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Why are we so afraid of chemical weapons?

War & Peace
Nuclear Weapons
United States
Human Rights

Since the Syria crisis began in March 2011, the country’s people have been subject to extensive violence and war crimes, human rights abuses and violations, and large scale internal displacement and deprivation. But the US has indicated that in its view the thing that would cross a ‘red line’, would be the use of chemical weapons. The idea of an airborne toxic event seems to stir a deep fear and horror. But of what?

This is not the first time chemical weapons have been deployed in the Middle East, and to disturbing effect. ‘Chemical weapons, such as Greek Fire were first used in that region, in antiquity, because of natural reserves of petroleum and naphtha,’ explains Adrienne Mayor, a Stanford research scholar in Classics and History and Philosophy of Science. ‘These substances are incredibly flammable and even burn in water.’

Bab Amro, Homs in May 2012: The US has said that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a ‘red line’

Freedom House, under a CC License

Mayor says that one of the chemical weapons reported to have been used in Syria – white phosphorous bombs – has its precursor in an ancient Phoenician weapon of desert sand, heated until red-hot and then catapulted at invading armies in a rain of deadly, deeply burning grains (‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, wrote TS Eliot).

More recently, the threat of chemical weapons in Iraq was the basis for the US-led military coalition invasion in March 2003 – Operation Iraqi Freedom. Weapons inspectors later recollected that US intelligence directed them to chicken coops and farmhouses with conventional munitions surrounded by pigeon droppings.

Where is the source of fear?

The dread of chemical weapons can seem existential in its intensity. It can also seem inconsistent. Is it a memory trace of the 20th century history of these weapons? The modern existential horror of chemical weapons seems to have its origins in World War One and the sudden advent of poison gas attacks. But memory can be misleading. The poison gas attacks of World War One were terrifying and severely affected troop morale and movements, but less than five per cent of the war’s casualties and fatalities are attributed to gas. The British official histories of World War One concluded that ‘gas achieved but local success, nothing decisive; it made war uncomfortable, to no purpose.’

British military historian Edward Spiers, in his History of Chemical and Biological Weapons, quotes a 1914 diary entry of German officer Rudolph Binding: ‘I am not pleased with the idea of poisoning men. Of course, the entire world will rage about it at first and then imitate us.’ Sure enough, allied press and propaganda railed against this new weapon, calling it an atrocity, before allied troops retaliated in kind with gas attacks of their own. The allies’ propaganda against the German use of poison gas was aimed, Spiers argues, at influencing opinion in the then-neutral US, and although both sides used poison gas, after the war only Germany was arraigned for doing so.

‘I am not pleased with the idea of poisoning men. Of course, the entire world will rage about it at first and then imitate us’

Is the existential horror of chemical weapons because of whom they have been used against? Chemical weapons are most dangerous to people who lack protection against them: civilians. In 1936, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie made his historic speech to the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations, protesting the League’s failure to act after the Italian army used the chemical weapon mustard agent against the Ethiopian population, sprayed from airplanes in ‘a fine death-dealing rain’. Selassie told the League: ‘In order to kill off systematically all living creatures, in order to more surely to poison waters and pastures, the Italian command made its aircraft pass over and over again.’

In 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to massacre Kurds in the town of Halabja. In 1998, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee discovered that the apartheid regime had developed a range of chemical weapons for use against ANC leaders. But military historian Jeffrey Smart notes, in 1854 British chemist Lyon Playfair observed that what was distressing about chemical weapons was not the weapon but actually war itself, since ‘[it] is considered a legitimate mode of warfare to fill shells with molten metal which scatters among the enemy, and produced the most frightful modes of death… War is destruction… No doubt in time chemistry will be used to lessen the suffering of combatants, and even of criminals condemned to death.’

The force multiplier

Is the existential horror of chemical weapons about the scale of the damage that they can wreak? They are a force multiplier; if there are two armies and one is larger, the way the smaller one gets the advantage is with a non-conventional weapon. Chemical weapons can give an army a tactical, battlefield advantage.

White phosphorous has reportedly been used in Syria

Leigh Blackall, under a CC License

This force multiplier effect is why, after the Iran-Iraq war, and lack of international support for Iran after Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, Iran’s parliamentary speaker (and future president) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani called chemical weapons ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’, proposing ‘[Iran] should at least consider them for our defence.’

