Friday, November 11, 2005

Willy Pete and some Truth

Recent days have seen what, on the face of it, appears to be a stunning revelation that US forces in Iraq used “chemical” weapons during the assault on Fallujah. This unearthing of information comes from a documentary aired by the Italian state broadcaster RAI and specifically the words of one Jeff Englehart, a former US Army private (recon scout) who served in Iraq with the 1st Infantry Division. Englehart was labeled a “problem” by his superiors for continuous insubordinate behaviour. He is not an expert or a specialist in chemical weapons, heavy ordnance or any weapon beyond the small arms in which he was trained.

White Phosphorus as a weapon

I spent a good deal of time in forward positions calling for fire from both artillery and naval gunnery. I called for WP from time to time, depending on the tactical situation and enemy disposition.
At night, WP would be laid behind the enemy to provide short term illumination.
In daylight WP generates a thick white smoke which makes it useful for marking targets. It can be used against personnel but it lacks punch. Out in the open it is easily dodged and it produces fewer casualties than an airburst high explosive (HE) round. The spraying effect and the concentration of smoke may have a psychological effect on troops, but a disciplined enemy will overcome the confusion quickly.
WP actually burns quickly and coolly making a less than effective incendiary, although it will cause fires if it comes in contact with combustibles.
As a smokescreen, WP is highly effective. The smoke is thick enough to screen troop and armor movements and is not toxic, thus does not present a threat to one’s own troops should the smoke blow down on position or should troops have to advance through the smoke. It is also used as a barrier to bar escape routes to enemy troops.

As an artillery round it is less lethal than high explosive point detonating (HEPD) or high explosive variable time (HEVT) fused ammunition. Its clear lack of effectiveness against fortified positions limits its use. In an urban environment WP would also have limited use, but would probably have the effect of suppressing enemy fire, screening and blocking.

The concern over WP burning is overdone. HE burns hotter, covers more area, removes oxygen from the immediate area instantly, has a wider shock wave and creates more casualties. A Forward Observation Officer would never call for WP simply to create casualties.

There is a truth about WP that has surfaced and been ignored extensively: It has been an integral part of every army’s stock of conventional ordnance since World War I. It is no more a chemical weapon than HE or gunpowder and it less lethal than some of the more standard ammunition.

The Blogs

There has been a huge outcry on both sides of the spectrum. The liberal blogs are busy screaming that this exposes a hitherto secret use of chemical weapons. The right-wing and ultra-right blogs are rebutting with howls of “you’re not supporting the troops” or words to that effect. Both have managed to rise to hysteria without closely examining the facts, nor closely scrutinizing the video in question.

I won’t bother getting into the right and ultra-right blogs. They tend to get what they deserve, being the purveyors of mistruths and the cherry-pickers of information. I would take aim at some of the others, however because they are now guilty of committing the same act for which they roundly criticize their right-wing opposition: mistruth and cherry-picking.

Many of the better blogs engaged this issue with no information and next to no research. They believed what was fed to them and then refused to move their position when facts demonstrated that they had indeed over-reacted. I mention this in particular because there are highly respected outlets, well-known for their ability to analyze specific issues, expose ultra-right-wing absurdity and question social and political intolerance. It was disturbing to see journals of reason suddenly go off half-cocked over this issue, if simply because it would have the effect of labeling them reactionary. Attempting to wind up the use of WP in Iraq as a cause celeb with which to protest the conduct of that war will take them down a cul-de-sac of disappointment. It isn’t the issue they think it is and it will garner little more than a shrug of the shoulder from most informed quarters. If a demonstration is needed, it should be pointed out that one army which does not possess chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and has even abandoned the use of land-mines, retains, employs and trains in the use of WP in their artillery - Canada.

The war in Iraq needs to be addressed. The blogs I mentioned and hundreds of others like them are in a position to raise the questions, criticize their leaders and demand a change in US foreign policy. The question of the type of munitions used in the razing of Fallujah is a distraction from a much more important issue: Why did Fallujah have to be destroyed in the first place?

The Video

I watched the video, Fallujah: The Hidden Massacre with a bit of a jaundiced eye. The producer is known for his faulty reporting and less-than-subtle warping of the truth. He once produced a documentary for RAI suggesting that Italy had sent troops to Iraq to secure an oil deal. In fact, subsequent investigation proved no such deal existed and his assertion that Italian troops were running a refinery in Iraq turned out to be nothing more sinister than Italian troops guarding a refinery in their area of operations.

