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Friday, November 11, 2005 

Broken Rules Of War? (US Fire Over Falluja)

There are numerous things that happen in combat and warfare that justify the famous quote by William T. Sherman: “War is Hell”. Many in today’s society (including some facets of the military), have forgotten that the goal of war is to kill people. They have fostered a false sense of security that war, while it happens, can be conducted cleanly and morally.

However, war, by its very nature, is immoral and reprehensible. “It is well that war is so terrible, lest we should grow too fond if it.” Those words, spoken by General Robert E. Lee could never be more true than today, where “Hyper-War” means we can kill more people with a flight of aircraft, than a battalion of soldiers. This is where our false sense of “cleanliness” has come from. We have gotten used to fighting the enemy from 30,000 feet in the air, where you cannot see their death masks and burnt out vehicles.

Falluja was different. For years the military has been practicing and training for the eventuality of “urban warfare.” They knew there would come a time, where US soldiers would be required to enter a hostile city, and fight the enemy house to house, street to street. They knew this type of fighting was the greatest risk to US personnel, and opened opportunity for the most casualties.

In any combat situation, soldiers and Marines are taught that there are two objectives every commander must consider. They must be exercised in priority order to ensure success on the battle field. The first is mission accomplishment, the second is troop welfare. All other concerns are secondary to these two pillars of combat leadership.

This concept is hard to explain to the average lay-person, as it contradicts the normal edicts of society that we should always consider the welfare of those around us, regardless of our personal feelings towards them. The survival mentality used in combat strikes directly at the core of our “politeness” in normal society.

This is precisely why the issue of the United States using incendiary weapons, in situations with potential mass collateral damage implications, must be discussed, from rational and objective views. At what point do we draw the line between smart tactics and brutal measures? Where do we define the difference between overwhelming firepower and barbaric measures?

Numerous media sources (See: Links for sources) have reported the use of the infamous “Mark-77” weapon (new generation incendiary device, derived from Napalm). It is a fuel-gel mixture that reacts with air creating a sticky inextinguishable flame on whatever target it hits. There are also reports of US artillery using White Phosphorus rounds on the city in support of combat operations. White Phosphorus has the effect of, once exposed to oxygen, burning at an incredible rate and temperature. It normally causes 2nd and 3rd degree burns in a matter of seconds, and continues to burn until either it is gone, or it is deprived of oxygen. Breathing in the fumes is also extremely deadly.

Knowing this, and knowing that the United States Military has done more than any other nation in the world to develop weapons that would prevent unnecessary death and damage, why would they use these weapons on a town environment? This question has to be asked from two perspectives. One from the unit level commander, the “man on the ground with the grunts.” Second from the strategic level of the Pentagon.

From the ground perspective, we need to go back to the fundamental responsibilities of combat leadership: Mission accomplishment, and troop welfare. Bottom line, the use of these weapons, as horrific as it is, in the town of Falluja saved American soldier’s lives, and ensured mission success. They could have accomplished the mission without the use of those weapons, but at what cost in American lives?

From the strategic perspective, I think we have to look at the probable philosophical flaw in thinking. Our military minds develop strategies and tactics under the assumption that the enemies we will fight, will follow the rules of war. We develop incendiary munitions with the intention of using them on open field units (like tanks), to accomplish quick and efficient destruction of a military unit. We deploy land mines under the premise that only enemy military forces will advance on our positions.

Our greatest military strategists do not seem to consider that our troops may be called to enter a town that is full of dug in and determined enemies, with a smattering of innocent civilians that often get caught in the cross fire. They seem to ignore that a small child doesn’t understand that walking up on the US defensive position puts him in peril of walking over a land mine.

We could say that these are due to the militariest being inherently evil, but that would be ignoring the advancement and development of smart bombs, and non-leathal technology. For a nation so preoccupied with war, and with an earnest interest in protecting the innocent in combat situations, why have we made such miscalculations in the use of weapons?

Regardless of the fight, none of us can accept that a small child should suffer from white phosphorus burns because we had to “shake and bake” out insurgents. I’ll be honest, I don’t know the answer to this question, and I don’t know the right answer to the larger moral dilemma. I do know that it must be discussed, at all levels, and by all persuasions.