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‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’?
July 18, 2013 9:05 PM   Subscribe

Why are we so afraid of chemical weapons?

GAS, GAS, GAS! The Debate Over Chemical Warfare Between the World Wars (PDF)

Yes, it’s a big deal if Syria crossed the chemical weapons ‘red line.’ Here’s why. - " It’s about every war that comes after, about what kind of warfare the world is willing to allow, about preserving the small but crucial gains we’ve made over the last century in constraining warfare in its most terrible forms."


The Atlantic Monthly, September 1974: The Nerve Gas Controversy
The US and Chemical Weapons: No Leg to Stand On

UNODA (The UN Office Of Disarmament Affairs) on chemical weapons:
The modern use of chemical weapons began with World War I, when both sides to the conflict used poisonous gas to inflict agonizing suffering and to cause significant battlefield casualties. Such weapons basically consisted of well known commercial chemicals put into standard munitions such as grenades and artillery shells. Chlorine, phosgene (a choking agent) and mustard gas (which inflicts painful burns on the skin) were among the chemicals used. The results were indiscriminate and often devastating. Nearly 100,000 deaths resulted. Since World War I, chemical weapons have caused more than one million casualties globally.

As a result of public outrage, the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use of chemical weapons in warfare, was signed in 1925.
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons: Genesis and Development
The history of the serious efforts to achieve chemical disarmament that culminated in the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention began more than a century ago. Although toxic chemicals have been used as a method of warfare throughout the ages, it is clear from some of the earliest recorded incidents that such weapons have always been viewed as particularly abhorrent. A thorough account of the history of the negotiations of the CWC is found in Julian Perry Robinson, 'The negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention: An historical overview', in M. Bothe et al. (eds.), The New Chemical Weapons Convention: Implementation and Prospects, 17-36 (1998).
The first international agreement limiting the use of chemical weapons dates back to 1675, when France and Germany came to an agreement, signed in Strasbourg, prohibiting the use of poison bullets.
“Non-Lethal” Chemical Weapons: Kosher?
The fuzzy ethics of nonlethal weapons
The paradox of nonlethal weapons
So called “non-lethal” weapons:
The question of context is illustrated by the well-worn discussion about so called “non-lethal weapons”. A range of old and new weapons technologies have been described and promoted collectively as “non-lethal weapons”. However, it is misleading to characterise any weapon in terms of ‘lethality’ or ‘non-lethality’. ... The outcome of use of a weapon will be dependent on the characteristics of the particular weapon, the specific context of its use, and the individual vulnerabilities of the victim.

In other words, for the purposes of international humanitarian law there are no new “non-lethal weapons”, only new weapons.
posted by the man of twists and turns (46 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Wilfred Owen's famous WW1 poem, describing the aftermath of a German mustard gas attack, gives good reason why we fear chemical weapons...

"As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,"
posted by three blind mice at 9:13 PM on July 18, 2013 [24 favorites]


The UN caught the US trying to false flag Syria in this matter. The fools in charge want to take out Iran, and are willing to start WW3 along the way.
posted by MikeWarot at 9:19 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the reason why is that when the air is poison, there's no where to hide. Bullets? You can take cover. Hide behind something. At least you have a chance to survive. But when the air itself is poisoned, there's nothing to do but die horribly.

And the kinds of poison gasses which got used in WWI didn't kill fast and painlessly. The men died horribly, in terrible pain, or if they survived they were horribly maimed.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:20 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


The UN caught the US trying to false flag Syria in this matter.

Uhh, tell me more?
posted by Drinky Die at 9:24 PM on July 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


‘[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.’

Owen's poems are powerful psychological agents against the use of chemical weapons. But they don't really reflect the reality of the threat that chemical weapons present. Yes, as the article says, the most vulnerable to chemical attack are the unprotected, generally civilian populations. They provide little tactical advantage on a battlefield. Their use is no more horrendous than the use of mortars or artillery. In fact, they are far, far less effective because most delivery systems are at the whim of the weather. Chemical agents deployed in battle can be just as deadly to the force deploying them as they are to the enemy. The poor man's atomic bomb phrase is rooted in the fact that in general chemical weapons are easier to manufacture and require far less expertise to develop than nuclear weapons.

Interesting that the nations making the biggest fuss about chemical attacks are members of the exclusive nuclear weapons club.

Regardless, conventional weapons present the same risk to civilian populations and deal death in a way just horrifying to military forces and civilians alike. There seems to be a disconnect in how these weapons are viewed.

