Syria: Why Are Chemical Weapons More Horrible than Conventional Ones?

Posted on August 29, 2013


There are valid reasons for and against US involvement in Syria, but I don’t think the use of chemical weapons should be one of them.

Frida Ghitis, writing for CNN, lists some reasons in favor of US intervention in Syria.  Personally, I’m against it, I think intervention risks broadening the war, I don’t think any of the choices among the rebels are any better than Assad, and I think we’ll just end up spending our blood and treasure to help convert yet another Arab state from a less-than-stellar secular government to a truly frightening, unstable, and failed fundamentalist one.

But one of Ghitis’ arguments hinges on what we have been hearing all over the news about the use of chemical weapons:

Chemical weapons will be used in future battlegrounds: More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria. That alone should stir the conscience of humanity. But there is something uniquely dangerous about the introduction of chemical weapons. Horrified by the effects of chemical weapons in the battlefield, nations have come together over the years to develop international bans on nerve gases, blister agents, blood agents and choking agents.

I think this is a flawed argument, so count me in with Stephen M. Walt, who writes that the weapons Assad uses should not be the determining factor for US policy.

First of all, as Ghitis is quick to point out, over 100,000 people have already died.  Why are their deaths less horrible than deaths caused by chemical weapons?  Are we saying that governments can kill their own citizens so long as they do it with “approved” weapons?  Or are we saying that we will kick down the doors of any government, anywhere, that uses chems?  Quite a commitment, that.

Second, no matter what we do or do not in Syria, chemical weapons are guaranteed to be used in future conflicts precisely because they don’t require a lot of know-how.  They are easy and relatively cheap for tinhorn dictators, fringe groups and nonstate actors to concoct, and as Ghitis points out, they instill a lot of fear.  Frankly, the US military expects to have to deal with such chemical agents, as spelled out in Field Manual 9-3.

But just why are we so afraid of chemical weapons?  And should we be?  Why should they be in a special category?

Chemical weapons made their first significant modern debut in World War I, mainly in the forms of chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas, and later, lewisite.  The first use of chlorine was a success, wiping out about 1000 French troops and injuring about 4000 more in a matter of minutes.  In the aftermath, both sides soon developed gas masks and other protective measures; my Great-Grandfather wrote of hanging wet sheets at the openings to bunkers.  Gas-defense drills were incessant; gas attacks became common and harassing.  Witnesses described ghastly effects on the casualties.  Survivors took a long time to recuperate, and were often permanently disabled.  Simply put, it was a form of warfare that had not been seen before, and it was horrible to behold or to experience.

Knowing this history, I can grasp why chemical weapons were seen as such a horror and why they were banned (sort of) under the Geneva Protocol in 1925.  But is there really any rational reason that they are so much more horrible than conventional weapons?  World War I also saw the first use of the artillery barrage, resulting in the new phenomenon of “shell shock” and hellish, stinking, flesh-littered battlefields like Verdun, yet we did not try to ban either artillery, or the barrage.  Why?

I believe it was and is entirely psychological.  In 1915, we were well familiar with firearms, artillery, and explosives.  These were weapons whose effects we knew and understood.  Moreover, we felt like we had some defense against them, whether by shooting back or by taking cover in trenches and bunkers.  Chemicals, though… they were something insidious, something you could not fight with your hands or your weapon, something that would find you in your bunker or trench, and that would kill large numbers quickly.  Add to that, the fact that the weapons were indiscriminate and dependent on wind conditions; a miscalculation would result in injury and death to one’s own troops or nearby civilians.  For all of these reasons, chemical weapons were regarded as “uncivilized,” the odd implication being that artillery or bullets or bombs or mines are “civilized.”

Can someone explain the big difference here?

Can someone explain the big difference here?

This finer point is no doubt lost on the estimated 700,000 men who died by the use of conventional weapons at Verdun alone; the roughly 20,000 killed every year by land mines worldwide; or to the 100,000 who have already died in the Syrian conflict.  Trying to designate death by one weapon as more horrible than death by another is an offensive and unhelpful  ivory-tower exercise.