Killing me softly

Yesterday, we had a bit of a discussion about the military’s use of white phosphorus, and its possible use as a weapon, and whether or not it constitutes a “chemical” or “inhumane” weapon.

That reminded me of an exchange in one of my favorite novels — David Gerrold’s “A Matter For Men.” One of the characters is helping the other put on 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.” He had to drop to his knees to cinch the waist strap. “Although… there’s a lot to be said for maiming –“

“Huh?” I couldn’t see his eyes, so I didn’t know if he was joking or not.

“– but that’s asking too much of both the weapon and its user.”

So, back to the white phosphorus and Fallujah.

Was it used there? Almost guaranteed.

Did it kill people? Entirely possible.

Was it used as a direct weapon? Highly unlikely.

Was it a violation of existing laws and treaties? Highly doubtful.

Let’s take a closer look at those last two questions. White phosphorus, in its current forms and uses, does two things extremely well. It generates smoke, and it gives off tremendous amounts of light. But when used as a weapon directly, those two traits make it extremely undesirable.

When you shoot at something, one key element is seeing just what effect the fire had on the target so you can judge if you need to keep shooting. If you shoot off WP, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of light, heat, and smoke coming out of it — which will screw up visual light, infrared, and night-vision gear and keep you from being able to see just how badly injured or damaged (if at all) your target has been. When used as a flare, WP is fired into the air above the target, not at the target itself. To shoot directly at someone or something with it is pretty damned stupid, and our service members just can not be that stupid. It’s like using a brick as a flyswatter — it just might work, if you’re damned lucky, but it’s far more work than using the right tool, and it’ll most likely cause more problems than it fixes.

Finally, WP is NOT illegal, and NOT a chemical weapon. It does its damage through combustion, not some other effect, so it’s lumped in with gunpowder and explosives. The laws of warfare are quite clear, and WP does NOT fit the bill.

But the point remains: yeah, some weapons are inhumane. Hell, nearly all of them are. But war isn’t a humane process, and the common term for those who try to act as humanely as they can while fighting is “the defeated.”

I'm no woman, hear me roar...
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  1. Old Soldier November 10, 2005
  2. LJD November 11, 2005