White phosphorus, Willy Pete, WP. It's weaponized to burst into dense smoke spewing yellow flames when exposed to oxygen--meaning air--and it burns hot enough to melt flesh. We didn't use it in Fallujah in November 2004, when we pretended to drive the insurgents out--no matter what that Italian television network RAI says. Wait, we did use it, but only to create smoke to conceal our stealth movement through those narrow, twisted streets. No, we did use it in the other way, too, and, in fact--take that you Italians--we're so honest we even reported it ourselves. We used it on insurgents, not civilians. We know that because all of the 300,000 or so civilians had left before we rolled in. We told 'em to leave, anyway, and if close to 100,000 remained and some of them got burned--well, shit happens. WP is not banned by any international treaty that we signed, not that we pay any mind to treaties. It's not like we firebombed the whole place or anything, although maybe we should have.
White phosphorus is a waxy solid which burns easily and is used in chemical manufacturing and smoke munitions. Exposure to white phosphorus may cause burns and irritation, liver, kidney, heart, lung, or bone damage, and death. White phosphorus has been found in at least 77 of the 1,416 National Priorities List sites identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. For a good history and disquisition on phosphorous, see this Denver Univeristy site. It's nasty.
The Independent today has a fine review article, taking the U.S. and Britain to task for using incendiary bombs (M 77s), cluster bombs, and white phosphorus [Note: The military and most of the American press use "phosphorous," but "phosphorus" is the preferred spelling] in Iraq, especially white phosphorus. The March-April 2005 Field Artillery Magazine carries a bare bones account of the use of WP in Fallujah in November 2004, and the shells weren't fired just to blow smoke.
"WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition," report Captain James T. Cobb, First Lieutenant Christopher A. LaCour, and Sergeant First Class William H. Hight. "We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosives]. We fired 'shake and bake' missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out." Elsewhere, they talk of reserving WP for "lethal missions."
Lethal, indeed: weaponized white phosphorus ignites when exposed to air and burns until it consumes itself or is deprived of oxygen. It sticks like superglue to skin and basically melts its victim down to the bone unless they find a way to suffocate it. It will "steal your face right off your head." (The Grateful Dead, "He's Gone.") The phosphorus pentoxide in the smoke becomes a heat producer when it encounters moisture and thus can damage eyes, lungs, nasal passages.
Arguably, when used for "lethal missions," WP becomes a chemical weapon, a WMD, the very thing the Bushbuckers started the war to find and eradicate. The Pentagon disputes that, of course, saying that WP is ever and always an incendiary weapon. For legal purposes the distinction is important--the use of chemical weapons would violate international law--but whatever it is technically and legally, practically it is nasty shit, intended to inflict pain, suffering, and death. Ethically and morally, the use of WP against people is unjustifiable.
Cobb, LaCour, and Hight say that they encountered no civilians in their southern sector, and we can believe them, but there were civilians in Fallujah, and they were exposed to white phosphorus. We don't do torture. We don't use chemical weapons. Except when we do, and whether we are signatory to the appropriate treaties or not matters less than that we have become worse than our enemies. Because we have stooped to the level of hatred, oppression, violence, and torture of our worst enemy, we will never defeat them. We can only hope to hold the people who order the use of these weapons and these abuses accountable for their crimes.