The Truth about White Phosphorous

John Pike argues that the Administration blundered badly in not getting out in front of the story on the use of white phosphorous in Falluja.

The truth about WP (LAT)

Despite efforts to improve its image abroad, the United States has just suffered a damaging global propaganda defeat. And unfortunately, some of the wounds were self-inflicted.

Three weeks ago, the world’s news media erupted into a feeding frenzy over new charges that the Americans were up to their evil old tricks. The story was all too familiar: Once again, it seemed, the United States had committed unspeakable atrocities, then lied about its illegal activities and been exposed. Every day there were fresh revelations and allegations. There is just one problem. It isn’t true.

WP. Willy Pete. White phosphorus. For nearly a century, militaries around the world have used cascading showers of burning WP particles on the battlefield. It makes smoke to mark targets or hide friendly troops. It is also an incendiary weapon, used to burn enemy materiel and enemy combatants. WP was used effectively by U.S. troops in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It was used by the Russians in Chechnya and all sides in the former Yugoslavia. It has remained a standard part of the U.S. arsenal. The U.S. military used it in the retaking of Fallouja a year ago. It is nasty stuff, but war is nasty.


As usual, it is the coverup that gets you into trouble. The guilty flee where none pursueth, but the righteous are bold as a lion.


The corpses shown in the Italian documentary had blackened skin, consistent with putrefaction after death. Their decayed condition provided no indication of the cause of death — except that it was unlikely to have been white phosphorus. The bodies did not have the localized burns expected from WP particles, and their clothes were not burned as they would have been if they had been hit by a shower of WP particles. White phosphorus was indeed used to burn enemy combatants in Fallouja, but the unfortunates depicted in the Italian documentary probably died from some other cause.


So with no direct evidence of an atrocity, and the United States using lawful weapons, why does most of the world now believe just the contrary? And make no mistake: This slowly emerged as a story here, but it has been a big story around the world.

I was confronted with these disparate realities when I was interviewed both by CNN and CNN International a few days after the story broke. Domestic CNN, airing here in the United States, was skeptical of the scandal. CNN International, airing before an audience that had already accepted the Italian documentary as fact, took a far less skeptical approach. The two CNNs — one for the U.S. and one for everyone else — embodied the separate realities now occupied by the United States and the rest of the world. We see ourselves as well intentioned. Much of the rest of the world does not.

And where was the U.S. government while our reputation was dragged through more mud? Where was the State Department’s uber-spinmeister, Karen Hughes, all this time? U.S. officials were exacerbating the problem, providing easily debunked denials that simply stoked the feeding frenzy.

The only scandal here is that our government allowed the nation to fall victim to clumsy, cheap anti-American propaganda. At least during the Cold War, we made the Soviets work to discredit us.

Quite right. This was, once again, a case where the Blogosphere got the story right and quickly.

Update: Via John Cole, I see that CJCS Peter Pace has finally weighed in on this.


FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Military Affairs, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.