No Smoke Without Fire?

Does this add a new dimension to the term “laying down a smokescreen“?

The British military uses white phosphorous in Iraq but only to lay smoke screens, the government said Wednesday, after allegations that U.S. troops used the incendiary weapon against civilians during the battle of Fallujah last year…

“In the British army, we only use white phosphorous as a cover, as a smoke screen,” Defense Secretary John Reid told reporters at a NATO training exercise in Germany.

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

6 thoughts on “No Smoke Without Fire?

  1. “White phosphorus shells…..violate no treaty.”

    This may well be true, since what is involved is apparently a protocol. But are you seriously suggesting that simply becuase something is within the limits of the law then it is a good idea to use it? And in particular when you have innocent civilians in the middle. Are you saying this FT article is false?

    “White phosphorus, which is fired by artillery or mortars, can be used as an incendiary device or to create a smokescreen.

    “While it is not classified as a chemical weapon, the chemical is covered by Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, which prohibits the use of incendiary weapons against military forces located within concentrations of civilians – as was the case with the insurgents in Falluja. The US is party to the convention but, unlike a number of its allies, including the UK, it has not signed Protocol III. ”

    And are you also saying that the corpses which were shown on Italy’s Rai 24 news channel are also false? And if WP isn’t incendiary, then what burned the corpses?

    In fact Pentagon spokesman Lt Col Barry Venable has said that WF had been used as an “incendiary weapon against enemy combatants”, and I’m prepared to assume he knows what he’s talking about.

    The thing is, if you want to fight a war for the ‘hearts and minds’ aren’t there less controversial ways of doing it?

  2. “They were used by most militaries in World War II, including for certain the british, and they’ve been used ever since.”

    Incidentally do we have to keep WWII as our yardstick, it was full of horrors, and the British did plenty of things which I wouldn’t like to see repeated, like the saturation bombing of Dresden.

    There’s also a little detail called Hiroshima.

    Isn’t it time to move on, and improve a little.

  3. Edward,

    What do you think happens to people when a high-explosive shell
    goes off?

    It’s not that different. The two weapons have different properties
    but the horror is equal. If you’re going to be attacking the
    use of white phosphorus shells then you should also be attacking
    the use of standard high-explosive artillery shell.

    I agree that World War II doesn’t set a high standard. And the
    behavior of the U.S. in Iraq is not comparable to the horrors
    of World War II. In particular there’s been no aerial bombardments
    aimed at cities, factories, or civilians basically, which was the
    norm in World War II.

    What I meant was that I’m believe white phosphorus shells are
    used or stockpiled by most militaries today. The reference to
    World War II was simply to say by that point in time this was
    a common thing. And I believe it has been ever since.

    The hearts and minds battle was lost long before the war ever
    begun. We can go in with the best of intentions, struggle
    inordinately hard to give great gifts and do wonderful things
    for the people of Iraq, and we are still going to lose the
    battle for hearts and minds.

    The people of Iraq are predisposed to believe that we are the
    bad guys. For certain we’re outsiders, infidels even. Beyond
    that we’re the mythological figures responsible for all bad
    things in the world. I remember before the war began, some
    months before, reading an interview by, I think it was John
    Burns, in the New York Times, of a group of Iraqis in Jordan.
    These Iraqis were heavily into conspiracy theories, had all
    these bizarre ideas about how the U.S. was behind this and
    that bad thing.

    At some point John asserts — it would seem an unnecessary
    statement — that they would be opposed to a U.S. invasion.
    No, no, no, the room shouts. You have to invade! There wasn’t
    a person there that didn’t want a U.S. invasion. And yet
    most of them professed to believe all these terrible things about
    the U.S. A mystery isn’t it?

    I strongly suspected at that point that any invasion of Iraq
    to take out the Baathist regime would be a no win situation.
    We would briefly and sincerely be thanked — in the optimistic
    scenario, and as in fact we were — and then gradually Iraq
    would rediscover it’s pride — seriously damaged already — in
    ‘resisting’ the crusaders.

    People believe what they want to believe. Emotion is what
    drives human behavior, not reason. And the U.S. is pretty
    bad at propaganda.

    Despite all these disadvantages it’s only just recently that
    opinion polls in Iraq show the majority wanting the U.S. to
    leave. And even that sentiment isn’t a priority. It’s way
    down on the list of what Iraqis want.

  4. Ok, thanks Mark for a lengthy and reasoned comment. Just a few observations:

    “What do you think happens to people when a high-explosive shell goes off?”

    Well I agree, and I hate high explosive shells too. Generally I hate what happened in Fallujah. Period. But if we have to reopen every issue which drives the planet each time we touch on a detail, then obviously discussing anything becomes difficult.

    Basically I hate war, but I think they sometimes are inevitable, and even necessary. WWII – however lamentable some of the things which happened – is the sort of locus classicus here. In more recent times I would be quite happy to say that intervening in Kosovo and in Afghanistan fall into the ‘inevitable and necessary’ class.

