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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

North County Times November 21, 2005

U.S. Marines: ferocious, lethal and legal

By North County Times Editorial Staff

Our view: Italian criticism of tactics misplaced, as is foolish Pentagon dissembling

International critics are wrong to brand U.S. Marines as war criminals because troops have used incendiary weapons in combat. Almost as wrong are the Pentagon spokespeople who undermine our Marines by denying or otherwise trying to hide this fact of warfare.

As reported Sunday by North County Times reporter Darrin Mortenson, there is an Internet campaign that accuses U.S. forces of using chemical weapons in Iraq in violation of international law. The accusations are bunk, but their profile was raised two weeks ago by a documentary aired on Italy's state-run television broadcast network.

The documentary focused on the use of white phosphorus by Camp Pendleton Marines during their invasion last year of Fallujah, a hotbed of Iraqi terrorism where a mob killed and desecrated the corpses of four American civilian contractors. White phosphorus, which ignites upon contact with air, is used chiefly to illuminate targets for bombardment. But for nearly 90 years militaries have also used phosphorus to kill people.

Producers of the documentary quoted so-called experts who concluded use of white phosphorus constituted outlawed chemical warfare.

Let's set the record straight: U.S. Marines used white phosphorus both to illuminate targets and also to kill enemy combatants. We know because Darrin Mortenson and NCT photographer Hayne Palmour were there, and they saw mortar crews lob phosphorus rounds onto positions specifically to destroy or dislodge entrenched enemy forces.

But the Italians are dead wrong: Incendiary weapons are a lethal part of combat, but they are not illegal under international law.

So why does the apparently disoriented Pentagon, and earlier the State Department, mislead the world about our use of these legitimate weapons?

Since the 2003 invasion, high military officials or Pentagon spokespeople have equivocated: First they denied using white phosphorus to kill people, then they confirmed its use, then they denied it again, most recently on Sunday.

Tragically, this is part of a pattern in which U.S. officials clumsily have tried to prevent the worldwide public from seeing the horrors of war. This makes it look like the United States is trying to hide something, and it undermines our military.

In fact, all evidence suggests that U.S. forces are doing the best job in military history of deploying deadly technology against the enemy while at the same time minimizing civilian casualties.

Like napalm, the more famous incendiary weapon, white phosphorus protects Marines and soldiers by raining death upon enemy positions. It is more precise than napalm, so it is more effective in close quarters, says John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org and one of the world's leading military experts.

Pike points out that two decades ago, when world leaders were negotiating the destruction of chemical weapons such as VX and sarin nerve gases, they did not include napalm or white phosphorus. That is because incendiaries are not "chemical weapons" any more than a bullet is a banned weapon just because a chemical compound propels its projectile.

White phosphorus is a ferocious, lethal weapon. Our Marine Corps is the world's most ferocious, lethal fighting force. The Pentagon is wrong to try to finesse or sanitize this key point: War is about destroying things and killing people. If enemy forces don't want to suffer horrible deaths, we suggest they steer clear of the Marines.


Copyright 2005, North County Times