A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons

By Mattox, John Mark | Military Review, March/April 2011 | Go to article overview

A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons


Mattox, John Mark, Military Review


A HISTORY OF CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS, Edward M. Spiers, Reaktion Books, Inc., London, 2010, 223 pages, $35.00.

Edward M. Spiers, professor of strategic studies and the pro-dean of research in the faculty of arts at Leeds University, is a longtime contributor to the scholarly world of literature on chemical and biological weapons. His latest work is a succinct and readily accessible account of the history and key issues associated with chemical and biological weapons from World War I to the present. It successfully avoids the tedious rendition of technical details and acronyms that often plague works of this kind and would make an excellent graduate or undergraduate text to introduce the development and use of chemical and biological weapons, as well as the pertinent chemical and biological treaty regimens.

The book's discussion of chemical and biological weaponrelated concerns in the post9/11 and post-anthrax letter era is especially valuable in that it enables the reader to view the present dialogue in historical context and not merely as an aberration stemming from post-9/11 concerns over public safety. Of particular note is its even-handed discussion of the complexities associated with acquiring "actionable" intelligence about clandestine chemical and biological research programs and, when intelligence can be obtained, distinguishing between malevolent and legitimate chemical and biological research. The book's summary of the intelligence situation surrounding the 2003 invasion of Iraq is particularly informative.

Perhaps the book's most valuable contribution results from the care the author takes to distinguish media hype from responsible scientific analysis. Spiers illuminates what aspects of the problem ought to be taken in stride and what aspects ought to cause concern to both private citizens and public policymakers.

While not a criticism of this excellent history, its nature and composition invites interesting philosophical reflections which, at some point and in some future work, deserve an answer: "Why discuss chemical and biological weapons in tandem? …

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