    Iraq obviously is contested. I think it doesn’t fit, and not simply because there weren’t WMDs. Basically the US got itself drawn-in on the ground, and I think this was the key issue. It was the key issue because of the reason it got drawn in on the ground: the absence of an internal ‘proxy’ force to do the work on the ground. This should have been seen as a very bad omen.

    As we saw in 92, winning the war in the desert doesn’t need a modern Rommel. The issue is, as was forseen by Saddam, winning the urban areas. Now if you have no organised group ready to insurrect (think Warsaw ghetto here) then you are going to have one hell of a problem with the urban issues *after* you win the desert bit, and especially if your ‘enemy’ choses this terrain. This I think is what we have effectively seen.

    Now, in the North the US and British did have some success with the Kurds and the Peshmerga, although the long term consequences of this for the emergence of an independent Kurdish state may well be yet to be seen.

    But in the South there was no such equivalent development. And the reason was pretty obvious: to build an urban insurgency movement in the south you would need to work with Iran – due to the common religious element – and Iran was, well, part of the axis of evil. So this road was effectively closed.

    So instead of working backwards from this effective dead end, and drawing the conclusion that another strategy was needed (more trade possibly, rather than more boycott, and eating the vitals of Baathism from within), what was decided was to ‘unlearn’ the lessons of Vietnam, and get drawn in on the ground.

    That’s enough for one comment. More to come.

  5. “The hearts and minds battle was lost long before the war ever begun. We can go in with the best of intentions, struggle inordinately hard to give great gifts and do wonderful things for the people of Iraq, and we are still going to lose the battle for hearts and minds.

    The people of Iraq are predisposed to believe that we are the bad guys”

    I’m sure you’re right, and this just adds to the point I made in the last comment, you were always in a lose-lose situation.

    “And yet most of them professed to believe all these terrible things about the U.S. A mystery isn’t it?”

    Well, maybe not really Mark. Lets just imagine that the people inquestion really did ‘hate’ the USA, but had the individual self interest of wanting to make a lot of money. Then you don’t have to be a wizard at game theory to see that a good strategy for them was to ‘egg on’ the US to get itself into a mess, and to get rid of Saddam. This would kill two birds with one foul swoop. Since they were outsiders they would have a clear interest in regime change, and the possibility of getting very very rich in the process. Again, this is , more or less, what we’ve seen.

    The mystery isn’t why these and other Iraqi exiles were saying this, it is why the advisers to your administration believed them. I think the answer is that they were saying what they (the neo-cons) wanted to hear. So no-one was using enough critical thinking.

    “Despite all these disadvantages it’s only just recently that opinion polls in Iraq show the majority wanting the U.S. to leave.”

    I don’t disagree. I think most Iraqis (including the Sunnis) see the US as some kind of broker. As some kind of guarantor that the worst kind of ‘excesses’ from the other group won’t take place as long as the US remains. Probably this has some validity. We have a saying here in Spain that I’m sure is even more valid in Iraq: revenge is a dish which is best served cold.

    The score-settling which will take place once the US is gone is what people fear much more than the continuing US presence. Which is why you will be asked to leave later rather than sooner.

    The UK in the South is another question, the Shia want to take things over for themselves.

    But if the British leave, and the consequence is even more Shia consolidation this can put the US in an increasingly untenable position. We just saw a taster of what may be to come with the discovery of the unofficial Baghdad ‘torture centre’.

    So the end game (and exit strategy here) is far from clear. The Sunnis want you out sooner, before the Shia consolidate too much, and the Shia want you out later, for the opposite reason.

    OK, I’ve gone at some length I suppose because I wanted to take stock of what I actually think about all this right now.

    So back to the phosphorus and “it’s not that different”. The thing is, should war have rules, and if it does should we stick to them?

    I don’t know whether one ‘killer app’ is worse than another. I just read that Jean de Menezes was killed with dum-dum bullets, and I really don’t know what I think about this, since I can see arguments either way, but the bottom line would be “why the hell was Jean de Menezes killed in the first place”, and I suppose I feel something similar about what is going on in Iraq.

    Since I’m not a weapons technician (nor even want to be one) I can’t tell you whether those who drew up Protocol III of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons did so wisely or not. All I know is that they did so. And since I think – in the Socratic sense – that the Laws are above the individual case, then my opinion is that going outside of these is very questionable stuff indeed.

    I’m certainly not saying that the use of WF in Iraq is the equivalent of using Napalm and agent orange in Vietnam, but given its questionability I would have thought the intelligent response would have been ‘better not’.

    One photo, as you know, has served to shape our historic memory of Vietnam. Is it really worth running the risk of a broad diffusion of the RAI images (I guess they have not gone out in the US) having the same consequence this time round?

    I don’t like conspiracy theories either. I sometimes find it hard to accept that what Paul Krugman suggests about drilling for oil in Alaska – that the advocates simply want to see the rage on the faces of all those conservationists as dirty black oil spills on all that lovely white snow – is true. But sometimes I find it hard to find better explanations for what happens.

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