The Guardian ran an opinion column last week by its foreign correspondent, Peter Beaumont, about chemical weapons.[i] He opened by evoking the blood and misery of World War One before coming to his central question: ‘why is it that we regard the apparent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime (which has claimed relatively few lives overall) as more terrible than the crude pummelling by conventional arms which have [sic] resulted in hundreds of thousands of Syrian deaths?’
It’s a worthwhile question but I was sincerely taken aback by the emaciated reasoning that followed. Before I come to that, first the disclaimer required for those of bad faith or worse intelligence. I do not approve of chemical weapons, I don’t support Bashar al Assad, and I offer no view on whether his forces were responsible for the Douma chemical attack or, indeed, whether it was a chemical attack at all.[ii]
It seems to me that Beaumont attempts to answer his chosen question at two points in his article. His first attempt is partly historical. The Hague convention of 1899 set out the humanitarian principles that would ‘later form the basis of the modern law of conflict.’ Among these was the section that limited the ‘right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy’. The first instance of this was the ban on poisoned weapons, itself building on a 1675 agreement between France and Germany that banned poisoned bullets.
But what of poisoned gas? This was singled-out because it ‘inspired a particular horror, in large part psychological.’ That it ‘has remained a special case is because of the way its prohibition has become emblematic of restrictions on warfare. We decided gas must not be used because of our horror of being gassed ourselves.’
Is this why we regard gas as more terrible than bullets, because we were its victims? When we become the victims of nuclear weapons will their possession also move beyond the pale? Were the thousands of Japanese adults and children incinerated in our twin fireballs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki not enough for us to forever renounce these most indiscriminate of means? Evidently not. They’ve not even been enough for states like the US and UK to take seriously their obligations, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to make good faith efforts to eliminate them (and certainly not to develop more ‘useable’ nuclear weapons.[iii]). Indeed, the atom bombs are still defended as having helped ‘shorten the war’ – a defence Beaumont seems reluctant to allow Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons. The salient different, of course, is that Assad is on the ‘other’ side. Being on the ‘other’ side forbids our enemies the right to make such decisions, to wage ‘just’ war or to self-defence at all.[iv]
In the Great War, we were supposedly horrified by chemical weapons but, as Beaumont mentions, not enough to forswear them ourselves. In 1919, Porton Down boffins in Wiltshire developed the ‘M Device’, an exploding shell containing diphenylaminechloroarsine. 50,000 ‘M Devices’ were shipped to Russia to be used in British bombing of Bolshevik soldiers. Though few were ever used, those caught in their green cloud reportedly vomited blood and then collapsed unconscious.[v]
Winston Churchill infamously did not understand the ‘squeamishness about the use of gas’ against ‘uncivilised tribes’ (he was speaking of India), noting that it was not ‘necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.’[vi] Churchill’s defenders often assert that he was talking only of tear gas and not poison gas per se. Yet, this distinction might seem a little academic when, as the War Office noted of one then common variant of tear gas in 1921, while it was ‘classified as non-lethal’ and was ‘far less noxious than even mustard gas,’ at the same time it might have ‘serious and permanent effects on the eyes, and even, under certain circumstances, cause death.’[vii] I’ll also note that, while the historian Ray Douglas has pored over the evidence for Britain actually using CW in Iraq and found it wanting, he most certainly acknowledges that our lack of use arose from ‘practical difficulties rather than moral qualms’. Even in the oft-cited passage above, Churchill did not appear to think it wrong to use the ‘most deadly gasses,’ merely that it was not ‘necessary’. There’s no ‘horror’ there, simply a candid acceptance of chemical weapons as another tool in the white supremacist’s armoury. For some, in fact, chemicals were perhaps even a better weapon since their effects were ‘less terrifying’ than artillery shells or flamethrowers. Indeed, Douglas quotes a General Staff memorandum from 1919, which mused: ‘if it is advisable and possible to abolish gas on purely humanitarian grounds, the abolition of High Explosive, a far more terrible weapon which removes limbs, shatters bones, produces ‘nerves,’ and generates madness, is equally advisable.’[viii]
There may well be a public revulsion to chemical weapons but evidence of the same within elites seems thin. It certainly wasn’t suggested by British and American support for Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Iranians – for which the US provided logistical support[ix] – or of Halabja, for which the US provided diplomatic cover[x] and the UK rewarded with £340m of additional economic support.[xi] To take just one more example, in 2006, a Ministry of Defence Inquiry reported that scientists at Porton Down had exposed 11,000 people to mustard and nerve gas in experiments carried out between 1939 and 1989; experiments which claimed the life of one serviceman and inflicted lasting damage on many more.[xii]
Beaumont then deploys his perfunctory second argument:
‘The argument that relies on the idea that other weapons are equally deadly misses the point, which is that we have decided that this class of killing – like the wanton murder of civilians and shooting prisoners – is beyond the pale.’
