Thursday, January 15, 2009

White Phosphorus in Gaza: Hot Substance, Hot-Button Phrase

Expect to hear a lot about white phosphorus in the news. It's a hot-burning substance. International law limits its military use to "signaling, screening, and incendiary purposes." And, that's how Israeli Defense Forces have been using it.

And, news editors like to put the phrase, "white phosphorus, in accounts of Israeli forces in Gaza: whether it has much to do with the story, or not.

White Phosphorus: the New Napalm

I remember the Vietnam War era, and how the word "napalm" was guaranteed to produce a gut-level reaction in right-thinking people.1 These days, I see that white phosphorus is the new napalm, or nearly so.

Like napalm, I'd much rather not get up close and personal with white phosphorus. Not while it's burning. And, I doubt that we'll see many protesters showing how bad white phosphorus is by burning each other. Demonstrating the horrors of waterboarding on your friends or colleagues is fairly safe. White phosphorus isn't.

The phrase, "white phosphorus" has been showing up in the news from Gaza. The news services aren't lying. Israeli forces really are using white phosphorus. Legally, according to international law, as far as I can tell.

That's not the impression you'd get, though.

As I've said, often, it's best to study the news, not just absorb it: The feeling-to-fact ratio is too high. And, sometimes what isn't reported tells more than what is. I don't see evidence that, with the exception of tabloids and some state-run news services in the world's better-regulated countries, newspapers, magazines, and television news deliberately lie. Given the relative isolation of many editorial boards, I doubt that most news services deliberately distort facts.

They probably aren't aware that the unevenly applied principle of moral equivalence that seems to permeate their subculture is more sophisticated in the fashionable sense, than the philosophical.

And, when a news service does publish 'facts' - or photos - that just aren't so, there are bloggers around to catch their little oopsies.

White Phosphorus, Sherman Potter, Gaza, and Thinking

First, a few words about the 'Three Fs:'
  • Feelings
  • Fiction
  • Facts
I have nothing against feelings: they're part of the human experience, and add richness and texture to our lives. Feelings may happen when we're exposed to either facts or fiction. In fact2, it's a poor sort of fiction that doesn't evoke emotion.
I enjoy a good story. Fiction offers everything from nearly-mindless entertainment to philosophy: pop and otherwise. But, realistic as it may seem, it isn't real.
These are what we keep running into, if we depend entirely on feelings and fiction to determine what we believe. And, since facts tend to be hard, with sharp corners, running into one can hurt.

And, for people who choose to live in the real world, it's important to remember what's fact, what's fiction, and not let feelings get in the way of thinking.
Learning from the Wit and Wisdom of Sherman Potter
I enjoy watching M*A*S*H reruns, and remember when Colonel Sherman Potter joined the unit. A self-described 'old war-horse' was a decorated army doctor with a heart of gold and a knack for eloquently expressing keen insights.

For example, in "Pressure Points," the good doctor is moved to tears by news of a new horror, white phosphorus. "If they can invent better ways to kill each other, why can't they invent a way to end this stupid war??!" (Wikipedia)

It's a moving scene, and stands out clearly in my memory.

And, it's fiction. Colonel Sherman Potter is a character played by Harry Morgan, whose acting career extends far beyond the televised exploits of the 4077th.

White phosphorus is real, and had military applications before 1928.

And, the pain and suffering of war, so eloquently expressed by Sherman Potter and the rest of the M*A*S*H characters over the years, is very real.

Although it's actually an opinion, many people accept the idea the world would be a better place if there weren't any wars. I feel that way, myself.

War isn't nice, and we'd be better off without it. But, since people like Osama bin Laden, Adolph Hitler, and Timothy McVeigh have a tendency to kill people who get in the way of their ideals, I don't see Earth being a groovy war-free zone any time in the foreseeable future.

Heated Views and White Phosphorus

The way people use the phrase "white phosphorus" reminds me more of Sherman Potter losing his cool, than of the facts I've dug up about it.