I'm not saying that chemical weapons, and biological weapons, aren't terrible. They are. But then again, so is war, so are all weapons. We've seen the damage that all weaponry can inflict over and over. Yet most are still legal. Most are considered acceptable under widely adopted rules of war. I think it's pointless. Surely the main reason the United States should have never developed a chemical or bio weapons program isn't that they are inherently evil, but that all the R&D was done, all anyone else had to do was pick up where we left off. In the end, all weapons instill fear - but only certain weapons can fuel war machine propaganda.

Full disclosure: I was a Chemical Operations Specialist in the U.S. Army.
posted by IvoShandor at 9:28 PM on July 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


Google: Syria rebels gas...

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/07/20137920448105510.html

One example. Yeah yeah, Russia, Syria's ally, etc... US never lies, of course. (Note, I'm not one to believe in "false flag" conspiracies in general, and I would like to see more evidence before making a solid claim, but there's no reason it should be discounted just because the US calls itself a "democracy" and a "beacon of liberty" (just like it called itself such things when enslaving africans and indians and murdering them, and putting Japanese in internment camps, etc... etc.. etc...)

So, there's at least some sorts of questions on the validity of who is actually using chemical weapons if they are being used and who will be using them, if they will be.
posted by symbioid at 9:29 PM on July 18, 2013


I was also going to say that one of the most compelling disturbing moments in film, for me at least, with regards to chemical warfare in World War I was that scene in Legends of the Fall. SPOILER ALERT where the youngest brother gets blinded and then hung up on some barbed wire fence strewn in a forest and then mercilessly shot to death (IIRC, it's something like that) but it was pretty brutal in the way it was told, of course, the connection to the brother and his sort of innocence is part of what made it so gripping END SPOILER ALERT
posted by symbioid at 9:33 PM on July 18, 2013


Speaking of civilians, chemical weapons were used to kill several million non-combatents in World War II.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:34 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Do any US states still do gas chamber executions?
posted by Drinky Die at 9:38 PM on July 18, 2013


Speaking of civilians, chemical weapons were used to kill several million non-combatents in World War II.

The numbers weren't really that high, unless you use an unreasonably broad definition of "chemical weapons". Most of the uses I'm aware of were by the Japanese in China, and it didn't cause millions of deaths. (They had plenty of other ways to kill Chinese civilians, most notably starvation.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:44 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


He's talking about gas chambers.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 9:48 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Believe we're talking about the Holocaust, Pickle.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 9:48 PM on July 18, 2013


I'm all in favor of the chemical weapons taboo. The trick is to extend the stigma to cover landmines, drones and other autonomous combat systems, directed-energy weapons, railguns, guided bullets, "sniper" bombs, kinetic fireball incendiaries, thermobaric explosives, laser-guided missiles, gunships, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons, and indeed every method of conflict resolution that isn't the defending party's choice of rock-paper-scissors, minigolf, or Yahtzee.
posted by Iridic at 9:54 PM on July 18, 2013 [15 favorites]


Hasn't this been an existential fear way before the invention of chemical weapons? That the environment itself would turn on us. Beowulf had to fight one of the monsters in a toxic environment and Tolkien applied that detail to Mordor. It's like the first thing we learn about the place that 'the very air is toxic,' and it makes it seem like this super menacing place*.

*and then Frodo, Sam, and Gollum just walk in there and it's never that big a deal, so I guess you can just walk into Mordor, but whatever

So, there is something about poisoning the air that is just inherently scarier than just exploding or getting hit with small pieces of metal traveling at blinding speeds. I don't think its rational or that we need to separate chemical weapons into their own special taboo, but the irrational fright is definitely there for me even as I know its dumb.
posted by john-a-dreams at 9:58 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm all in favor of the chemical weapons taboo. The trick is to extend the stigma to cover ... every method of conflict resolution that isn't the defending party's choice of rock-paper-scissors, minigolf, or Yahtzee.

Because resolving things through diplomatic negotiations is obviously unrealistic.
posted by aubilenon at 10:13 PM on July 18, 2013


Just getting serious about landmines would be sufficient, TBH.
posted by Artw at 10:19 PM on July 18, 2013


Do any US states still do gas chamber executions?

Not really. It's still legal in some states as a secondary method if lethal injection is not available, but nobody has been executed by gas chamber in the US since 1999.

Recently, Missouri's Attorney General said he may bring back the gas chamber because of shortages in the drugs used for lethal injection. But there's no infrastructure in place to perform gas executions, and they would need to build new gas chambers. Given how much that would cost, and how much controversy it would cause, it seems like an empty threat to me.
posted by mokin at 10:20 PM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because Bush and his advisers were evil people and they wanted an excuse to invade Iraq.

