Friday, November 18, 2005

Michael: Are incendiary weapons unethical?

The Pentagon has admitted using White Phosphorous (WP) on 'enemy combatants' (a term which apparently embraces anyone in Fallujah at the time of the U.S. assault on that city). WP eats flesh down the bone, leaving clothing and structures intact. It has been widely reported that U.S. forces are also using MK-77, a form of napalm in Iraq. Additionally, the Marines have recently introduced a new shoulder mounted assault weapon that uses a fuel-air thermobaric mixture, which has been compared to a micro-nuke, intended to flatten buildings and incinerate any inhabitants.

There may be sound military reasons to use these weapons - force protection, maneuver cover, even their very lethality - but what remains problematic is whether incendiaries such as these raise the same ethical concerns as other banned chemical weapons, such as nerve or blistering agents. So far, the Administration is defending the use of such weapons as a military neccesity, when used with due care to avoid civilian deaths. There is no sign of the Bush Administration soon repudiating the use of any of these munitions.

One of the most attractive properties of these weapons are they are area effect and don't require line of sight by American forces. They wreak terrible damage on multiple enemies, even if you don't know exactly where they are. This is a force multiplier as well as a compensator for poor 'on the ground' intelligence; both features are vitally important for current American operations in Iraq. This feature is also why they are ethically analogous to other chemical weapons. Their effect is more localized and is less subject to unintentional drift into non-combat areas than are 'chemical' weapons, but they are weapons that may be, and often are, used essentially blind. Thus they tend to subject civilians to accidental exposure at a much greater rate than targeted munitions.

If one is killed by an 'conventional' explosive, or by its pressure wave or shrapnel, one is just as dead as if one is cooked by napalm or WP or a fuel-air explosive. Both types of demise are, more or less, the result of a chemical's reaction with the human body, and they both leave your dead: so where's the ethical distinction?

One distinction is hidden by a common, but ethically problematic use of a 'conventional' munitions - aerial bombing. The 'collateral damage' caused by aerial bombardment has come to be accepted as a normal and unavoidable feature of warfare, but there is still a school of thought that considers aerial bombardment of areas inhabited by civilians to be a war crime in and of itself. Aerial bombardment, because it is an indirect and thus inherently indiscriminant use of force presents the same ethical issue I touched on in the previous paragraph. The ethical distinction between death by 'conventional' and 'chemical' weapons ought to be the likelihood of unintended civilian casualties, but the distinction is buried under the mountain of civilian deaths caused by aerial bombardment. But just because the distinction is concealed by 'collateral damage' doesn't mean it's not there.

Another distinction is that there is something viscerally horrifying about death by immolation. It shocks the conscience, as I'm sure the picture I led this post with shocks many readers. Is that reason enough to ban the use of a class of weapon?

It's the best reason. Our ethics are the product of our evolutionary adaptation to social existence. Such a 'gut check' is a good way to know that we are doing something terribly inimical to social order and our long-term survival by using such weapons, even if it is beneficial from a purely utilitarian viewpoint, i.e. serves military mission goals admirably. Despite the fact that military and political leaders may claim that using these weapons aid us in 'winning' the 'war on terror', and even if they are right about that, using such weapons is impermissable because of their indiscriminate and inhumane effects.

We might win battles by use of these awful weapons, but we will lose the war.


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