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Sunday, January 12, 2020


Now that Bernie has started to go after Biden’s deplorable record regarding aggressive regime change in the Middle East, I think it is time to mount my trusty hobby horse and ride into battle once more on the much misunderstood subject of weapons of mass destruction..

For the first ten thousand years or so of organized slaughter, there was a slow, steady escalation of the effectiveness of weaponry, with each offensive advance being met sooner or later by a successful defense.  The sword brought forth the shield, the walled castle elicited the trebuchet, the bomber was met with ack ack.  All of this changed dramatically on August 6, 1945, when the United States destroyed Hiroshima with a single 20 kiloton atomic bomb.  Atomic bombs, or nuclear weapons, as they soon came to be called, completely changed the character of warfare.  Despite the Rand Corporation-sponsored fantasies of Herman Kahn and others, it was obvious that a nation could not survive an attack of nuclear weapons.  The only thing a nation could do was to attempt to persuade a nuclear armed opponent not to use them by the threat of retaliation in kind.  Thus was born deterrence.

In 1945, only one nation possessed nuclear weapons.  Seventy-five years later, The United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korean have nuclear arsenals of some size or other, and thanks to our president, Iran may follow soon enough.  Remarkably, those two primitive bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thus far the only nuclear weapons that have deliberately been used to kill people, although there have been some very close calls.

There are two other relatively modern weapons types that have been the subject of much anxiety and discussion:  chemical weapons and biological weapons.  Despite the hype, biological weapons have not figured in serious military calculations and planning, but of course that is not true of chemical weapons.  These latter were widely used in the First World War, but with only two exceptions that come to mind – the United States in Viet Nam and Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war – chemical weapons also have been more talked about than seriously incorporated into the war-making capabilities of modern powers.

Nuclear weapons are genuinely weapons of mass destruction, undermining all efforts at defense and hence requiring deterrence.  But this is not true of chemical and biological weapons.  They can be defended against and are not orders of magnitude more powerful than so-called conventional weapons.  Defense, not deterrence, is an appropriate military response to the threat of their use.

Enter the myth, the ideology, the rationale, the fateful acronym: WMD.

Since the only Middle Eastern nation with a nuclear arsenal is Israel, a fact delicately left unmentioned in all discussions of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, some device had to be found to justify the unprovoked launching of wars in that region.  By a skillful use of the old bait-and-switch technique of the sidewalk three card monte player, chemical and biological weapons were folded in with nuclear weapons as WMD, so that preemptive strikes only defensible in the presence of the threat of nuclear weapons could be defended as required by Iraq’s possession of WMD, even though those WMD were chemical, not nuclear in nature.

This is all well known, at least to anyone who has devoted more than a few moments of thought to the subject.  It was certainly known by Joe Biden in 1998 when he publicly argued for preemptive war against Iraq to counter the threat of their WMD.


s. wallerstein said...

Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations which regulates for how many years we are responsible for what we say?

I've said so many things in the past that I am now ashamed of. Thank Athena that no one keeps track of what I've said or even written.

I don't like Biden at all and maybe we are responsible for what we said 22 years ago, but 32 years ago? 42 years ago? 52 years ago?

We live longer and longer, the world is changing ever more rapidly, and many or even most of us learn from experience and may even accumulate a bit of wisdom as we get older. So how far back should we be responsible for what we have said or written?

Jerry Fresia said...

Good point. BIiden is an idiot.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

There is no evidence at all that Biden has learned a thing. said...

The inter-net is a weapon of mass destruction--not merely in the sense of cyber-warfare.

s. wallerstein said...

I'm sure that you're right about Biden, but for example, Elizabeth Warren seems to be a person who has grown and who should not be held accountable for what she said or wrote 30 years ago. So in general how many years can we be held responsible for our words and even our actions?

For example, I recall celebrating Israel's triumph in the 1967 War and arguing with a friend, who claimed, rightly, that the Arabs, not the Jews as I then believed, were the underdogs. That was 53 years ago. Should I be held responsible for that? Should I be held responsible for some very sexist statements I made 53 years ago? For laughing at a gay friend who talked to me about gay marriage maybe 25 years ago? There are many more examples.

