Weapons of Choice
I'd like to touch here on something which has been bothering me a lot recently.
It's related to the White Phosphorus controversy of late. In case you haven't read about this, here's a summary.
Some Italian Journalists published a documentary claiming that US forces in the second Battle for Fallujah used "chemical weapons" on the city and killed some civilians in the process. They showed some footage of what they claimed was a helicopter dropping this "chemical weapon" which is called White Phosphorus and pictures of some decomposed bodies they claimed were burned to death, but their clothing was intact. Supposedly, this is characteristic of being burnt by WP. They also had some interviews with a couple of Americans who stated (seemingly second-hand) that they knew of WP being used indiscriminately.
We've pointed out a number of serious problems with these claims. In short, they are:
- WP is not a chemical weapon, it is an incendiary. If you read the Chemical Weapons Convention (which seems like a fine source of definitions relating to Chemical Weapons to me), you will find that a Chemical Weapon is defined as something like "A weapon whose primary effect is through its toxic property". WP is actually used primarily to generate smoke for cover. Illumination flares often also contain WP. It has secondary incendiary effects, which are mostly useful against materiel, not people (i.e. destroying vehicles, fuel and other inanimate objects). It has minor toxic effects; it works something like a weak tear gas if used in a confined space. But since that's not its primary (or even secondary) use, that doesn't make it a chemical weapon, and it's almost never used as such. People hit by fragments of burning WP do face a toxic hazard, but the burns are the more serious of the two considerations.
- WP is not, as many people state, outlawed. The CCW is an international agreement governing certain conventional weapons. One of these categories is Incendiaries, which WP falls under. Firstly, it specifically excludes smoke- and light-generating weapons. Secondly, it only outlaws the use of incendiaries on civilians, which I would not like to see (think Dresden or Tokyo), and I don't think anyone else does either. The use of incendiaries on military targets is OK under the convention, as long as reasonable steps are taken to avoid civilian casualties. Thirdly, the US did not ratify this part of the treaty - so it's not legally binding. Still, morally, you would hope they would uphold the ideals (and so far as I can tell, they do).
- WP was used in Fallujah for three main purposes. To make light/heat (although in this case, it isn't really WP shells being used, rather they are flares which contain WP). To make smoke. And as a "psychological" weapon, used to flush out enemies. Supposedly this works by firing smoke at them, which is usually used to cover an advance and assault. Thinking they are about to come under attack, they leave their defensive positions and expose themselves to fire. The weak tear-gas-like effect may help flush them out.
- WP doesn't burn someone without burning their clothes. WP can burn through steel! It's really hot and will go right through your clothes, probably setting them on fire, if it hits you. Therefore, burned bodies with intact clothes would not be a sign of the use of WP.
- The pictures of bodies (at least the ones I have seen) were not burnt. Many of them were dismembered or otherwise traumatised, but the skin was black due to decomposition, not fire. I know because burnt skin would be charred, blistered and/or broken. Smooth skin on a corpse indicates a lack of burning. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure of this.
This is not really why I am writing this post. The above is the background. What I ended up saying at one point was this:
Why are certain weapons thought of as being immoral, while others are not?
I came to a couple of conclusions:
One: We don't like indiscriminate weapons, because they cause a lot of "collateral" damage - in other words, they are likely to hit people you're not aiming at. It's pretty obvious why this is bad. Guess what? The US does not want to look bad by killing innocent people, so they won't use indiscriminate weapons.
Which weapons are indiscriminate? Well, "Weapons of Mass Destruction", i.e. NBC (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical) weapons TEND to be indiscriminate killers. However, there is nothing specifically immoral about them beyond this. For example, Tear Gas is a chemical weapon, but it isn't really all that bad. Lobbing a perfectly legal 2000 pound high explosive bomb into a crowd of people is a lot worse than lobbing some tear gas shells. The former is pretty much legal; the latter is not. Why? Well, it's pretty arbitrary. But most chemical weapons are indiscriminate (Mustard gas, Sarin, VX, etc.), as are most biological (which can spread) and of course high-yield nuclear.
But my point is, it's not the fact that a weapon is NBC that specifically makes it immoral, it's the fact that most of them aren't useful for anything other than wiping out large groups of people. Those NBC weapons which can be used to target specific individuals who are the enemy, are not necessarily bad in and of themselves.
So, even if WP was a chemical weapon, why would that suddenly be so horrible? The military people I've read comments from state that WP is often used in place of HE for the very reason that it causes less collateral damage in certain situations. That's good! So, my conclusion is:
Discriminate weapons are good weapons, regardless of how they are classified.
(Of course, weapons are used to main and kill people, which isn't nice, but if you want to make some omelets, you have to break some eggs...)
Two: The other reason weapons are "bad" (immoral) is because they tend to leave horrific injuries without actually killing the targets. Well, this is a bit of a gray area, but I can certainly see how it's bad if you burned lots of people horribly. Still, I'm not sure dismembering them into death is all that much better. But there certainly is a stigma attached to weapons like flame throwers and fire-bombs (think Napalm; although modern fire-bombs are not Napalm; they're more effective). They're still legal, because in reality they're just effective ways to kill people, like regular weapons (guns, bombs, etc.) but the trick is to only use them on people you are fighting and expect to have to kill. It still comes back to discriminate vs. Indiscriminate.
Another example: expanding, hollow-point, dum-dum etc. bullets are illegal on the battlefield, because they create horrible wounds. Well, you certainly could argue, that makes them effective munitions. The result of this outlawing is two things:
- People find ways to have these effects without breaking the "laws". Unstable bullets which spin when they enter a person to create a big wound are an example. The result is a legal weapon which is more effective, but less "humane". (The concept of a humane weapon is kind of silly).
- Instead of shooting you with one expanding bullet, someone will probably just hit you with five or ten regular bullets. To make sure the less-effective rounds do the required job. Again, not much of an advantage for you.
In conclusion: illegal vs. legal weapons is not the important argument, as far as I am concerned. If you're trying to prosecute someone in a court of law it may be. But for me, the real question is moral vs. immoral, and it's not as cut and dried as some people try to make out.
An exercise for the reader: which weapons are moral and which are immoral? Does the target affect this choice? Is it more important which weapons are used in battle, or how they are used?
And just to make my intent clear: I tend to assume people I haven't met are good people and should not be injured or killed. I don't want anyone to die. But sometimes diplomacy breaks down and you're faced with a choice: go to war, and kill some people, or do nothing and let even more people die, while others are oppressed. It's a tough choice but going to war is sometimes the right decision. That is why I am defending the military; I believe they are doing a good job and a necessary job. That doesn't mean it's a nice thing for anyone.