Intervention for Poison Gas, but Not Other Killings ; Tens of Thousands Died before Chemical Attack That Became a 'Red Line'

Article excerpt

Why is killing a relative few with poison gas enough to trigger an attack on Syria when conventional war has killed far more? Whatever the reasons for the distinction, it has long been recognized.

Wilfred Owen, the British soldier-poet, in his best-known work, "Dulce et Decorum Est," tried to depict the horrors of chemical warfare: "If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs."

The author Erich Maria Remarque described the gas as "a big soft jellyfish," which "floats into our shell-hole and lolls there obscenely," waiting for those who pull off their masks too soon. "Their condition is hopeless, they choke to death with hemorrhages and suffocation."

Germany is recognized as having been the first to use chemical weapons on a mass scale, on April 22, 1915, at Ypres, in Belgium, where 6,000 British and French troops succumbed. Chemical weapons, rarely used since that war, have once again emerged as an issue following an attack in Syria last month, in which the United States says nearly 1,500 people -- men, women and children -- were killed, many as they slept.

As in World War I, that represents only a small fraction of the more than 100,000 lives that have been lost during the two and a half years of Syria's civil war. Yet President Barack Obama is prepared to launch a military attack in response.

Why, it is fair to ask, does the killing of 100,000 or more with conventional weapons elicit little more than a concerned shrug, while the killing of a relative few from poison gas is enough to trigger an intervention?

Whatever the reasons for the distinction, it has long been recognized.

Roughly 16 million people died and 20 million were wounded during that "war to end all wars," yet only about 2 percent of the casualties and less than 1 percent of the deaths are estimated to have resulted from chemical warfare.

Nevertheless, the universal revulsion that followed World War I led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol that banned the use, though not the possession, of chemical and biological weapons. In effect from 1928, the protocol is one of the few treaties that has been almost universally accepted and become an international norm. Syria, too, is a signatory.

No Western army used gas on the battlefield during the global slaughter of World War II. Hitler, himself gassed during World War I, refused to order its use against combatants, however willing he and the Nazis were to gas noncombatant Jews, Gypsies and others.

Since World War II and the atomic bomb, which redefined warfare, chemical weapons have been categorized as "weapons of mass destruction," even if they do not have the killing power of nuclear weapons.

The Geneva Protocol was not even the first effort to ban the use of poison in war, said Joanna Kidd of King's College, London. "Throughout history, there has been a general revulsion against the use of poisons against human beings in warfare, going back to the Greeks," she said. Some date a first effort to ban such weaponry to 1675, when France and the Holy Roman Empire agreed in Strasbourg not to use poisoned bullets.

With the industrial revolution and advances in chemistry, many nations agreed in the Hague Convention of 1899 not to use "projectiles the sole objective of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases," not then widely understood. There was a follow-on agreement in 1907, but World War I proved just how hollow that effort was.

There have been only a few known instances of poison gas being used since 1925, and in each case the perpetrator never openly admitted it. In the first two cases, gas was used by authoritarian regimes against those they considered lesser races. In 1935-36, Mussolini used several hundred tons of mustard gas in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, and in 1940-41, the Japanese used chemical and biological weapons widely in China, where unexploded poison gas shells are still being dug up at the expense of the Japanese government. …