LFC said...

Offhand I tend to be with s.w. on this as a general point.

Wrt to WMD in particular, I agree they are different from nuclear weapons but it shd be kept in mind that not all uses of biological or chemical weapons can be effectively defended against in every case. This doesn't nec justify so-called preemptive strikes but it does call for paying attention to actors, nonstate or state, that might be interested in using them. In the Middle East right now, though, all kinds of weapons are being used, but with the apparent exception of Assad once or twice during the Syrian civil war, not chemical or biological.

marcel proust said...

RE: Biden

We have the first mainstream[1] old fogey who is articulate[2] and bright[3] and clean[4] and a nice looking guy[5]. I mean, that's a storybook, man.

1. Mainstream obviously lets Bernie out
2. More or less
4. Trump uses a lot of sanitizer, but between his financial corruption, and his history of sexual assaults, ...
5. Obviously lets out Warren.

LFC said...

@M Proust
Not everyone may catch the allusion but I see what you did there.

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein,

I agree with you that there should be some kind of statute of limitations on old statements and positions, but with the qualification of acknowledging that the earlier position or statement was wrong. Instead, we probably will see Biden (and others) twist and turn trying to defend what they said earlier.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

You're right: politicians never or almost never admit to having been wrong in the past or to any normal human weaknesses, so I agree that Biden will not.

What strikes me, at least in Chile, is that the right welcomes and celebrates ex-leftists who "see the light" and convert to conservatism, while the left never forgives someone their rightwing past, even if the person makes great efforts to demonstrate their devotion to their new leftwing principles: someone will always remind them that they were "there first".

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I disagree with Dr. Wolff regarding biological weapons as (possible) weapons of mass destruction. While they have not yet been such, there is every reason to think that they could be. The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the most destructive recent outbreak, killed healthy young adults in a matter of a couple of days. It was first noted in Army camps in Massachusetts. Estimates are 500 million became infected and 50 million died world-wide and 650, 000 plus died in the U.S. A similarly engineered virus, and science now has the capacity to engineer one, could be created and deployed. Apart from flu viruses, there are plenty of other possible candidates that could be engineered. The potential for biological weapons of mass destruction is, I think, real.

I was asked to give a talk on the history of the Vermont Agency of Human Services about 18 years ago. When I dug into the topic I discovered that the very first appropriation by the VT legislature for any human services need was made in 1918 to fund two social workers. They were tasked to find, take into custody, and bring to orphanages, the children of adults who had died of the flu. I discovered the stories of the social workers had been compiled and archived. Needless to say the stories were haunting and tragic.

Jerry Brown said...

Is it really fair to say the US used chemical weapons on Vietnam in the same sense that Iraq used them against Iranians, or as gas attacks were used in WW1? I know we have done a lot of horrible things and napalm is undoubtedly some kind of chemical and is absolutely horrific, and agent orange was a chemical that the US used with gross negligence in Vietnam, but is it really in the same category?

I guess we are in a category of one as far as using nuclear weapons to intentionally kill civilians though. Thankfully.

This has not been a pleasant post for me. All I can say is I was about 5 when the Vietnam War ended and obviously not around for Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And my grandfather was fighting in Okinawa at the end of WW2 and if he hadn't come back from the war I'm not sure I would have existed to even consider this.

How bad has the US been compared to any other sort of similar or imaginable world power through history? I mean it seems obvious we could have been far worse- but it also seems clear we could have been a lot better. I don't know if that is a fair question. It probably isn't. I would say we have been better than average overall. Maybe even a lot better. What do people think?

LFC said...

Treaties exist on both chem and bio weapons, but nonstate actors aren't parties and not all countries are either. I'd have to check on the US in that respect but I'm not sure it ever ratified the bio convention.

Dean said...