The video contained many graphic images, but almost none of them, as stated in the documentary, came from Fallujah during the assault. There was a serious attempt at the start to form a connection with the US military adventure in Viet Nam. The flaws in the video and the interviews are legion:
  • Jeff Englehart lacks credibility. From the outset, the name he used for the operation was incorrect. He was not involved in the assault and he did not see what munitions were being used. During the last two days of the operation he was outside the outer perimeter of the combat zone. Everything he says he knows, he heard over the radio in his Humvee. Further, on his own website, he mentions his two days outside Fallujah with considerably less elaboration than he provides in Ranucci’s documentary and concentrates on the foibles of the senior officer he is there to protect. His presentation of “10 year olds with AK-47s” being killed is handed off by the producer as grown soldiers killing kids. Excuse me, but a 10 year old facing me with a loaded assault rifle is an enemy combatant regardless of his age.

  • The munitions and weapons firing presented in the video do not match the narrative. There is no research and the only attribution is given to a disgruntled, no-longer-serving private. Many scenes which a viewer might take to be white phosphorus ordnance are in fact, magnesium flares. *The scene of the helicopters shooting WP is insinuated as “using it on people” when in fact it is an artillery observation aircraft providing spot illumination of a target. *The lay viewer could be excused from believing the narrator, but a small amount of research and a snap question to anyone with extensive combat experience would provide the truth – something the video seemed to lack.

  • Englehart’s description of the blast, the coverage and the effects of WP are a pure, unadulterated fabrication. His assertion that WP burns skin but not clothes would be laughable if it weren’t so far from the truth. WP burns everything it hits, including clothing. He further states that the only way to stop WP burning is to apply wet mud. Rubbish. WP stops burning when placed in water. He then states that it burns right through a gas-mask. True… it does. How does he reconcile that fact with his statement that it doesn’t burn through clothing?

  • The producer provides graphic views of bodies with “carmelized skin, skin melted away from the bones and the clothing virtually undamaged" as though it has to be the chemical effects of WP. Wrong! What was presented there was consistent with aging corpses. I’ve seen plenty of them. You were seeing the effects of decomposition. In fact, none of those bodies showed the effects of being hit by WP. WP would have left clearly visible burn marks over the entire body, clothing included. The strangely dead dog was probably killed from the shockwave of an HE round but there was no evidence of WP anywhere near that animal.

  • The insinuation that the casualties in the video died as a result of ingesting gas produced by WP is pure bovine scatology. The smoke emitted by WP isn’t pleasant, but it does not have the necessary toxicity nor is it persistent enough to cause death. Englehart’s description of the effects of emitted WP smoke is absolutely false. Asphyxiation can occur, of course, as with any other smoke in concentration in an enclosed space. But then, it’s got to get into an enclosed space. Given the methods allegedly used to deliver WP in this case, it would be an extraordinary feat to lodge it into an enclosed space. That WP is poisonous is a fact…. if you swallow it raw.

  • There is something made out of the fact that a WP burst removes the air from the immediate area. True, but then so does an HE burst and exploding gasoline fumes. Again, it requires an enclosed space to have such an effect and the removal of oxygen during a burst is a property of rapid combustion – not something restricted to WP.

  • The final sequence (machine gun attack on enemy troops) is not attributed. Done through night vision equipment, it provides the viewer with nothing in the way of valid information. It simply expands the graphic feature of the documentary. Armed combat is unbelievably ugly. It doesn’t matter what the cause, the ugliness is ever present.

There is a cause out there. Stopping a completely unnecessary war is one of them. Getting rid of the perpetrators of the Iraq adventure is one of them. It needs to be done with a cool head and reasoned judgment. Going into high blood pressure mode over WP isn’t going to accomplish any of what needs to be done.

Update: Upon closer examination of the video, once it had been enhanced, what appears to be helicopters launching WP flares turns out to be artillery rounds. The round is exploding above the ground and "rags" are dropping from the burst. The WP is burned out by the time it hits the ground.

2 comments:

Massimo Morelli said...

I am writing from Italy, and agree with you.

A detail: the final sequence is an old clip (I think as old as 2003 or even before). I think you could trace the clip somewhere on the net.

At that time the significance was in the final sequence, when the gunman (maybe in the helicopter) ask if it have to shoot to the wounded man. The other voice (an officer?) says: "hit him".

Massimo Morelli

Dave said...

Thanks Massimo. I actually found the date of that video and it is pre-Fallujah. It comes from the initial invasion. The vehicles are military and the men on the ground are combatants.