Even those on the left have bizarrely chosen to this day to fixate on "There were no WMDs!!!!1" when discussing Iraq.

As if a) If Iraq *had* possessed laughably impotent WWI-vintage weapons, that would somehow have made a preemptive attack and occupation in which tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children were massacred just fine and

b) As if "they have weapons" is a reason to attack someone. Russia isn't perfect, they have weapons, why don't we attack them? Because we would *lose.* Iraq wasn't attacked because they had too many weapons, they were attacked because they had too few.

And since the absurd "WMDs" narrative has never been questioned, why wouldn't Obama and any future leader who wants to bomb some brown people use it for his own imperialistic aims too?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:23 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Recently, Missouri's Attorney General said he may bring back the gas chamber because of shortages in the drugs used for lethal injection.

While you're at it, convert the firing squads to nail guns because you're running out of bullets.

But there's no infrastructure in place to perform gas executions, and they would need to build new gas chambers.

Infrastructure? Plastic bag + zip tie = done. Or better yet, the hell with all this, just have some big lug go down death row with a sledge hammer and do it slaughterhouse style. Buncha effete pansies.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:25 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


The alleged fear for Iraq was really the "Mushroom Cloud" fear from an active nuclear development program that did not really exist. Vintage weapons were found, and were roundly laughed at when presented as evidence to justify the war.

The potential situation with Syria is not having chemical weapons, that is not in question, it is that they may actively be in use to slaughter civilians.

I'm just clarifying this stuff, I don't favor either intervention.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:42 PM on July 18, 2013


We should go ahead and allow all forms of warfare to get the go ahead. Just require all soldiers in every conflict to wear video cameras that livestream to the news (location etc can be scrabbled, but you better believe a guys foot getting blown off is going to make the 6 oclock). Wars would be brutal and short.
posted by ishrinkmajeans at 10:50 PM on July 18, 2013


Why didn't the Nazis try to use chemical weapons in *battle* (they clearly were using them for death camp mass murder), afaik, even when things were absolutely desperate - especially vs the Soviets - and Germany was being overrun ?
posted by Bwithh at 10:53 PM on July 18, 2013


Because even the Nazis weren't insane enough to invite the genocidal retaliatory strikes that would have followed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 PM on July 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, chemical weapons suck even when you're winning: they disperse and are ineffective, or your enemy has protection, or they blow back on your own troops. But now imagine using them within your own territory! Really not a good idea. And by the time they were *that* desperate they had lost most of their manufacturing base, in any event: you need factories to make shells, to make reagents, and to make gas masks to protect your own troops. And even if you have manufacturing capacity available, you don't have the ability to retool without shutting things down.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:32 PM on July 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Just as an exercise, type "white phosphorus" into google image search.
posted by Veritron at 12:02 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


posted by pracowity at 12:04 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


drjimmy11: "why wouldn't Obama and any future leader who wants to bomb some brown people use it for his own imperialistic aims too"

Well, there's at least one obvious reason why Obama might not totally dehumanize brown people. Though I admit it hasn't made much difference so far.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:09 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's 2013. We're not worried about Greek Fire. We're not really even worried about Mustard gas. Or stuff that's limited to tactical-scale use, like napalm or WP (as awful as it is).

We're more worried about shit like Sarin and VX. Which really is a horrific WMD. And which this article doesn't get into. Let alone biological agents. And some of the reports from Syria do implicate the use of Sarin.
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:23 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


(The lead article, that is.)
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:27 AM on July 19, 2013


Because even the Nazis weren't insane enough to invite the genocidal retaliatory strikes that would have followed.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:27 PM on July 18 [+] [!]


Hitler ordered drastic scorched earth policies in the face of the advancing Red Army after they entered Germany - basically he ordered Germans to destroy all infrastructure and resources so nothing would be left ( luckily for the German population ( millions of Germans would have died from these policies), these orders were quietly put aside by certain members of Hitler's staff and never carried out). So... I'm surprised that chemical warfare wasn't at least part of the bigger conversation in the Nazis' last stand days
posted by Bwithh at 2:26 AM on July 19, 2013


( and also Germany already suffered "reaping the whirlwind" (Bomber Harris's phrase) from massive Allied strategic bombing attacks on cities and towns )
posted by Bwithh at 2:35 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just require all soldiers in every conflict to wear video cameras that livestream to the news (location etc can be scrabbled, but you better believe a guys foot getting blown off is going to make the 6 oclock).

then hook up video game controllers that can advise them what direction to go, what weapons to shoot and at what

Wars would be brutal and short.

and immensely popular, especially on weekends
posted by pyramid termite at 4:08 AM on July 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


why does it matter if regime forces used chemical weapons in small amounts, as U.S. intelligence believes they may have? .

