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Why “Willy Pete” (White Phosphorus) is a Scourge on the Modern Battlefield

On October 13, media sources including the Washington Post confirmed that Israel had deployed white phosphorus (or “Willy Pete” as it’s called in the military) against targets in Lebanon.

The Israeli Defense Force claims they are “currently not aware of the use of weapons containing Willy Pete in Gaza,” but the video captured on the scene proves this highly controversial weapon has indeed been deployed.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Willy Pete is one of the most terrible weapons ever conceived of or used by humans. The compound ignites at just 86 degrees Fahrenheit, often bursting into flame the moment it’s exposed to oxygen or the instant it comes in contact with warm human skin.

Alleged footage of white phosphorous use by Israel. (Image courtesy of The Guardian)

Once sparked, Willy Pete can burn at up to 2,300 degrees, generating dense clouds of white smoke and burning its victims down to the bone. The resulting burns are prone to infection, and tiny fragments of Willy Pete can even reignite hours later. The compound is so damaging that burns to just 10% of your body can be lethal.

explosion

(Image courtesy of NPR)

In short, Willy Pete is a barbarous kind of weapon that should never be used to target civilians.

And yet, it’s still being used on the battlefield.

Granted, the use of Willy Pete on the battlefield isn’t strictly a war crime (Article I, Protocol III of the Geneva Convention contains an exception for “multipurpose” munitions). But the use of Willy Pete near populated areas or civilians is widely prohibited on the grounds of humanitarian law.

So why do armies keep using it?

Today, we’re going to take a deeper look at this extremely controversial munition, and see what civilians can do to prepare for potential exposure.

Let’s get started…

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Deploying “Willy Pete” In The Battlefield.

  • 02

    Recent Uses of White Phosphorous on the Battlefield

  • 03

    Overcoming Plausible Deniability

  • 04

    Surviving a Direct Attack

  • 05

    Don’t Expect Things to Change

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions about Willy Pete

Deploying “Willy Pete” In The Battlefield.

White phosphorus, a chemical compound consisting of phosphorus atoms, has been used in warfare for various purposes throughout history.

It was first introduced as a weapon during World War I when both Allied and Central Powers used it in artillery shells, Willy Pete grenades, and smoke screens. In World War II, white phosphorus found extensive use in various theaters of operation, including the Pacific and European fronts.

An M34 smoke grenade marked “WP” for white phosphorous.

An M34 smoke grenade marked “WP” for white phosphorous. (Image courtesy of Inertmugs)

During those early days, Willy Pete was often used to create fires in urban or forested areas. Since it sticks to targets and burns at extremely high temperatures, it can be extremely difficult to extinguish, causing widespread destruction and panic among the affected populations.

Willy Pete’s ability to create thick smokescreens on the battlefield is a powerful asset. These screens are designed to provide cover for military movements, protect troops from enemy observation, or screen positions during tactical operations.

Even naval units use Willy Pete to create smokescreens, obscuring enemy vision across battlefields that can be miles wide. When dispersed over water, it ignites and creates a smokescreen, making it difficult for enemy ships and aircraft to target their adversaries.

It's even used to mark supply drops, targets, or landing zones for aerial support. Since it burns so brightly and produces a distinct light that can be seen from a distance, it can guide friendly forces during operations.

These practical, non-weapon uses are the reason why Willy Pete’s use isn’t strictly forbidden or seen as a war crime.

But the use of white phosphorus as a weapon is subject to international regulations and agreements.

The most significant among these is the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which includes a Protocol III specifically addressing incendiary weapons.

Protocol III defines specific restrictions on the use of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, in populated areas to minimize harm to civilians. However, the regulations have been criticized for their ambiguous language, leading to a lukewarm response when Willy Pete has been deployed on the battlefield…

Recent Uses of White Phosphorous on the Battlefield

Despite international backlash and dubious legality, Willy Pete has been deployed on a number of different battlefields over the last two decades …

Perhaps its most infamous use came in the 2008-2009 Gaza War, when Israeli Defense Forces deployed white phosphorus munitions against densely-populated areas including the city of Gaza. Photographers from the press captured images of these horrifying attacks, and independent authorities like Human Rights Watch covered them extensively.

