Global Policy Forum

Willy Peter


By Danny Mayer*

January 2006

The U.S. is again using white phosphorus, a chemical munition known more commonly in the military as Willy Peter.

White phosphorus is a chemical weapon with two different uses. In its "conventional" use as a tool of war, white phosphorus provides illumination and smoke cover for soldiers in combat. During the battle of Fallujah in November 2004, the United States used white phosphorus in "shake and bake" missions to flush out insurgent positions. Such use potentially violates the Geneva Convention on Biological and Chemical Weapons of 1980 banning the use of incendiary weapons in civilian areas. (The U.S. has yet to sign this part of the Convention.)

While the Pentagon initially denied using white phosphorus in any capacity other than as an illumination round, reports from embedded U.S. journalists and a March 2005 Field Artillery magazine article published by the U.S. military said just the opposite. These two sources, coupled with Italian media and eyewitness accounts of civilians in Fallujah burned to the bone, forced the Pentagon to change from suggesting purity of motive ("we don't use napalm or chemical weapons") to a more nuanced and legalistic terminology. Now, it seems, white phosphorus was "used as an incendiary weapon against enemy combatants."

Because the U.S. is not a signatory to the 1980 Geneva Convention and has challenged the legal definition of chemical weapons, the Pentagon now claims that white phosphorus is "not a chemical weapon" and therefore "not outlawed or illegal." For the Pentagon, at least, the "shake and bake" missions are a "potent psychological weapon" that will drive the enemy "out of their holes." The use of white phosphorus has a particularly brutal history. During the war in Vietnam, the U.S. used white phosphorous as an improved form of napalm, terrorizing enemies. Then, as now, it was touted as a psychological tool of warfare necessary to subdue enemy hamlets.

Unlike napalm, which in Vietnam left villagers and enemies alike with massive burns all over their bodies, white phosphorus burns down to the bone. Le The Thrung, a Vietnamese doctor studying white phosphorus burns in 1969, describes its effects on the skin: "[b]urning phosphorus produces 800-1,000 degrees centigrade heat. Scattered phosphorus particles go on consuming themselves and deepen burn wounds." Next, chemical compounds "create a chemical burn, like an acid, drawing water from the cells. This process generates great pain in the nervous system." Finally, white phosphorus compounds oxygenate and penetrate "the blood stream and white blood cells in the dermis, subdermis, and deeper skin layers." This creates what he calls an "organic toxicity [that] blocks off all blood circulation with the burn area."

It wasn't just medical professionals noting the brutal effects of white phosphorus. A U.S. serviceperson, at the height of the Vietnam War, remarked, "We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn't so hot—if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene—now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willy Peter so's to make it burn better. It'll even burn under water now. And one drop is enough; it'll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorus poisoning."

This is what our military and political leaders currently define as a "potent psychological weapon?" These are the actions that citizens of empire are to support and legitimize, even if tacitly, in the name of spreading democracy and securing our own nebulous borders?

No, this is not about our national feelings of moral fortitude. This is about civilians and "enemies" alike having chemicals dropped on them like rain and their skin bubbling, melting, wasting away with no way to scrape off the pain of oxidizing phosphorus and no way to cauterize the slow, painful melting into the nervous system and bloodstream. No, for those getting "smoked out of their holes," there is very little, if anything, psychological about Willy Peter.

About the Author: Danny Mayer is a PhD student at the University of Kentucky.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Indiscriminate and Especially Injurious Weapons
More Information on Siege Tactics and Attacks on Population Centers
More Information on the Humanitarian Consequences of the Iraq War
More Information on the International Law Aspects of the Iraq War


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