Given that Assad is already winning, it seems absurd that he would risk unnecessary trouble by going chemical.

If it turns out that insurgents used Sarin, what does that do for the red line? Do we then become allied to the Assad regime?
posted by IndigoJones at 4:46 AM on July 19, 2013


Why didn't the Nazis try to use chemical weapons in *battle* (they clearly were using them for death camp mass murder), afaik, even when things were absolutely desperate - especially vs the Soviets - and Germany was being overrun ?

I remember reading a paper by some guy who was exploring why, in WWII, some warfare taboos were violated (unrestricted submarine warfare), and others were not really (chemical weapons). He argued that part of it had to do with training; Kriegsmarine U-boat commanders were trained to be aggressive and err on the side of 'oops', while army commanders were trained that chemical weapons were horrible things. He cites two examples of accidental chemical weapons discharges that were met with a horrified "Seriously guys we didn't mean it, really really really" that didn't lead to escalation.

In addition to the points made above, gas warfare slows your operations (because now everybody is in bulky chemical suits). Also, the German military was heavily dependent on horses, which are very vulnerable to gas.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:15 AM on July 19, 2013


Why didn't the Nazis try to use chemical weapons in *battle* (they clearly were using them for death camp mass murder), afaik, even when things were absolutely desperate - especially vs the Soviets - and Germany was being overrun ?

The United States and the UK had large stockpiles of mustard bombs ready for use. Any German use of chemical weapons would have resulted in Berlin being bombed with mustard gas.

In other words, "deterrence".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:17 AM on July 19, 2013


WWI and WWII chemical weapons are quaint. Modern chemical weapons developed by the USSR during the Cold War and subsequently transferred to Syria are extremely noxious. A clear liquid with no odor. A tiny miniscule drop on the skin = instant death. Think of that: human pesticide. As deadly to humans as a can of raid to insects. Sprayed from a single plane or bomb it can wipe out every civilian in a town. And there is enough of this stuff stored in Russia to kill every human on the planet, not to mention the biological weapons such as weaponized small pox. It's a serious problem what to do with it all, it inevitably makes its way into the hands of non-state actors with nothing to loose and everything to gain.
posted by stbalbach at 7:08 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


stbalbach's right

VX, sarin, somain and all sorts of "human pesticides" have been developed in the same insane manner that megaton yield thermonuclear devices were created.
The marvels of human engineering that encompass the Pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the International Space Station exist in stark contrast to the modern urge, no, obsession, to engineer technology whose sole purpose is to subjugate and destroy men (and women and children and just about life on this desolate rock).
posted by coachfortner at 7:33 AM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sarin and Soman was developed by the Nazis during WWII. In addition, only a few states are non-signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, storage, and use of chemical weapons. These countries are Angola, North Korea, Egypt, South Sudan and Syria. Russia is in the process of destroying its chemical arsenal.

As for destroying everybody in a town with a bomb, the Tokyo Sarin attacks show that while the potential is there, doing so is difficult.
posted by Comrade_robot at 9:17 AM on July 19, 2013


Wow, coachfortner, thanks for the blandly written nightmare fuel.

"When inhaled GD (Somain) will cause excessive secretion causing coughing/breathing difficulty: salivation and sweating: vomiting, diarrhea; stomach cramps; involuntary urination/defecation; generalized muscle twitching/muscle cramps; CNS depression including anxiety, restlessness, giddiness, insomnia, excessive dreaming and nightmares. With more severe exposure, also headache, tremor, drowsiness, concentration difficulty, memory impairment, confusion, unsteadiness on standing or walking, and progressing to death.

GD is a lethal anticholinesterase agent with the median lethal dose in man being: LCt50 (inhalation) = 70 mg min/m3 (t = 10 min); LD50 (PC, bare skin) = 0.35 g/man (70 kg).

