Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Disco Inferno

Well the phosphorous story seems to be getting a lot of play, at least in the various British news media. The Beeb seems to be running hard with it, Sky seems to think it's all a bit of a storm in a teacup.

I'm not sure exactly what the situation is, to be honest. First and foremost it's worthwhile pointing out what all the non-hysterical commentators are already pointing out - phosphorous is not by any accepted definition a chemical weapon. The employment of it by the United States is not in any way illegal.

That said, I'd be interested to know some more details about the circumstances in which it was used - and I'd be very interested to hear from any military chaps on either side of the Atlantic who can give me some context on this. There seem to be two narratives emerging here - the first is that the Americans employed phosphorous shells against enemy positions in a built-up area, the second is that the shells were used only against relatively exposed trench positions to weed insurgents out of bunkers that were not being penetrated by ordinary munitions. I don't know which is true but it seems to me the latter is preferable to the former. I don't want to sound like a world class armchair general but it seems to me that the offensive employment of phosphorous in a city environment with a civilian population - especially in a COIN situation - is probably not ideal (though there may be a case that it was necessary - email me and make the argument if you like, I'm open minded).

Certainly when the USA sold phosphorous shells to the Israelis in the early 1980s they came with the explicit caveat that they were not to be used for shelling in any areas featuring a civilian population - an agreement that the Israelis promptly ignored, employing phosphorous shells to bombard Palestinian residential areas and tower blocks in Beirut. As Fred Willard says in A Mighty Wind - "Wha' happened?" Certainly something seems to have changed 'twixt then and now (though I don't believe for an instant that the Americans have been as indiscriminate at the Israelis were at that point - and claims of massacre are not backed up by reliable eyewitness reports from the BBC and Sky News).

On the other hand it ought to be pointed out that it certainly appears that the Italian documentary that excited much of the interest in this topic is, for want of a better word, bollocks.

UPDATE:

Good treatment of the subject at Intel Dump. In fairness to the BBC (sort of) the BBC's own correspondent on the ground was on Newsnight last night and made it abundantly clear that as far as he was concerned there was no evidence whatsoever of US forces deliberately targeting civilians. That said, the BBC editorial staff do seem rather more eager to run with this some other news outlets.

I think the question is - and as I've noted I don't really know the answer to it - one of proportionality and prudence. It may be that military necessity demands, or at least mandates, the employment of phosphorous for purposes other than illumination. However, first of all I believe that many counterinsurgency specialists would raise at least one eyebrow at the employment of phosphorous offensively in something like an Iraqi urban situation (again, as I've noted we don't actually know at this point precisely what the circumstances were, accounts differ) and second of all it does have to be noted that when not employed in a very distinct battlefield phosphorous is one of the less discriminate tools in the military arsenal of the United States (or indeed the UK) and therefore whether or not it is the most appropriate piece of kit for the environment the coalition is currently operating in is at least open to question. I don't know precisely what the circumstances are or which side of the argument has the best of it but it seems to me that the debate needs to be framed around the above considerations. I do agree, however, that if sections of the press try to put the worst possible spin on this (and, yes, there is evidence that sections of certain editorial staffs are taking this line - though so far the expert talking heads and their own correspondents on the ground have largely refused to play their game) then it's pretty unworthy.

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