The ISIS video of a Jordanian pilot being burned to death prompted denunciations over this unique form of savagery. How unique is it really?
The latest ISIS atrocity – releasing a video of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive – prompted substantial discussion yesterday about this particular form of savagery. It is thus worth noting that deliberately burning people to death is achievable – and deliberately achieved – in all sorts of other ways:
The most immediate consequence of drone strikes is, of course, death and injury to those targeted or near a strike. The missiles fired from drones kill or injure in several ways, including through incineration, shrapnel, and the release of powerful blast waves capable of crushing internal organs. Those who do survive drone strikes often suffer disfiguring burns and shrapnel wounds, limb amputations, as well as vision and hearing loss. . . .
In addition, because the Hellfire missiles fired from drones often incinerate the victims’ bodies, and leave them in pieces and unidentifiable, traditional burial processes are rendered impossible. As Firoz Ali Khan, a shopkeeper whose father-in-law’s home was struck, graphically described, “These missiles are very powerful. They destroy human beings . . .There is nobody left and small pieces left behind. Pieces. Whatever is left is just little pieces of bodies and cloth.” A doctor who has treated drone victims described how “[s]kin is burned so that you can’t tell cattle from human.” When another interviewee came upon the site of the strike that killed his father, “[t]he entire place looked as if it was burned completely, so much so that even [the victims’] own clothes had burnt. All the stones in the vicinity had become black.” Ahmed Jan, who lost his foot in the March 17 jirga strike, discussed the challenges rescuers face in identifying bodies: “People were trying to find the body parts. We find the body parts of some people, but sometimes we do not find anything.”
One father explained that key parts of his son’s burial process had to be skipped over as a result of the severe damage to his body. “[A]fter that attack, the villagers came and took the bodies to the hospital. We didn’t see the bodies. They were in coffins, boxes. The bodies were in pieces and burnt.” Idris Farid, who was injured and lost several of his relatives in the March 17 jirga strike, described how, after that strike, relatives “had to collect their body pieces and bones and then bury them like that.” The difficulty of identifying individual corpses also makes it difficult to separate individuals into different graves. Masood Afwan, who lost several relatives in the March 17 jirga strike, described how the dead from that strike were buried: “They held a funeral for everybody, in the same location, one by one. Their bodies were scattered into tiny pieces. They…couldn’t be identified” . . . .
 See, e.g., Yancy Y Phillips & Joan T. Zajchuk, The Management of Primary Blast Injury, in Conventional Warfare: Ballistic, Blast and Burn Injuries 297 (1991) (“The thermal pulse from a detonation may burn exposed skin, or secondary fires may be started by the detonation and more serious burns may be suffered.”); AGM-114N Metal Augmented Charge (MAC) Thermobaric Hellfire, GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/agm-114n.htm (last visited Aug. 17, 2012) (“The new [AGM-114N Thermobaric Hellfire] warhead contains a fluorinated aluminum powder layered between the warhead casing and the PBXN-112 explosive fill. When the PBXN-112 detonates, the aluminum mixture is dispersed and rapidly burns. The resultant sustained high pressure is extremely effective against enemy personnel and structures.”); Explosions and Blast Injuries: A Primer for Clinicians, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.bt.cdc.gov/masscasualties/explosions.asp (last visited on Sept. 17, 2012) (outlining one of the types of blast injuries as “burns (flash, partial, and full thickness”)).
Instead, a few days after [Obama’s] inaugural address, a CIA-operated drone dropped Hellfire missiles on Fahim Qureishi’s home in North Waziristan, killing seven of his family members and severely injuring Fahim. He was just 13 years old and left with only one eye, and shrapnel in his stomach. . . .
Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on drones at the National Defense University today. He is likely to tell his fellow Americans that drones are precise and effective at killing militants.
But his words will be little consolation for 8-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct. 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 p.m., a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.
Mousid al-Taysi was travelling in a wedding convoy celebrating a cousin’s marriage when a missile slammed down from the sky. All he remembers are bright red-and-orange colours, then the grisly sight of a dozen burned bodies and the cries of others wounded around him.
Mousid survived the December 12 attack in Yemen’s central al-Baydah province, apparently launched by an American drone, but his physical and psychological recovery process is just beginning. If confirmed, it would be the deadliest drone attack in the country in more than a year. . . .
After talking with victims and family members in the area, it was clear a majority of civilians were among the carnage of the targeted wedding convoy. . . .
Civilians living under drones said they live in constant fear of being hit again. “Many people in our village have expressed terror at the thought of another strike,” Sulaimani said. “When the kids hear a plane they no longer climb the trees searching for where that noise came from. They each immediately run to their houses.”
She has eyelashes but no eyebrows. She has all her fingers but is missing four nails. Her skin is so taut now that she can no longer frown.
But she can still smile.
Her face tells a story of suffering. Her name, Shakira, tells a story of a new journey. . .