Online references I've found are generally emotionally-charged insults or accusations (like this comment on a YouTube video: "yeah, but i dont concider myself canadian, north america is not a union i want to be part of. You probably know nothing of the fear and carnage white phosphorus causes." (connorellis (1 year ago))

Factual references to white phosphorus are few and far between - and the best-linked ones are mostly undocumented copies of text that also appears in a Wikipedia article.

Some of the facts:
  • White phosphorus is a substance that burns when it's exposed to oxygen - even the 20% mix we call 'air'
    • You really don't want to touch it, because it
      • Sticks to skin and muscle,
      • Can burn right down to the bone
  • Israeli forces have used it, apparently within the limits of international law
  • The phrase "white phosphorus" is being used the way "napalm" was, back in the Vietnam War era - to express or whip up emotions
And, I think it's quite possible that people who may be non-combatants in Gaza may show up with the sort of nasty burns that white phosphorus produces.

Considering the way that Hamas, and, apparently, UNRWA, uses non-combatants as shielding and potential propaganda fodder, It shouldn't surprise anyone that some innocent Palestinians get hurt or killed: by white phosphorus, or the roof falling on them. That sort of thing happens when you've got 'friends' like that lot.

Staying in Your Comfort Zone, or Getting Real

It's very easy to believe one of the conventional, traditional, lines:
  • When terrorists kill Jews in a coffee shop it's just as bad, but no worse, than when Israeli soldiers kill terrorists who make suicide vests
  • That
    • Whatever America (or Hamas, or Israel, or Iran) does is right, because they're the good guys
    • Whatever America or some other entity does is wrong, because they're the bad guys
In some circles, you'll make points by opining that Al Qaeda was forced to act against the west, and that what happened to New York City's World Trade Center was mostly the fault of America's oppressive culture.

I'm far from one of those "America can do no wrong" people. I know too much. I don't always approve - not that it matters - of Israel's policies. I even understand that some Palestinians might have a legitimate grievance over land ownership.

But I can't go with the flow, and accept the packaged attitudes that America's dominant culture provides.

When it comes to the War on Terror, it gets worse: or, rather, more complicated. I'm a devout Catholic, so America's contemporary culture of "Barbies, live-in girlfriends, and thongs" is not the best match with my way of life and philosophy. I can, perhaps better than many Americans, imagine what this country looks like from a devout Muslim's point of view.

That doesn't mean that I condone taking down the Twin Towers, and killing family members because they step out of line. That's just plain wrong: and some Muslims agree. ("More about 'Yeh Hum Naheen' / 'This is Not Us' " (August 9, 2007), "Honor Killing is Against Islam, Islamic Party Members Say " (September 7, 2008))

And, I don't see eye-to-eye with people who seem offended when they see someone wearing a crucifix or a head scarf ("I'm With the Devout Muslims on This One" (September 19, 2007)). But I'm at least as concerned about places like Saudi Arabia, whose ruler doesn't allow people to carry un-Islamic things like Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings, and items with religious symbols such as the Star of David, into the country.

Enough! I've got a project to finish, and it's getting late.

Related post: In the news: Background:
1 Actually, many of them were left-thinking, but that's a whole different topic.

2 I couldn't resist playing with those words.

3 Command Historian, U.S. Army Chemical and Biological Defense Command, Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland 21010-5423.


Anonymous said...

It is a sad story! Wish the war will be really over by now.

Brian H. Gill said...


I'm not quite sure what you mean. Palestinians have been killing Jews, and Israel has been condemned for discouraging them, for decades now.

Since, at this time, there are still Palestinians and Jews - and little evidence that the more assertive Palestinians have decided to use the international judicial system, rather that rockets and suicide vests, to settle their land dispute, I doubt that this is the end of the violence in Israel and Gaza.

As for various aspects of the War on Terror, Al Qaeda and related groups show no sign of giving up on their goals, and America, together with a surprising number of other countries, show little sign of being willing to accept Al Qaeda and company's version if Islam.

The War on Terror is not, I think, over.

If I missed the war you had in mind, sorry about that. I'm in a hurry.

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.