War Stories

Fire When Ready 

Why we should consider using flamethrowers in Afghanistan.

There aren’t any news cameras trained on the caves of Afghanistan, but you can still watch U.S. soldiers battle an enemy hiding in underground tunnels and bunkers: Go rent Sands of Iwo Jima. The 1949 John Wayne classic incorporates actual combat footage of Marines attacking Japanese forces ensconced, à la the Taliban, in caves and other fortified underground positions, many of them linked by tunnels. On the Pacific island of Iwo Jima, the central command post was 75 feet below the island’s volcanic rock. On nearby Okinawa, the Japanese fought from several belts of caves and bunkers as well as from thousands of ancestral tombs. What was the weapon that enabled the Marines to take the fight in and down to an enemy this entrenched? As you can see in the movie, it was the flamethrower, which shoots a column of splattering fire that can penetrate viewing slits and air ducts and even kill around corners.

Recent news reports have said that Osama Bin Laden has access to caves that are electrified, multistoried, and steel-fortified. So we’re prepared to use flamethrowers to clear them out, right? On several occasions, President Bush has said of the terrorists, “We’re going to smoke them out of their holes.” But why settle for smoke when there’s fire?

Well, there’s a little problem. That John Wayne movie is about the only place you can see flamethrowers these days because the U.S. military doesn’t have them anymore. Though flamethrowers were in use as recently as the Vietnam War, none of our service branches has any in their inventory now. (None of the experts and old Army hands interviewed for this story knew exactly when they were eliminated.) The field manual used by the Army and Marines states that “flame is a valuable close combat weapon” that can be “used to demoralize troops and reduce positions that have resisted other forms of attack,” but the manual dropped detailed descriptions of flamethrower tactics in the early 1990s. A 66 mm man-portable rocket launcher that fires an incendiary round is still on the books, but most experienced U.S. military folks contacted this past week weren’t familiar with it. (One retired Army officer did remember that “years ago” the rocket was used at a U.S. base in a demonstration for visitors. He says such a fire rocket would be “dandy” for caves.) As the Afghan war bogs down against opponents willing to literally go underground, one very promising U.S. weapon for going after them is missing in action.

Why? Primarily because, among civilians, fire weapons are considered inhumane. The fuel for flamethrowers is basically napalm, and napalm has never recovered from its Vietnam reputation for awfulness. (Indeed, in 1978 the Defense Department unilaterally decided to stop using it.) Because flamethrowers spew jellied fuel that sticks to skin and clothes, the fire they produce is extremely difficult to put out. As a result, they often inflict second- and third-degree burns all over the body. Even if your skin isn’t burned to a crisp, you may well suffocate (the fire sucks oxygen from the air), or inhale fire and poisonous gases, or die from shock. Nevertheless, the United States has never officially sworn off flamethrowers. And there’s no good reason that it should.

They are not banned by the generally accepted rules of warfare. The Army’s Judge Advocate General School—which speaks for the legal branch of the Army—has concluded that fire weapons, including flamethrowers, are not illegal per se or by treaty, and the Army and Marine Corps field manuals flatly state that “their use is not a violation of international law.” Law professor Robert K. Goldman of American University, whose expertise includes the rules of war, agrees: “You can’t directly use them against civilians or use them indiscriminately in a way that’s likely to create civilian casualties, but they are not banned as such.”

That a weapon inflicts horrible deaths and injuries shouldn’t by itself rule out its use. It would be foolish to deny that the effects of flamethrowers and other fire weapons are gruesome. But such ghastliness can also be attributed to cluster bombs (which can leave thousands of limb- and torso-destroying bomblets lying about dormant for years, and which the United States has already used in Afghanistan) and land mines (which the United States has refused to foreswear), not to mention artillery, mortars, or machine guns, which are used by every military force in the world. The test of whether a weapon should be used (at all or in a given circumstance) isn’t its horribleness—they’re all horrible—it’s how well it can help attain a military objective while not producing political or human-rights problems. So for instance, tactical nuclear weapons might be the ideal military solution to the al-Qaida cave problem, but they should be ruled out because they would also run the risk of killing and injuring too many noncombatants and stimulating further uses of nuclear weapons. Flamethrowers would, by contrast, target only the terrorists in the caves. In addition, the Marine and Army field manuals note that often, when flamethrowers are seen being deployed, “defending personnel will leave well-prepared positions and risk exposure to other weapons or capture.” In other words, flamethrowers might even save some terrorists’ lives because they would rather give up than be burned alive. (And some of those we grab may in fact end up telling us where Bin Laden is.)

That a weapon has an image problem shouldn’t by itself be dispositive either. Most U.S. soldiers think napalm is militarily viable, but most also think the United States abandoned it because it was associated in the popular mind with inflicting tremendous suffering on the civilian population of Vietnam—via such famous images as that wrenching picture of the young screaming girl running naked down the road. But although in Vietnam napalm was used irresponsibly on civilians, it is not inherently dangerous to them. There is a difference between a weapon’s essential properties and its possible right or wrong uses. To think otherwise, you’d have to conclude that pistols should be banned because one was used in that equally famous Vietnam photo of the South Vietnamese officer shooting a Vietcong prisoner in the head.

Flamethrowers are no more objectionable than other weapons the United States stocks and is probably prepared to use in Afghanistan. During the Gulf War, the U.S. military employed fuel-air explosives, which work by suspending a fine mist of fuel over a large area and then blowing it up. Typically these are dropped from planes, and like other fire weapons, if the flame itself doesn’t kill you, the lack of oxygen will.