Willy Peter


he 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

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

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.” 

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

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

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.

Mayer is a PhD student at the University of Kentucky.