Just a few years earlier in 2004, the U.S. military also deployed Willy Pete in the battle of Fallujah. Using it for smoke screening and incendiary purposes, the fires soon spread out of control and impacted the city’s civilians.

Though less documented, it’s claimed that Willy Pete may have been used on both sides of the Syrian Civil War (2016-2019), often targeting densely populated areas.

man laying in bed with burns, Syrian victim of white phosphorus attacks

Syrian victim of white phosphorus attacks. (Image courtesy of Newsweek)

And finally, there’s last week’s news that Israeli forces almost certainly deployed it against targets in Lebanon. Though IDF officials still deny that White Phosphorous was used in this particular attack, it’s been confirmed by multiple independent media sources.

The ethical and legal considerations associated with white phosphorus use underscore the need for a careful examination of its effects on the battlefield and its potential consequences for civilian populations and the environment.

As warfare continues to evolve, discussions on the use of such weapons remain essential to uphold the principles of humanitarian law and protect the rights of non-combatants during times of conflict.

Overcoming Plausible Deniability

Once you understand how Willy Pete works, and how it’s deployed in the battlefield, it’s easy to see why this is such a touchy subject for military and civilians.

After all, it’s an extremely powerful weapon when it comes to incendiary uses. And it’s an indispensable piece of utility for signaling purposes. But by its very nature it’s difficult to control—especially in densely populated areas.

So for a soldier on the ground in Fallujah, who’s been taking fire from the same building all day, Willy Pete might seem like a godsend. Burn the structure to the ground and move up. But for the civilians taking shelter three doors down, that same scenario is a nightmare.

The same might be true for a member of the Israeli Defense Force, who has verifiable evidence that one specific building in Lebanon has been used to fire countless rockets across the border with Israel. But even with forewarning, the results of such an attack could still be disastrous for the surrounding city.

Since Willy Pete isn’t strictly forbidden, and since it’s so effective at doing the job, there’s always going to be an element of “plausible deniability” in the event that it’s used to target civilians.

Here, it’s important to note that the Geneva Convention defines something called the “Principle of Distinction,” which requires each party in a war to distinguish between combatants and civilians, and between military assets and civilian infrastructure. This principle is a defining principle of any war crime, but it’s often a bit blurred when it comes to the use of Willy Pete.

There’s also the “Prohibition of Indiscriminate Attacks,” which prevents belligerents from launching attacks that do not discriminate between combatants and civilians or that cause excessive harm to civilians or civilian objects. The use of white phosphorus in populated areas can violate this prohibition due to its indiscriminate and harmful effects.

Willy Pete launching from fired ordinance

Willy Pete launching from fired ordinance. (Image courtesy of Snopes)

And the “Prohibition of Weapons Causing Unnecessary Suffering” could even be invoked, given the brutally painful effects of Willy Pete when used in urban environments.

Significantly, Protocol III does specifically restrict the use of incendiary weapons, including white phosphorus, in civilian areas. It establishes guidelines and restrictions on their use to minimize harm to civilians. However, the protocol does not amount to a complete ban on white phosphorus; rather, it sets limitations and rules on its use.

Customary international law is a source of binding rules derived from consistent state practice and the belief that such practices are legally required (opinio juris). In this regard, the customary prohibition on the use of weapons causing unnecessary suffering or harm can be seen as a basis for the broader regulation and banning of white phosphorus.

Several non-governmental organizations, as well as states, have called for a comprehensive ban on white phosphorus use in warfare, regardless of the circumstances. These calls aim to further protect civilians and the environment from its destructive effects.

The use of white phosphorus in a manner that violates international humanitarian law can constitute a war crime. Those responsible for planning, ordering, or executing such actions can be held individually criminally responsible and subject to prosecution before international tribunals or national courts.

If a state uses white phosphorus in contravention of international law, it may be held responsible for its actions. This responsibility can result in diplomatic and legal repercussions, such as sanctions or condemnation by the international community.

But none of this has ever actually happened in practice. Authorities will frequently deny the use of Willy Pete (much like the IDF’s recent response on Lebanon), essentially using the “fog of war” to obscure potential war crimes and avoid responsibility.

