As I write this, the BBC is reporting that UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is “urgently” investigating reports of a chemical weapons attack in the Ukrainian town of Mariupol. The US Department of Defense finds the reports “deeply concerning”.
Usually, when Western governments start quacking about “chemical attacks”, it means they are planning to take action – airstrikes in Syria, sanctions on Russia, etc. – and they’re looking for an excuse.
This does not appear to be an exception to this rule: later in the story, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar identifies the probable weapon as “phosphorus ammunition”.
It would most likely be white phosphorus, an element that is not classified as a chemical weapon under the Chemical Weapons Convention. It is used as a component in smoke, illuminating, incendiary, and tracer shells for everything from small arms to heavy artillery, as well as in grenades, by most major armies on Earth.
In theory, it is illegal to use white phosphorus to attack “personnel”, but acceptable to use on “equipment”.
It’s a pretty big loophole. As an 81mm mortar in the United States Marine Corps, I often trained on what we called “shake and bake” missions, involving a mixture of white phosphorus and high explosive shells. The proof ? We would shoot at the enemy’s “equipment”. This would include their uniforms, canteens, etc. If they chose to stick with that “equipment,” well, that was their problem.
If the weapon in question is indeed white phosphorus, calling the incident a “chemical” attack is neither legally accurate nor new. It’s a nasty trick – it burns incredibly hot and water won’t put it out – but it’s been widely used since World War I, including, probably, by both sides in the Ukrainian conflict.
In truth, chemical weapons are not particularly useful on the modern battlefield. Soldiers of all nations wear and are trained in the use of protective equipment. Such weapons have some use in short-term “denial of territory” – preventing the enemy from entering a given space for fear of exposure. However, they are not a game changer. And, with one exception, most diets won’t use them precisely because the effects aren’t worth the negative feedback.
This exception is CS, commonly known as “tear gas”.
Unlike white phosphorus, “tear gas” is banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. It cannot legally be used on the battlefields of international conflicts.
But most regimes, including the US government, use it freely on “their own people” (another phrase often used in pre-escalation propaganda) to break up protests, root out suspects in clashes with police, etc
CS, which is highly flammable, was the agent used in the 1993 U.S. government spirited massacre of 76 Branch Davidians, including 25 children, near Waco.
The United States also maintains stockpiles of more lethal agents, which it agreed by treaty in 1997 to destroy by 2007. What’s the heist?
Given that the U.S. government itself possesses several real chemical weapons and the frequent, if not occasional, use of another, calling a supposed white phosphorus attack in a war zone “deeply concerning” seems, at best, hypocritical and opportunistic.
— Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.