Last week, 4-year-old Shakira arrived in the United States for what her caretaker, Hashmat Effendi, hopes will be the start of the rest of her life.
Shakira, discovered with severe burns in Pakistan, will undergo reconstructive surgery in January. . . . All anyone could say is that there had been a U.S. drone attack, though U.S. officials say that drones have never struck targets in Swat.
Ever since last November, when US forces battled to clear Fallujah of insurgents, there have been repeated claims that troops used “unusual” weapons in the assault that all but flattened the Iraqi city. Specifically, controversy has focussed on white phosphorus shells (WP) – an incendiary weapon usually used to obscure troop movements but which can equally be deployed as an offensive weapon against an enemy. The use of such incendiary weapons against civilian targets is banned by international treaty. . . .
The debate was reignited last week when an Italian documentary claimed Iraqi civilians – including women and children – had been killed by terrible burns caused by WP. The documentary, Fallujah: the Hidden Massacre, by the state broadcaster RAI, cited one Fallujah human-rights campaigner who reported how residents told how “a rain of fire fell on the city”. . . . The claims contained in the RAI documentary have met with a strident official response from the US . . . .
While military experts have supported some of these criticisms, an examination by The Independent of the available evidence suggests the following: that WP shells were fired at insurgents, that reports from the battleground suggest troops firing these WP shells did not always know who they were hitting and that there remain widespread reports of civilians suffering extensive burn injuries. While US commanders insist they always strive to avoid civilian casualties, the story of the battle of Fallujah highlights the intrinsic difficulty of such an endeavour.
It is also clear that elements within the US government have been putting out incorrect information about the battle of Fallujah, making it harder to assesses the truth. Some within the US government have previously issued disingenuous statements about the use in Iraq of another controversial incendiary weapon – napalm. . . .
Another report, published in the Washington Post, gave an idea of the sorts of injuries that WP causes. It said insurgents “reported being attacked with a substance that melted their skin, a reaction consistent with white phosphorous burns”. A physician at a local hospital said the corpses of insurgents “were burned, and some corpses were melted”. . . .
Yet there are other, independent reports of civilians from Fallujah suffering burn injuries. For instance, Dahr Jamail, an unembedded reporter who collected the testimony of refugees from the city spoke to a doctor who had remained in the city to help people, encountered numerous reports of civilians suffering unusual burns.
One resident told him the US used “weird bombs that put up smoke like a mushroom cloud” and that he watched “pieces of these bombs explode into large fires that continued to burn on the skin even after people dumped water on the burns.” The doctor said he “treated people who had their skin melted.”
Jeff Englehart, a former marine who spent two days in Fallujah during the battle, said he heard the order go out over military communication that WP was to be dropped. In the RAI film, Mr Englehart, now an outspoken critic of the war, says: “I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it’s known as Willy Pete … Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone … I saw the burned bodies of women and children” . . . .
Napalm was used in several instances during the initial invasion. Colonel Randolph Alles, commander of Marine Air Group 11, remarked during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003: “The generals love napalm – it has a big psychological effect.”
I was not aware the Pentagon had called me a liar. . . .
An editor in Sydney took the call from the Pentagon’s Lieutenant-Commander Jeff Davies a day after the beginning of the ground war in Iraq 10 years ago today. My report for Fairfax Media of the opening of hostilities, which referred to the use of Vietnam-era napalm, was ”patently false”, he said. . . .
It was not until US Marine Corps fighter pilots and commanders started returning from the war zone later in 2003 that the Pentagon’s deceit was exposed in interviews conducted by the San Diego Union Tribune.
The pilots described how they had dropped massive fireballs they called napalm on Iraqi forces as marines battled towards Baghdad.
On August 4, 2003, a Pentagon spokesman admitted that ”Mark 77” incendiary devices were used by the US forces, which he acknowledged were ”remarkably similar” to napalm weapons.
The Mark 77s used a fuel-gel mixture that was similar to napalm, he conceded.
Asked about Safwan Hill, US Marine colonel Mike Daily said: ”I can confirm that Mark 77 firebombs were used in that general area.”
Incendiary bombs were also dropped in April 2003 near bridges over the Saddam Canal and Tigris River, returning officers revealed.
”We napalmed both those [bridge] approaches,” said Colonel Randolph Alles who commanded Marine Air Group 11 during the war.
”There were Iraqi soldiers there. It’s not a great way to die.”
Colonel Alles added that napalm had a ”big psychological effect” on an enemy. ”The generals love napalm,” he said.
Israel has acknowledged for the first time that it attacked Hezbollah targets during the second Lebanon war with phosphorus shells. White phosphorus causes very painful and often lethal chemical burns to those hit by it, and until recently Israel maintained that it only uses such bombs to mark targets or territory. . . .
