies once more think about describing the WP rounds as “shake and bake.” Photos exist which show the consequences, but I won’t link to them.
REPORTER: Have you seen the effects of these weapons [WP]?
JEFF ENGLEHART: Yes. Burned. Burned bodies. I mean, it burned children, and it burned women. White phosphorus kills indiscriminately. It’s a cloud that will within, in most cases, 150 meters of impact will disperse, and it will burn every human being or animal.
WP also produces toxic vapors which can linger.
The claim that this violates the Chemical Weapons Convention does not appear to be true.
But I think the question about WP, like the question about torture (or cruel and inhumane treatment), is not whether this falls within some technicality of legality, but whether this is what we want to be doing. Legal or not, should our troops be shaking and baking Iraqi cities?
Iraq at this point is about hearts and minds, and things like this, both the act and then the lies, just set things back.