Is this really the point? That chemical weapons are uniquely horrific because ‘we’ have decided that they are? This is to invoke that old parental standby, ‘because I said so’. The argument betrays a certain western bias and the usual reek of hypocrisy. I can well imagine that other parts of the world might think we ‘miss the point’ that much of our arsenal is equally, if not more, reprehensible. We clutch our scented handkerchief to our nose at the whiff of chemical weapons while our depleted uranium leaves ‘babies with two heads. Or missing eyes, hands and legs. Or stomachs and brains inside out.’[xiii] Our white phosphorous burns people to their bones,[xiv] we perforate limbs to unstitchable mush with Dense Inert Metal Explosives,[xv] and rupture people’s internal organs or burn them to death while showing off the Mother of All Bombs, which might also be said to inspire a ‘particular horror, in large part psychological.’[xvi] Beaumont’s ‘fitful advances in the laws of war – contradictory and permissive as they remain’ seem all too ‘optional and reversible’.
So why do we pillory chemical weapons, which are revolting but not uniquely so? Perhaps it is because they, unlike our latest glittering engines of fully-automated luxury death, are not beyond the pocket of the Lesser Nations. To quote the Iranian politician Hashemi Rafsanjani, they’re ‘the poor man’s atomic bomb’.[xvii]As such, the taboo on their use is not only prophylactic but also a useful moral lever to justify our enlightened intervention.
[i] Peter Beaumont, “The taboo on chemical weapons has lasted a century – it must be preserved,” The Guardian, 18th April 2018, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/18/chemical-weapons-taboo-syria
[ii] Robert Fisk, “The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack,” The Independent, 17th April 2018, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/syria-chemical-attack-gas-douma-robert-fisk-ghouta-damascus-a8307726.html
[iii] Most recently, see Clark Mindock “Trump administration considering developing two more ‘usable’ nuclear weapons,” The Independent, 16th January 2018, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-nuclear-weapons-new-latest-more-usable-a8162351.html Note that such intentions are portrayed as a response to Russian behaviour but as Charles Ferguson of the Centre for Non-Proliferation notes, the US has been ‘downplaying and, in key instances, repudiating arms control agreements’ since at least 2002 (see Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Nuclear Posture Review” 1st August 2002, available at http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/nuclear-posture-review/ )
[iv][iv] According to one BBC Radio Four new report I heard, Trump ‘warned’ of his recent attack on Syria while Russia ‘threatened’ to respond.
[v] Giles Milton, “Winston Churchill’s shocking use of chemical weapons,” Guardian, 1st September 2013, available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/sep/01/winston-churchill-shocking-use-chemical-weapons
[vi] J. A. Webster, Air Ministry, to J. E. Shuckburgh, Colonial Office, September 15th, 1921, PRO, CO 537/825, quoted in R. M. Douglas, “Did Britain Use Chemical Weapons in Mandatory Iraq?” The Journal of Modern History, Vol 81, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 859-887. Italics mine.
[vii] Webster, op. cit. Note that the effects of exposure to mustard gas include blistering, blindness of up to ten days or in some cases for good, severe abdominal pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, chronic respiratory disease, cancer, and death. https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/sulfurmustard/basics/facts.asp
[viii] Webster, op. cit.
[ix] Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq in War Despite Use Of Gas, New York Times, 18th August, 2002, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/18/world/officers-say-us-aided-iraq-in-war-despite-use-of-gas.html Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy 26th August 2016, available at http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/
[x] Prof. Juan Cole, “US Protected Iraq at UN from Iranian Charges of Chemical Weapons Use,” Informed Comment, 28th August, 2013, available at https://www.juancole.com/2013/08/protected-charges-chemical.html Robert Fisk reported that ‘the CIA – in the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi war crimes against Halabja – told US diplomats in the Middle East to claim that the gas used on the Kurds was dropped by the Iranians rather than the Iraqis (Saddam still being at the time our favourite ally rather than our favourite war criminal).’ (Robert Fisk, “This was a guilty verdict on America as well,” The Independent, 6th November 2006, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-this-was-a-guilty-verdict-on-america-as-well-423147.html)
[xi] A month after Halabja, the UK Government extended a further £340m in export credit guarantees to Saddam Hussein (John Kampfner (2003) “Blair’s Wars” Free Press, London, p. 7. See also Alex Danchev, Dan Keohane (eds.) (1994) “International Perspectives on the Gulf Conflict, 1990-91,” Palgrave Macmillan, London p. 148.