During the war several foreign media outlets reported that Lebanese civilians carried injuries characteristic of attacks with phosphorus, a substance that burns when it comes to contact with air. In one CNN report, a casualty with serious burns was seen lying in a South Lebanon hospital.
In another case, Dr. Hussein Hamud al-Shel, who works at Dar al-Amal hospital in Ba’albek, said that he had received three corpses “entirely shriveled with black-green skin,” a phenomenon characteristic of phosphorus injuries.
Lebanon’s President Emile Lahoud also claimed that the IDF made use of phosphorus munitions against civilians in Lebanon.
Israel’s repeated firing of white phosphorus shells over densely populated areas of Gaza during its recent military campaign was indiscriminate and is evidence of war crimes, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 71-page report, “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” provides witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property in Gaza. . . .
“In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops,” said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report. “It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died” . . . .
Israel at first denied it was using white phosphorus in Gaza but, facing mounting evidence to the contrary, said that it was using all weapons in compliance with international law. Later it announced an internal investigation into possible improper white phosphorus use. . . .
The IDF knew that white phosphorus poses life-threatening dangers to civilians, Human Rights Watch said. A medical report prepared during the recent hostilities by the Israeli ministry of health said that white phosphorus “can cause serious injury and death when it comes into contact with the skin, is inhaled or is swallowed.” Burns on less than 10 percent of the body can be fatal because of damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart, the ministry report says. Infection is common and the body’s absorption of the chemical can cause serious damage to internal organs, as well as death. . . .
All of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time. . . . The United States government, which supplied Israel with its white phosphorus munitions, should also conduct an investigation to determine whether Israel used it in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.
The girl in the photo — naked, crying, burned, running, with other children, away from the smoke — became emblematic of human suffering during the Vietnam War. Kim Phuc was 9 then, a child who would spend the next 14 months in the hospital and the rest of her life in skin blistered from the napalm that hit her body and burned off her clothes. She ran until she no longer could, and then she fainted. . . .
Phuc went outside and saw the plane getting closer, and then heard the sound of four bombs hitting the ground. She couldn’t run. She didn’t know until later, but the bombs carried napalm, a gel-like incendiary that clings to its victims as it burns.
“Suddenly I saw the fire everywhere around me,” she remembers. “At that moment, I didn’t see anyone, just the fire. Suddenly, I saw my left arm burning. I used my right hand to try to take it off.”
Her left hand was damaged, too. Her clothes burned off. Later, she would be thankful that her feet weren’t damaged because she could run away, run until she was outside the fire. She saw her brothers, her cousins, and some soldiers running, too. She ran until she couldn’t run any more. . . . Two of her cousins, ages 9 months and 3 years, died in the bombing. Phuc had burns over two-thirds of her body and was not expected to live.
Unlike ISIS, the U.S. usually (though not always) tries to suppress (rather than gleefully publish) evidence showing the victims of its violence. Indeed, concealing stories about the victims of American militarism is a critical part of the U.S. government’s strategy for maintaining support for its sustained aggression. That is why, in general, the U.S. media has a policy of systematically excluding and ignoring such victims (although disappearing them this way does not actually render them nonexistent).
One could plausibly maintain that there is a different moral calculus involved in (a) burning a helpless captive to death as opposed to (b) recklessly or even deliberately burning civilians to death in areas that one is bombing with weapons purposely designed to incinerate human beings, often with the maximum possible pain. That’s the moral principle that makes torture specially heinous: sadistically inflicting pain and suffering on a helpless detainee is a unique form of barbarity.
But there is nonetheless something quite obfuscating about this beloved ritual of denouncing the unique barbarism of ISIS. It is true that ISIS seems to have embraced a goal – a strategy – of being incomparably savage, inhumane and morally repugnant. That the group is indescribably nihilistic and morally grotesque is beyond debate.
That’s exactly what makes the intensity of these repeated denunciation rituals somewhat confounding. Everyone decent, by definition, fully understands that ISIS is repellent and savage. While it’s understandable that being forced to watch the savagery on video prompts strong emotions (although, again, hiding savagery does not in fact make it less savage), it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ritualistic expressed revulsion has a definitive utility.
The constant orgy of condemnation aimed at this group seems to have little purpose other than tribal self-affirmation: no matter how many awful acts our government engages in, at least we don’t do something like that, at least we’re not as bad as them. In some instances, that may be true, but even when it is, the differences are usually much more a matter of degree than category (much the way that angry denunciations over the Taliban for suicide-bombing a funeral of one of its victims hides the fact that the U.S. engages in its own “double tap” practice of bombing rescuers and funeral mourners for its drone victims). To the extent that these denunciation rituals make us forget or further obscure our own governments’ brutality – and that seems to be the overriding effect if not the purpose of these rituals – they are worse than worthless; they are actively harmful.
Photo: Horst Faas/AP
UPDATE: One tweeter, responding to this article, made a point harshly though succinctly: