Shake and Bake

Thursday, November 17th, 2005

Turns out the United States doesn’t use chemical weapons the same way it doesn’t do torture.

It took an Italian TV documentary and the digging of bloggers among obscure documents and bits of data, but a hideous practice of our military, long rumored and alleged — that we used something other than bullets and conventional explosives when we dismantled Fallujah a year ago — has finally been outed.

The few eyewitness accounts that reached world (if not U.S.) attention after the city was reduced to rubble in November 2004 included testimony that burned and melted corpses had been found. “A rain of fire fell on the city,” claimed Fallujah biologist Mohamad Tareq, who is interviewed in “Fallujah: The Concealed Massacre,” the investigative piece produced by Italy’s RAI News. “The people struck by this multicolored substance started to burn. We found people dead with strange wounds, the bodies burned but the clothes intact.”

Well, no matter. The U.S. government stonewalled for a year. Indeed, the official State Department Web site still maintains the pretense: “The United States categorically denies the use of chemical weapons at any time in Iraq, which includes the ongoing Fallujah operation. Furthermore, the United States does not under any circumstance support or condone the development, production, acquisition, transfer or use of chemical weapons by any country.”

Categorical denial is pretty impressive in a country with a sleeping media. But beyond our borders and within the uncensored blogosphere, people are a little more agitated about the reality of Iraq, and have documented our use of white phosphorus against human targets.

Bloggers, for instance, have found references to “shake and bake” operations in Fallujah that involve the tandem use of white phosphorus and high explosives, including this account by embedded reporter Darrin Mortenson in California’s North County Times about the April 2004 assault on Fallujah: “‘Gun up!’ (Lance Cpl. Jonathan) Millikin yelled . . . grabbing a white phosphorus round from a nearby ammo can and holding it over the tube. ‘Fire!’ (Cpl. Nicholas) Bogert yelled, as Millikin dropped it. The boom kicked dust around the pit as they ran through the drill again and again, sending a mixture of burning white phosphorus and high explosives they call ‘shake ’n’ bake’ into . . . buildings where insurgents have been spotted all week.”

And so the truth has landed. On Nov. 16, a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Barry Venable, conceded to the British Broadcasting Corp. that white phosphorus “was used as an incendiary device against enemy combatants” — not “sparingly,” as a flare or smokescreen.

Here’s what the substance does, according to, as quoted by George Monbiot in London’s the Guardian: “The burns usually are multiple, deep, and variable in size. . . . The particles continue to burn unless deprived of atmospheric oxygen . . . (and) could burn right down to the bone.” And the smoke of white phosphorus is lethally caustic, kind of like, well, poison gas.

U.S. serviceman Jeff Englehart, who took part in the assault on Fallujah, told a reporter on “Concealed Massacre”: “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. Phosphorus explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 meters is done for.”

In other words, we have flouted one more human standard in our war on terror, pushed hypocrisy one more click past “I can’t believe it.” Those of us who have opposed this war from the start are running out of outrage, but still, this latest news, and the prospect of further revelations about the use of a napalm-like substance called MK-77, call for a fresh burst of . . . something.

“Given that they care so much,” wrote Monbiot, “why has none of these hawks spoken out against the use of unconventional weapons by Coalition forces? . . . Saddam, facing a possible death sentence, is accused of mass murder, torture, false imprisonment and the use of chemical weapons. He is certainly guilty on all counts. So, it now seems, are those who overthrew him.”

It may look like they’re getting away with it, but they’re not. “The arc of the universe is long,” said Martin Luther King Jr., “but it bends toward justice.” The impunity of the Bush administration is beginning to fray.

At the beginning of November, about the time President Bush was telling Panamanians that “We do not torture,” Zogby International released the results of a poll, commissioned by, finding that 53 percent of Americans think Congress should impeach the president if he lied about going to war with Iraq.

He did lie. Now we need a round of democracy to take him out.