But, if anything, it might be that chemical weapons are not enough of a force multiplier: the tactical battlefield advantage of chemical weapons pales in significance to the strategic non-localized advantage of nuclear weapons, which are able to change the direction of a whole conflict. ‘To say that chemical weapons are the poor man’s atomic bomb – it’s a misperception,’ says Eitan Barak, lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. ‘The prospect of chemical weapons does not make a fundamental military-political change in a conflict to opponents’ behaviour in the way that the prospect of nuclear weapons does. The most striking demonstration is with Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The US started the invasion assuming Hussein had chemical weapons. But if Hussein had had nuclear weapons, no state would launch a war against him in order to dismantle his regime.’

We tend to think of chemical weapons as being ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, or ‘WMDs’. But political scientist John Mueller recently argued that although the concept of a WMD may have once referred to nuclear weapons and weapons of comparable force, the contemporary legal definition is ‘muddled’ and could also include weapons like potato guns. This confused perception about the threat that WMDs pose may have been politically useful in securing public support for the invasion of Iraq over chemical weapons.

Acid violence in domestic abuse does not seem to excite the same public or legal condemnation as large-scale use of other chemical weapons

Is the horror of chemical weapons about the kind of damage that chemical weapons can do? Vitriol, our word for a certain unpleasant emotion, is the sulphate with a 200-year history of being used in acid attacks motivated by vengeance or spite: the emotion gets its name from the chemical. Acid violence – usually on women – is the most common form of chemical weapon and can cause the sorts of physical and psychological damage to a human as military chemical weapons. But acid violence in domestic abuse does not seem to excite the same public or legal condemnation as large-scale use of other chemical weapons.

Science and society

Perhaps the essence of the horror about chemical weapons comes from a widespread moral intuition about the role of science and scientists in our lives and what we think chemistry ‘should’ be for. As the effects of Agent Orange became known, there was mass public protest against its use by the US in Vietnam. ‘The public can be a strong driver towards disarmament treaties like the Chemical Weapons Convention,’ explains international disarmament consultant, Ralf Trapp. ‘Think about how action was eventually taken against the use of landmines – there was outcry and protest by ordinary people. Similarly, public pressure became one of the factors that drove chemical weapons disarmament.’

The effects of Agent Orange provoked mass public protest

ruben i, under a CC License

But this moral intuition about the role of science in our lives might not be universal. As well as public protest, the support of the chemical industry was crucial in establishing the Chemical Weapons Convention. The scope and strength of this support can’t be taken for granted: there is no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath in chemistry – no moral code that the industry must commit to in order to practice; no commitment, in the academic discipline, that this is knowledge that will only be used for human good. ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, wrote TS Eliot. The menace in this promise comes from the fact that dust is ubiquitous, and seems harmless.

‘Everything about modern life requires chemistry,’ says Alastair Hay, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Leeds. ‘But chemistry is about curiosity, like all science. Things are changing now. There’s a growing movement in the industry called Responsible Care, with chemists looking beyond a new chemical product, or a big business order, and thinking about what that might mean for others.’

Existential horrors

In Syria, since the demarcation of the ‘red line’, allegations have surfaced of chemical weapons use by anti-government groups in Aleppo, and by government forces near Damascus. ‘There are reasonable grounds to believe that chemical agents have been used as weapons,’ the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria investigating team reported to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2013. ‘The precise agents, delivery systems or perpetrators could not be identified.’ Although inconclusive on chemical weapons, the report accused both Syrian government forces and Syrian anti-government armed groups of war crimes, detailing the evidence, and recommended that the international community ‘[restrict] arms transfers, especially given the clear risk that the arms will be used to commit serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law’.

There is no equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath in chemistry – no moral code that the industry must commit to in order to practice

Even so, Britain and France have lifted the EU embargo on arms being supplied to the anti-government groups and the US has announced that they will be supplying military assistance to anti-government forces because of the presence of government chemical weapons in Syria. ‘Our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons,’ the White House declared. ‘We have no reliable, corroborated reporting to indicate that the opposition in Syria has acquired or used chemical weapons.’

Although inconclusive on chemical weapons, the report of the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria recommended that the international community ‘secure the $1.5 billion of aid pledged at the 30 January donor conference in Kuwait,’ noting that only around $700 million had materialized, imperilling humanitarian efforts and increasing the likelihood of lasting damage to the fabric of Syrian society.

‘I don’t see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event,’ Jack Gladney, Professor of Hitler Studies, says in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise. ‘That’s for people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county, where the fish hatcheries are.’ In his Sedgefield constituency, one year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, former Prime Minister Tony Blair explained that the possibility of chemical weapons and other WMDs in Iraq had been a global, ‘real and existential’ threat. Reflecting on this a few weeks later, chief weapons inspector Hans Blix told an audience in the US: ‘[T]o my mind, the north-south divide, the fact that hundreds of millions of people go hungry, the effects on the global environment, are just as big a threat.’


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