As of today, there is a big ruckus in the international media over supposed use of chemical weapons by American troops on Iraqi civilians. The chemical in question is white phosphorous. If white phosphorous is a chemical weapon, then so is gunpowder. White phosphorous is a non-issue. The targeting of civilians in a war zone, whether intentional or accidental, is.
The incidents in question took place last year in the American assault on Fallujah. Over half the city was destroyed in the fighting, and white phosphorous shells were used. How extensively they were deployed has not been addressed to the satisfaction of those critical of its use.
The civilians who were allegedly the targets of this agent found themselves in the unfortunate position of being exposed to war. War zones pick their residents, not the other way around. As I wrote earlier, the intentional targeting of civilians is inexcusable, yet it is also unrealistic to expect no civilian casualties in war.
One frustrating fact of our perceptions of war in this country is our trust in the benevolence of our military. We have the most expensive and precise weapons in the history of warfare. We have the ability to target a building sitting in the middle of a vast metropolis from hundreds of miles away and destroy it with pinpoint accuracy. At least, when everything works perfectly. Our military is expected to attack and destroy only targets of military value, leaving the wider populace unscathed. This is patently ridiculous. What seems to have slipped the minds of so many, not just in this country, but around the world, is the simple fact that war, despite different stated missions and goals, is about killing people.
Blowing people up, severing limbs, poking holes in them with fast-moving pieces of lead, and burning them with white phosphorous are just some of the ways that a nation imposes its will on another. Destroying valuable buildings, no matter who is inside, is another. In a war zone, people die. Our bombs are smarter than most in that they generally go where we tell them to, but they don’t knock on the door first and give any innocents the opportunity to scatter.
War is a bloody mess, the singularly worst thing to ever befall mankind. And no matter how benevolent a country or its intentions may be, when war is waged, people meet the most horrible of fates, intentionally or not. Future politicians in this government, and the populace at large, would do well to remember that sending our troops overseas may ostensibly be about securing peace in an already war-torn nation, bringing regime change, or punishing an aggressor, but one common in all of these, is that we will be killing people. That is what militaries do. Don’t act surprised when they do it. Instead, the mark of our nation should be the reluctance with which we pursue war because we truly understand what it entails, not because of some clichéd sense, which has lost all meaning, that “war is hell.”