Monday, November 14, 2005

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.
Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much just a hysterical set of accusations aimed at making the US look bad. Nobody tries harder than US forces to avoid civilian injuries and deaths wherever possible. The "chemical weapons" smear is obviously false and as far as I am concerned, the people making these accusations have no credibility. If there were valid accusations, I don't understand why they would be made in such a misleading and incorrect manner.

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.


At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Bfalcon said...

Good stuff, I intend to now be a regular reader! Keep it up!

At 8:57 PM, Blogger Nicholas said...

Thanks, I'm not sure how often I will be posting. Most likely, whenever there is an issue I feel strongly about which is brought up in some way, such a controversial new news report.

So, I apologise if posting is sporradic, but hopefully I will have something to write about at least every few days.

At 5:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Proportionality plays a large role in determining how frowned-upon a system is.

It is a sense of fair play that, for whatever reason, is endemic to homo sapiens and certain other primates. And, oddly enough, the broader public demands we bring into battle.

Using the minimum force neccessary to accomplish the mission has been a staple of professional military forces for, arguably, ah...a... um, long time. Yes, a long time.

Another topic meriting extended discussion is the notion of international law. Since there is really no such thing, but rather generally accepted (yet malleable) customs or traditions regarding things like war, trade, and shipping, it is odd to me that it carries so much weight in the public discourse.

One final thought: bio and chem weapon planning often has less to do with killing exposed enemy soldiers than with denying terrain/avenues of approach to that enemy. But if he's trained and equipped to deal with persistent chem, it only slows him down and then not by too much.

I like the way you roll.


The Ministry of Minor Perfidy

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Nicholas said...

Wow, nice comment, thanks. I definitely have things to say about it but quite busy right now.

Let me just say that I too have thought a lot about why the concept of "international law" seems to have such a following. I think it's basically that people in our societies are so used to living under a system of laws which protects them, and does a good job of it, that they seek to extend the metaphor to the world at large.

After all, gone are the days of the wild west when justice was enforced from the barrel of a gun. These days we're much nicer about it. But what these people forget is how we got from there to here. In a sense, the world at large is still a wild west. There are pockets of civilisation, but right and wrong are enforced variously on the international stage - diplomacy, cajoling, bribery, threats and military might.

They also seem to forget that, at a local level, there is still at least the threat of force there to back the law up. But because we're so orderly, that force is pretty subdued.

One day maybe every country will be filled with people like us and we can rely on good will to keep the international peace, and then we WILL be able to have a valid concept of international law. But I think we have a ways to go before we get there.

Anyway I think I can write a lot about this but as I said, need to finish something, so maybe later.

Oh, and too many people are IMO too poorly educated to understand the difference between legality and morality. Or not wise enough to comprehend that the two aren't always one and the same thing.

Please continue to comment in this manner! Thanks.

At 6:42 AM, Blogger Nicholas said...

Oh, and there's another thing about agreements like the Chemical Weapons Convention which isn't often discussed --

To some extent countries have agreed with each other not to use Chemical Weapons because in a sense, if all parties to a conflict have them and use them, it disadvantages both sides roughly equally. So in the interests of practically, they might as well agree not to use them. It's a lot less hassle (no need to wear those darn suits and less damage to animals and the environment) for roughly the same outcome - i.e. no real gain to either side.

So yes, you're right in the sense that chemical weapons could be seen to be useful even if they're never aimed at anyone as such. But I think the world powers learned during the First World War that on the whole they just created a stale mate, and this was reinforced by the possession of chemical weapons by all sides during WW2, but the fact that they only had them in reserve in case the other side decided to use them.

At 9:26 PM, Blogger Bravo Romeo Delta said...


Good stuff. It brought to mind a response I had to another post. And being egoistic, I'll post it here in its entirety:

"A thing that seems to be missing from a lot of discussions about this set of topics is that weapons (at least militarily effective ones) have no inherent moral value. Using a nerve agent to kill evryone in a city is no more immoral than going around and slitting the throats of each and every individual in that city. Similarly, military tactics have no inherent morality - there is just not a more ‘ethical’ way to blow someone’s face off.

What has shaped concepts of ethics in warfare are the concepts of deterrence, effective means of retaliation, and proportionality. We didn’t respond to Afghanistan with nukes due to a lack of proportionality involved in such a response. The US didn’t use nukes in the Vietnam war because of deterrence and the availability of a retaliatory response.

So, in other words, we all play by the same rules because we have all agreed, more or less, that those are the rules that will apply to everyone.

Now in looking at this latest kerfuffle over what amounts to questions of collateral damage, we should look at what the current moral climate on what are mutually acceptable ways of killing each other.

For starters, any deaths that arise from massive tissue trauma thorough the application of kinetic energy (often associated with very high localized pressures and strains) are generally considered to be OK. In other words, shooting, stabbing, and blowing up is OK.

It is also widely agreed that deliberately targeting viable combatants is fair game. There are a few areas of dispute regarding the treatment of wounded or captured soldiers, but I’m not going to get into that here. Deliberately targeting civilians is another similar area - collateral damage is a fact of war, destroying economic targets is generally permissible, but there are gray areas about the deliberate targeting of a humans as an economic or political targets.

The use of combustion as a causative agent of death is altogether a gray area. Fire is a perfectly acceptable means to destroy material targets. It is allowable (although frowned upon somewhat) to use incidiaries against viable combatants. However, doing something like using an incidiary weapon on human soft targets - even if the use of kinetic energy would be acceptable - is not generally considered allowable.

In the case of the current back-and-forth (and stipulating only for the sake of argument that WP was responsbile for the casualties as described) we essentially have collateral damage that looks different from other collateral damage that is more or less recognized as a price of doing business.

But let’s say we go one step further and grant the premise that incindiaries were used against civilian targets. We still have to consider the notion that these weapons have no inherent moral value - all it would mean is that the other guys would be perfectly allowed to use similar tactics in a similar way. So perhaps instead of seeing a suicide bomber with nails, they might carry a dispersing charge to ingite and spray napalm around a pizza parlor, rather than just nails and shrapnel."


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