The rehearsals for war in the Persian Gulf provoke an especially harrowing form of anxiety in the public mind. "60 Minutes" devotes a segment to chemical warfare; a Time cover shows a ghoulish full-face shot of a soldier in a gas mask, under the caption "Are We Ready for This?"
But are chemical weapons worse than some of the other technologies of destruction that men employ to kill one another? It's hard to pose such a heretical question, especially since my own grandfather was crippled by mustard gas in 1918 in the charnel house of the Somme. But what gave his suffering so bitter an edge was the fact that it was inflicted by such an exotic and stigmatized instrument.
The stigma long predates the mass use of gas in World War I. In 1854 a British peer, Lord Dundonald, proposed using sulfur gas to reduce Czar Nicholas's garrison at Sebastopol. The gentlemen of the War Office decided that "an operation of this nature would contravene the laws of civilized warfare" and felt that "the facts were so horrible that no honorable combatant could use the means to produce them."
They ordered Lord Dundonald's memorandum destroyed. Satisfied that they had established ethical criteria for their conduct of the Crimea campaign, the British generals then went after the Russians with the new high-velocity rifle, the "bouquet" (a number of small grenades encased in a larger one) and the newly invented shell--known more familiarly as "Whistling Dick"--which blew off heads and shredded internal organs in a most efficient fashion.
It is hard to quibble with the humanitarian motives of those who framed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which barred the use (or first use, in the U.S. interpretation) of poison gas. But at the same time, the moral taboo attached to certain kinds of armaments has conveniently allowed the planners of war, free from scrutiny, to devise alternative ways of humiliating, demoralizing and killing the enemy.
The essential moral case against chemical weapons is the indiscriminate threat they pose to civilians, and the most shocking evidence of Saddam Hussein's character has been his use of poison gas against Kurdish noncombatants. The Reagan Administration's response was to block sanctions against Iraq while pushing ahead with its own production of chemical weapons, including binary warheads--enough, according to the American Chemical Society, to kill the world's population 5,000 times over.
In a sense, that Time cover showing a masked combatant rather than a civilian makes an emotional argument by false logic. In addition, the desert theater of Saudi Arabia is thinly populated. Also, Iraq's nerve gases are "non-persistent"--that is, they remain effective for only a few hours. The intense desert heat would hasten their evaporation, making a gas attack on U.S. troops even less likely to cause random civilian deaths.
Iraq possesses mustard gas, which blisters body tissues, especially mucous membranes like the inside of the lungs, and nerve agents, which cause respiratory failure within a few minutes.
What of the "civilized" weapons in the U.S. arsenal? Napalm is a gasoline-based jelly that adheres to the skin and burns. White phosphorus bores its way through to the bone with a fire that cannot be extinguished with water. Cluster bombs (the modern version of the Crimean "bouquet") randomly expel thousands of tiny fragments that penetrate deep into the body, tearing up internal tissue as they go. There are also the more mundane ways in which soldiers die. Is it so preferable to be fried alive inside a tank?
The preferred manner of dealing death in the gulf remains undetermined. For now, Henry Kissinger's proposal for a "surgical" strike on Iraq remains on the table. One might have thought that, out of shame, such language would have fallen into disuse after "surgical" U.S. bombing wiped out the patients of a mental hospital in Grenada in 1983. But, then, the men who dictate the design and vocabulary of death, as well as dominating our public discourse, are the think-tank types and superannuated diplomats, as remote from the fight as the aging British generals who drew the line between civilized and uncivilized killing in the Crimea. These men don't personally have to face anything more hostile than a tough question from Ted Koppel on "Nightline"--and, in the case of Kissinger, not even that. They would have us forget the blunt truth enunciated in "War and Peace" by Prince Andrei: "The object of warfare is murder."