Technically, according to the letter of international law, states and individuals affected by the use of white phosphorus have the right to seek compensation and remedies for the harm suffered, including medical expenses, rehabilitation, and compensation for loss of life or property. Yet that’s something we’ve never really seen happen.

Surviving a Direct Attack

There’s cold comfort, when it comes to discussing Willy Pete, in the fact that most Americans are unlikely to ever see the munition deployed nearby in their lifetime.

Each of its recent uses have centered around bitter conflicts in the Middle East, where enemy civilians are seen as “less than human” and frequently targeted by military pressure or even outright attack.

It’s true that the best way to survive a warzone is to get out of a warzone, but in many cases those families can’t afford to leave behind all their worldly possessions—and they wouldn’t be able to find safe harbor elsewhere anyways. As a result, they find themselves caught in the crossfire.

With all of that said, if you ever were subjected to a Willy Pete attack, it would be wise to seek shelter immediately. Direct exposure to Willy Pete can be deadly, and the burns can mark you for life, so it’s best to find a building or other overhead protection to wait out the attack.

This is of course a double-edged sword, since the incendiary effects of Willy Pete can quickly start structure fires. So you’ll want to make sure you’ve chosen a hiding spot you can easily evacuate as the attacks dissipate and the fires pick up.

But even if you can avoid the rain of fire, Willy Pete can still be deadly. Simply inhaling the fumes emitted from burning Willy Pete can be deadly.

Acute effects of exposure include upset stomach, bloating, and other effects on your gut. Then forty-eight hours later, your health will rapidly decline. You’ll experience extreme pain, vomiting, bleeding and damage to the liver, kidneys, heart, and central nervous system.

So it’s absolutely essential to protect yourself with a full-face respirator/gas mask like the CM-7M.

CM-7M

The CM-7M is rugged, battle-ready, and engineered to meet the strictest standards for gas mask protection. So it’s a perfect choice for protecting your eyes and respiratory system from exposure. It’s also compatible with the full range of MIRA Safety options and accessories, allowing you to upgrade and personalize your respirator for mission-specific goals.

To go with that gas mask, we strongly recommend the VK-530 smoke filter.

the VK-530

The VK-530 will protect you from the full range of CBRN threats, while also protecting you from potential smoke exposure that could result from an incendiary Willy Pete attack. Each filter provides up to twelve hours of protection—keeping you safe for a full day in the field.

If you’re able to take shelter for the initial attack, and don your respirator afterwards, then immediately make your way out of the affected area and to safety.

Remember that Willy Pete can burn for a very long time, and tiny fragments can become lodged just about anywhere after munitions are detonated. These fragments can spark to life hours or even days after the attack, so it’s important to evacuate the area immediately and with as little interaction as possible.

Don’t Expect Things to Change

Willy Pete has a complicated history on the battlefield. And over the last generation, we’ve seen it evolve into something like a weapon of retribution against hated enemies.

Instead of simply making a smokescreen, marking a target, or even burning down an enemy building, white phosphorus is being deployed over civilian populations as a revenge tactic for perceived “terrorist” attacks.

If this type of attack were explicit in its purpose, it would be a war crime. But officials have categorically been able to wave off any potential consequences. And since its users include the U.S. military and our Israeli allies, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see real-world consequences from organizations like the UN.

White Phosphorous being directly deployed over Gazan civilians

White phosphorus being directly deployed over Gazan civilians. (Image courtesy of Al Jazeera)

If there aren’t real-world consequences for the use of these types of weapons, if the only backlash comes from the media and human rights organizations, then militaries will keep using them. That usage may be infrequent (as we’ve seen in recent decades), but you can expect more reports to pop up—especially in conflicts like the current Israel-Hamas war.

But these types of weapons only inspire more animosity from our enemies abroad. By responding in kind to perceived terrorism, these belligerents are escalating violence and increasing instability in the region. And as the saying goes, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Thus, it’s extremely unlikely that the average American will ever see Willy Pete canisters dropped over American cities. Instead, we’re far more likely to see terrorist retribution for these types of attacks.

Stay safe out there!

Frequently Asked Questions about Willy Pete

What is Willy Pete?
What happens when you put Willy Pete in smoke?
What was a Willy Pete grenade made of?