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2 September 2013

What’s so special about chemical weapons?

Who could not be horrified by the sight of children slain by sarin gas? Thanks to the newspapers we’ve all seen the photographic evidence. But if those children had been killed by conventional munitions – as many thousands of others have been in Syria – would the front pages have shown their corpses then?

Probably not. To use a nerve agent against innocent civilians is a crime against humanity, but surely the same applies to the use of burning, crushing and dismembering agents – or 'bombs' as they're otherwise known. 

Given the foreign policy implications, we need to ask if our special horror of chemical weapons is justified. Writing in Foreign Affairs, John Mueller is sceptical:

  • “The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.”
  • “As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality.”

Gas was also a notoriously difficult weapon to use – sometimes blowing back in the faces of those deploying it. It is therefore not surprising that the “militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons.”

In more recent times, chemical weapons have come under the politically-potent heading of WMD:

  • “...as the Cold War came to an end, the phrase ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was coming into vogue. Earlier, the term had generally been taken as a dramatic synonym for nuclear weapons or weapons of similar destructive capacity that might be developed in the future. In 1992, however, the phrase was explicitly codified into American law and was determined to include not only nuclear weapons but chemical and biological ones as well.”

Yet, as John Mueller points out, chemical weapons are not especially destructive – not when compared to other instruments of war: 

  • “A single nuclear weapon can indeed inflict massive destruction; a single chemical weapon cannot. For chemical weapons to cause extensive damage, many of them must be used – just like conventional weapons. As a presidential advisory panel noted in 1999, it would take a full ton of sarin gas released under favorable weather conditions for the destructive effects to become distinctly greater than those that could be achieved with conventional explosives.”

Indeed, if you want to see what mass destruction looks like, then the conventional shelling and aerial bombardment of Syria’s towns and cities provides a stark modern-day example. Nerve agents, by way of contrast, leave buildings and infrastructure completely untouched – which, while of little consolation to those killed, means that post-conflict recovery is that much easier. 

Yet this is precisely why chemical weapons are so dangerous. Quite simply there is no more efficient an instrument in the ethnic cleanser’s tool-kit. The destructiveness of each individual attack may be limited, but that’s the point: Enemy populations can be eliminated at the level of the village or the neighbourhood – always handy when the ethnic mix is as granular as it is in Syria.

The only constraint on the use of chemical weapons is the morality of those who possess them or the fear of external punishment – and, in Syria it is difficult to see where either of those are going to come from.


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