[xii] Rob Evans, “Porton Down chemical weapons tests unethical, says report,” Guardian, 15th July 2006, available at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2006/jul/15/uk.greenpolitics
[xiii] As Barbara Koppel wrote in 2016, “what is little known is that for the past 25 years the United States and its allies have routinely used radioactive weapons in battle, in the form of warheads and explosives made with depleted, undepleted or slightly enriched uranium. While the Department of Defense (DOD) calls these weapons “conventional” (non-nuclear), they are radioactive and chemically toxic. In Iraq, where the United States and its partners waged two wars, toxic waste covers the country and poisons the people.” Barbara Koppel, “How the U.S. Made Dropping Radioactive Bombs Routine,” Newsweek, 4th April 2016, available at http://www.newsweek.com/how-us-made-use-radioactive-bombs-routine-443732 For detail on the US use of DU in Syria, see Samuel Oakford “The United States Used Depleted Uranium in Syria,” Foreign Policy 14th February 2017, available http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/14/the-united-states-used-depleted-uranium-in-syria/
[xiv] See George Monbiot, “Behind the phosphorus clouds are war crimes within war crimes,” Guardian 22nd November, 2005, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/nov/22/usa.iraq1
[xv] DIME weapons were developed by the US and use a fine powder of tungsten or carbon fibre to confine the blast to a small area, perforating flesh and bone. Allegedly have also been used by Israel in its colonisation of Palestine. See Raymond Whittaker, “’Tungsten bombs’ leave Israel’s victims with mystery wounds,” The Independent 18th January 2009, available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/tungsten-bombs-leave-israels-victims-with-mystery-wounds-1418910.html According to a report commissioned for the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2016, there are ‘concerns that wounds from DIME weapons are particularly difficult to treat surgically, and may have ongoing health impacts’ (Cross, Kenneth, Ove Dullum, Marc Garlasco & N.R. Jenzen-Jones. 2015. Explosive Weapons in Populated Areas: technical considerations relevant to their use and effects. Special Report. Perth: Armament Research Services (ARES), available at https://www.icrc.org/en/download/file/23603/aresweb-generic.pdf )
[xvi] Thermobaric weapons like the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast) were developed by the US Government and used in Vietnam as well as being used by the Russians in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch quote a 1993 Defence Intelligence Agency Report on the Russian bombs (although the effects don’t differ with whichever flag is painted on the casing): ‘The [blast] kill mechanism against living targets is unique–and unpleasant…. What kills is the pressure wave, and more importantly, the subsequent rarefaction [vacuum], which ruptures the lungs…. If the fuel deflagrates but does not detonate, victims will be severely burned and will probably also inhale the burning fuel. Since the most common FAE fuels, ethylene oxide and propylene oxide, are highly toxic, undetonated FAE should prove as lethal to personnel caught within the cloud as most chemical agents.’ Human Rights Watch (2000) “Backgrounder on Russian Fuel Air Explosives (“Vacuum Bombs”),” available at https://www.hrw.org/report/2000/02/01/backgrounder-russian-fuel-air-explosives-vacuum-bombs One Pentagon report into the MOAB used typically anodyne language: ‘It is expected that the weapon will have a substantial psychological effect on those who witness its use.’ Robin Wright, ‘Trump Drops the Mother of All Bombs on Afghanistan,’ The New Yorker, 14th April, 2017, available at https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/trump-drops-the-mother-of-all-bombs-on-afghanistan
[xvii] ‘While nuclear weapons represent the zenith of mass destruction, their fabrication requires advanced industrial capabilities as well as access to rare, tightly controlled materials. Chemical and biological weapons, on the other hand, are cheap and easy to build using equipment and materials that are used extensively for a host of civilian purposes.’ Lord Lyell “Chemical and Biological Weapons: The Poor Man’s Bomb Draft General Report,” North Atlantic Assembly International Secretariat 4 October 1996 Draft, available at https://fas.org/irp/threat/an253stc.htm