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Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Rather than interject myself into the vigorous debate that has sprung up on this blog in my absence, I should like to focus on just one subject, "weapons of mass destruction," in an effort to bring a measure of clarity to a confused and confusing subject.  My concern in this post is to explain why it is inappropriate and ideologically motivated to refer to chemical weapons as "weapons of mass destruction."  I shall be drawing in part on a lengthy discussion in my early unpublished book, The Rhetoric of Deterrence, which can be found on by following the link at the top of this blog.

The invention and use of nuclear weapons in World War II by the United States created a theoretical and conceptual crisis in military thinking and planning.  Even the relatively primitive fission bombs dropped by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were vastly more powerful than any weapons ever used previously.  The first atomic bombs were rated at roughly 20 kilotons, which means that each bomb was the equivalent in explosive power of twenty thousands tons, or forty million pounds, of TNT.  Since the bombs carried by B-17s on their bombing raids contained, for the most part, 500 pounds of TNT, this meant that one atomic bomb was the equivalent of forty thousand conventional bombs.  The fusion bombs, or hydrogen bombs, developed somewhat later are rated in megatons, which means that one very large H-bomb, rated at 20 megatons, is the equivalent of one thousand Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.  It took one A -bomb to destroy Hiroshima and kill eighty to one hundred thousand Japanese.  A  single H-bomb can wipe out a major city and the surrounding area and kill millions of people.

The enormous destructiveness of atomic weapons completely transformed military theory.  Conventional bombs are delivered by manned aircraft.  An anti-aircraft defense capable of inflicting as little as a 20% loss on a fleet of raiding bombers poses an unacceptable risk for the attacking nation.  Bombs are cheap, but bombers are expensive, and the pilots, navigators, and bombardiers manning them are more expensive still to train and prepare for war.  If an attacking force loses an average of one fifth of its bomber fleet and associated crews each time it mounts a raid, it will very quickly find itself unable to carry on an air war.  But nuclear weapons are so powerful that anything less than an impossible one hundred percent destruction of an attacking force will result in vast, unacceptable death and destruction.  The invention of unstoppable intercontinental ballistic missiles made all thought of defense out of the question.  Thus was born the doctrine of deterrence.  Nuclear weapons, for obvious and persuasive reasons, came to be referred to as weapons of mass destruction.

Because nuclear weapons cannot, in any reasonable way, be integrated into a conventional war-fighting plan [despite the production and deployment of so-called battlefield nukes, rated at one thousand tons of TNT each], military theorists and strategists came to understand that a bright and uncrossable line must be drawn between the entire array of conventional weaponry on the one side, and nuclear weapons, or weapons of mass destruction, on the other.  This distinction had nothing whatever to do with the kind of pain and death that was inflicted on the victims by weapons of one sort or the other.  It is an absurd and pointless exercise to debate whether it is better or worse to be killed by an H-bomb or a land mine, or for that matter, by a rifle, a bow and arrow, a sword, a garrote, or someone's bare hands.  I would remind you that Joseph Ignace Guillotine conceived of his device as a more humane way of putting people to death.

During the successful efforts by George W. Bush and his Administration to con the American people into accepting his "war of choice" against Iraq and the regime of Saddam Hussein, intelligence was ginned up to demonstrate that Iraq had stores of chemical weapons.  It was well known that he had used chemical weapons against Iran [with the help of the United States, but never mind], so it was initially plausible, despite the absence of any evidence, that he might still have such weapons hidden away.  But in light of the fact that the United States had itself used chemical weapons in Viet Nam, and that in any event the existence of such weapons in Iraq posed no conceivable threat to the United States, the Bush Administration found it useful, for propaganda purposes, to refer to "chemical, biological, and nuclear" weapons as "Weapons of Mass Destruction," or WMD, so that the undoubted threat posed by nuclear weapons could be allowed to bleed over, as it were, onto chemical weaponry.

The press and public immediately embraced this confused, ideologically driven conflation of chemical with nuclear weapons and bought into the idea that WMD  in the hands of a nation supposedly hostile to the United States constituted a threat that had to be addressed.

And so we come the the irrational, meaningless, pointless "bright line" or "line in the sand" drawn by Barack Obama that now has him backed into a corner of his own devising, desperately looking for a way to avoid launching a war that he clearly would rather not initiate but cannot figure out how to extricate himself from.

The debate on this blog and elsewhere about the especial horribleness of chemical weapons is, I suggest, a complete non sequitor.  The destructiveness of chemical weapons is of the same order of magnitude as that of other conventional weapons.  The chemical weapons used, let us assume, by Assad and his forces in the Syrian conflict have, by all reports, killed two thousand or so people.  Assad and his forces have killed a total of one hundred thousand people.  There are many deep, intractable problems in the Syrian disaster;  chemical weapons are not among the most important, by any reasonable calculation.

Let me make several modest proposals, in the interest of clarity.  First, let us stop called chemical weapons "weapons of mass destruction."  Second, if we want to talk about making the Middle East a nuclear free zone in which nuclear weapons -- true weapons of mass destruction -- are not permitted, let us begin by including in that discussion the one Middle Eastern nation that currently possesses a large arsenal of such weapons, namely Israel. 


C Rossi said...

Well said and very important. Trying to rate the means of killing and of death in war by their horribleness is foolish. Lethal chemical agents (unlike incapacitants such as tear gas) produce an awful death as shown in the videos from the recent chemical attack in Ghouta near Damascus. Video isn't even necessary; see the great WWI poem of a gas attack "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen.

"the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues"

But surely such death is no less awful than incineration by firebomb or napalm or any other form by which the human heart is stilled. The late German writer W. G. Sebald has a fine book "On the Natural History of Destruction" in which he documents the bombing of German cities in WWII. Nasty indeed.

There is no "higher standard of warfare." "War is hell" is not just a clever line; it's an accurate description.

One correction: you write “Assad and his forces have killed a total of one hundred thousand people.“ The UN estimates total deaths in the Syrian civil war at that number; these include deaths caused by all sides in the war, not just by the government. Bashar al-Assad does not seem to scruple about killing people, but he's not alone in this sad affair.

Bill Glenn Jr. said...

Dead may be dead, but certainly there's more to it than that. Arguing that weaponized biological and chemical agents are no worse than conventional weaponry is not to argue that either of these things are good, only that they are equally bad, and if we can draw distinctions (however arbitrary) or enforce social norms that limit the number of bad ways we have to kill each other, why on earth would we refuse the offer?

If I'm dead, it probably matters little to me whether I'm killed by a nuclear weapon or a board with a nail in it. But I'd wager that a world where our options were limited to the latter would be a good deal safer than one that also included the former. The Pandora's Box of bullets and bombs is long opened and there seems little chance of closing it. If, however, we still have the opportunity to limit the development and proliferation of biological and chemical weapons through international agreements and sanctions, we ought to leap at the chance. Though rating the means of killing and death in war may be foolish, if we can limit those means by so ranking (or by inventing distinctions that to us seem arbitrary), I fully support the endeavor.

Lastly, everything I've said so far takes for granted that the distinction between biological/chemical weapons and conventional weaponry is arbitrary, but, truth be told, I'm not convinced that's the case. I worry that biological and chemical weapons, just like nuclear weapons, have the potential to extend their destructive effects far beyond the bounds of war. For the soldier, death by bullet may be no better than death by virus, but for those that remain, whether a war is fought with bombs and bullets or weaponized ebola may make all the difference in the world.

"A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?" Joshua/WOPR, Wargames