There should not be a statute of limitations! Context should govern. Some remarks are innocuous in the grand scheme of things. Their source matters, too. We accept that a jerky post-adolescent's crass joke comes with the territory, yet even "boys will be boys" goes only so far. Biden's support for military force against Iraq was an official position taken by a government leader, not a mere faux-pas expressing a personal misguided value. That's a huge difference. Moreover, how do we recognize our having learned from experience if we don't acknowledge the baseline from which we made progress?

Having said that, I am in favor of the EU's "right to be forgotten," albeit not exactly as it has been crafted by the tribunals. To my mind, it's a function of relevance, the very value Google claims to deliver. Google shouldn't be able to promote as most relevant information about an individual old, resolved disputes that once upon a time caught the media's attention. That information shouldn't be erased -- just as the old newspapers in which the stories appeared shouldn't be destroyed -- but researchers eager to dig up dirt about somebody should have to contribute some of the heavy lifting.

Imagine Biden's legacy independent of an Internet and Google. We would not condemn a newspaper for reporting on his decades-old political positions merely due to their age, and particularly not when those positions produced policy the consequences of which continue to affect us to this day.

s. wallerstein said...

Of course the statute of limitations works both ways.

What if Trump's people dig up some remarks made by Bernie in 1971 praising the Chinese cultural revolution and the relevance of the thought of Chairman Mao? Bernie was 30 then, no longer a post-adolescent, yet I would not hold it against him, would you?

Dean said...

I would insist upon his responsibility for having said it. He didn't *not* say it, he meant it (in some fashion) at the time, and the time might contribute to an explanation as to why he said it and what he meant.

Furthermore, what impact would those remarks have had on anybody? Compare Biden's contribution to Iraq.

Michael Llenos said...

I agree that the internet can be a pain and can literally kill & murder people. But it hasn't gone to 100% potential yet. Wait until the Total Recall machines and the Matrix computers come online. Is your fellow citizen evil? He may lock you up in his holodeck Jumanji program for the next twenty years because he doesn't like the way you look....

Michael Llenos said...

Of course, some may say that we all could be in a Jumanji program right now. Others may point out that if we were in a Jumanji program why would we have Professors like Dr. Wolff that are trying to uncode the machine through writings like that of David Hume? Of course, some may say that could be all part of the overall subterfuge as well....

Jerry Fresia said...


Your belief that the US has no evert used germ or biological warfare is incorrect.

The US used germ warfare in NK, during the Korean War (and there were plans for its use in Cuba), in a program called MKUltra. Frank Olson, one of the scientists working on the project was so distraught that his peers thought that he might become a whistle blower so they threw him out a 10th floor window in NYC and the government would later claim that it was an LSD experiment gone wrong. Just google "Frank Olson, germ warfare."

The CIA even used biological warfare schemes against Americans at home. Just google Operation Sea-Spray, "Operation Sea-Spray was a 1950 U.S. Navy secret experiment in which Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii bacteria were sprayed over the San Francisco Bay Area in California."

The CIA has used biological warfare and has conducted experiments on innocent people for a long, long time. Google MKUltra for a glimpse of such things. Or google or look up in Wiki "Sidney Gottlieb." There has been much written about all of this.

s. wallerstein said...

The interesting test case for the statute of limitations is really Elizabeth Warren who was a Republican until 1996 when she was 47. Will we hold her responsible today for what she said in 1995?

Actually, the capacity to change one's head completely, which at times is held against Warren, is an underappreciated virtue. Very few politicians are capable of questioning their basic principles and changing them if they do not hold water; certainly not Biden and I'm not sure about Bernie.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I was addressing the use of biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction, not instances of CIA testing on domestic populations. I am not aware of the Korean war example you cite so I will investigate. The instances you cite don't get to the level of WMD, as deplorable as they are.

Jerry Fresia said...

Okay, I see your point. There is a lot written on the use of germ warfare in Korea, but while it hasn't been acknowledged by the US, documentation does support the claim (see below). Also, Operation Sea-Spray, while a test, did impact hundreds of thousands of people, a handful got sick, one died and similar test continued into the 60s.. Check this out:

North Korea

San Francisco

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