A third of a gram on bare skin is lethal for 50% of 150lb men.

posted by RedOrGreen at 9:24 AM on July 19, 2013


“Why didn't the Nazis try to use chemical weapons in *battle*”

Windage and retaliation in kind. And Hitler's generals (Hans Speidel, Heusinger, et.al. (I'd say Rommel but I don't want to start shit) had been sandbagging him (if not outright conspiring to kill him) since '32. It's possible he gave those orders, but no one followed them. He may have been enough of a tactician to realize they're only good for temporary area denial at best. He did order the destruction of Paris (which shocked Gen. Von Choltitz to his senses, and he too disobeyed).
And he did try to kill Berlin. He ordered the "Nero decree" which would have destroyed sewer and water lines, etc. and led to the death of a lot of German civilians (more effectively than gas).
But even Speer said 'the hell with that.'

So, short answer - tactics and politics.

“Google: Syria rebels gas...”

That’s been a political football bound up with the UNSC resolution condemning Syria, specifically, sanctions. The bricks didn’t want to hear about it (Brazil, India, China, S. Africa). But mostly Russia since they’re the ones making the money on arms sales to that region right now.
This is not to discount the CAEC’s data on the west (the U.K.) shipping NaF (with which you can make some chemical weapons) to Syria, but you can make glue or toothpaste or frosted glass with the stuff too. It’s just a precursor.
You had Sengupta (from Al Jazeera) at the beginning of the year saying the U.S. limiting materiel would add to the body count.

So that’s sort of the political football. Putin was running the “we’re against extremist” line in March while supporting Assad with the S-300 SAMs
and they’ve got about 14.3 billion in reasons why it should look like either there were/are no chemical weapons or if there were it came from someone else.

This doesn’t refute the possibility that the U.S. manufactured evidence of chemical attacks or the west played up the significance of them (indeed, even if they were used they’re what % of the casualty rate?) but it does show the motives behind the fighting over this particular bone.

Meanwhile the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the Red Cross and Red Crescent, World Food Program, pretty much everyone and their brother (or celebrity) has been looking for peaceful ways to send aid.
It's not happening.

Who's scenario does that serve? The people planning to send planes in? Or the people putting anti-air on the ground?
Not saying the U.S. motives are pure, just describing the machine. (Although if I have to pick a side, I gotta go with Angelina.)
posted by Smedleyman at 9:24 AM on July 19, 2013


And Hitler's generals [...] had been sandbagging him (if not outright conspiring to kill him) since '32.

Did you mean '42, or is that actually true? If so, I knew nothing about that; could you elaborate or point me to something to read about it? It sounds interesting...
posted by Juffo-Wup at 11:39 AM on July 19, 2013


Just require all soldiers in every conflict to wear video cameras that livestream to the news ... Wars would be brutal and short.

Not hardly. This would make sports bars during the Super Bowl seem quiet and empty. People collectively do not impress me with their kindness and empathy.


Pyramid termite is absolutely spot on.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:50 PM on July 19, 2013


"Russia is in the process of destroying its chemical arsenal. "

By destroying, you mean selling off to whatever despots want it, right?
posted by klangklangston at 2:16 PM on July 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why didn't the Nazis try to use chemical weapons in *battle* (they clearly were using them for death camp mass murder), afaik, even when things were absolutely desperate - especially vs the Soviets - and Germany was being overrun ?

I've read that Hitler's experiences in WWI on the receiving end of the allied forces chemical warfare made him personally resistant to the use of chemical weapons in a military context.

Wikipedia: On 15 October 1918, he was temporarily blinded by a mustard gas attack and was hospitalised in Pasewalk.[67] While there, Hitler learnt of Germany's defeat,[68] and—by his own account—on receiving this news, he suffered a second bout of blindness.[69]
posted by ovvl at 4:37 PM on July 19, 2013


By destroying, you mean selling off to whatever despots want it, right?

Russia is reported to have very large, aging stockpiles of chemical weapons which they have agreed to destroy, again under the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is complicated because the chemical weapons are reportedly in such a poor state that they dangerous to transport. Possibly you are in possession of information that Russia is going around selling them all over the place, but I'm not.
posted by Comrade_robot at 8:34 AM on July 20, 2013


Russia is going around selling them all over the place

I think the reference is to Syria and Russia possibly selling precursors.

There have been some serious delays from Russia in destroying their stockpiles. Mostly because of money.
But the U.S. has been playing games too. Mostly in cutting aid and cutting funding (by treaty obligation) to destroy the stuff (and contain nuclear material as well, e.g. Nunn-Luger.) But then Putin hasn't been putting the manpower in terms of engineers to oversee non-proliferation...it's a mess.
Why is the question. 'Hey, let's get rid of these inefficient weapons that could fall into the wrong hands or inadvertently poison thousands of civilians.'
'Well... I don't know....'

Crazy.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:59 PM on July 22, 2013


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