A Short History of Chemical Weapons They Are Taboo for a Reason, but the U.S. Has Turned a Blind Eye in the Past,

By Stockman, Farah | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 8, 2013 | Go to article overview

A Short History of Chemical Weapons They Are Taboo for a Reason, but the U.S. Has Turned a Blind Eye in the Past,


Stockman, Farah, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


You might be wondering why it is OK for Syrian President Bashar Assad to kill 100,000 people with guns and bombs, but it's absolutely outrageous for him to kill 1,400 people with poison gas. Is death really better when one is getting blown to smithereens by a cluster bomb, rather than suffocating from sarin? At least toxic gas doesn't leave entire cities in ruins. Bridges and buildings are spared. And unlike a blast of artillery fire, nerve gas has an antidote.

So why are chemical weapons considered beyond the pale?

The answer traces back to the centuries-old effort to outlaw war's worst atrocities, especially attacks on civilians, according to Edward Spiers, author of "A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons."

"The argument is that chemical weapons are indiscriminate in their effects and will injure or incapacitate people, animals and even plants that are in their path," Mr. Spiers told me. Chemical weapons can't tell the difference between combatants and civilians. Children and old people are the most vulnerable to them.

As far back as the 18th century, poisoning wells in warfare was considered cowardly -- and against the rules of gentlemanly killing. After World War I, when nearly 100,000 soldiers suffered the horrors of mustard gas, much of the world signed onto the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which banned countries from using chemical weapons first in a conflict. But countries retained the right to possess them and to retaliate if they were attacked first.

So Secretary of State John Kerry has a point when he says Bashar Assad broke a long-standing international taboo by utilizing "weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all."

But Mr. Kerry failed to mention that it took the United States half a century to ratify the Gevena Protocol. In the meantime, we dropped napalm on Japan, which killed more people than the atomic bomb. We dropped Agent Orange -- a toxic defoliant -- on Vietnam. During the Cold War, we stockpiled 523 tons of liquid VX and sarin, which are still stored today in leaky barrels in a Kentucky military warehouse. Worst of all, in the 1980s, we continued to support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as he gassed Iranian soldiers and villages almost daily in the Iraq-Iran war. …

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