As Israel continues to hammer at Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the same old games are being played by observers around the world — especially the “war crimes” accusations.
The current contender for dumbest accusation has to be that Israel is violating international law by using white phosphorus munitions in Gaza. This is a re-run — the same charge was made a couple of years ago against the United States and Fallujah. This is an argument born of tremendous ignorance — the type that can only be explained as deliberate. White phosphorus munitions have tremendous utility for the military. Due to White phosphorus’s unique properties, it serves two very useful (and contradictory) purposes. It burns very brightly, and it gives off a great deal of smoke. That means that if it’s used in midair, it lights up the area and makes it very hard for the enemy to hide. When it’s used on the ground, it puts out a lot of smoke that makes it very hard for the enemy to see.
In Gaza, Israel is primarily using it for the latter — to conceal its ground troops and allow them to get close enough to the enemy to engage them before they can find more civilians to hide behind. White phosphorus can be a very dangerous substance. It burns on contact and can cause fires if it lands on something suitably flammable.
But it’s rarely used as an incendiary weapon. The reason is that there are other substances that do the same job, far more efficiently. Thermite burns even hotter, and is used to destroy metal. Napalm works better on “softer” targets, as it is more flexible (it can be sprayed easily) and tends to cling to whatever it touches.
Critics are also fond of calling white phosphorus a “chemical weapon.” This is also nonsensical. The specific laws and treaties governing chemical weapons are very specific on definitions: a chemical weapon is one that causes harm by a chemical process other than combustion. The mere fact that a substance is toxic doesn’t make it a chemical weapon; in sufficient qualities, a lot of things are poisonous. Indeed, lead itself is a toxic metal, but no one wants to call a bullet a chemical weapon.
The final argument is that weapons like white phosphorus are “inhumane.” That particular argument holds great emotional sway — until you question the fundamental presumption behind it. If white phosphorus is an inhumane weapon, what is a “humane” weapon?
The best answer to that I’ve ever seen was in David Gerrold’s novel A Matter For Men. The topic comes up while a grizzled veteran is equips the new soldier (and protagonist) with a flamethrower.
“…Let me ask you this: what is it that makes a weapon inhumane?”"Uh…” I thought about it.
“Let me make it easier for you. Tell me a humane weapon.”
“Um– I see your point.”
“Right. There’s no such thing. It’s like Christmas — it’s not the gift, it’s the thought that counts.” He came around behind me and started fitting the pads under the straps. “A weapon, Jim — never forget this; lift your arms — is a tool for stopping the other fellow. That’s the purpose — stopping him. The so-called humane weapons merely stop a man without permanently injuring him. The best weapons — you can put your arms down now — are the ones that work by implication, by threat, and never have to be used at all. The enemy stops himself.”
“It’s when they don’t stop” — he turned me around to adjust the fittings in front — “that the weapons become inhumane, because that’s when you have to use them. And so far, the most effective ones are the ones that kill — because they stop the guy permanently.”
War is brutal. War is inhumane. War is horrible. So are the tools used to wage war. Indeed, the only thing worse than war is to not fight back.