Monday, September 9, 2013

Understanding Chemical Weapons In 10 Easy Lessons

This post on PolicyMic is the dumbest thing I've ever seen. There are many, many good reasons for the United States to avoid involvement in the Syria situation, not the least of which is that the people we would be aiding - the rebels - have had their movement largely co-opted by more or less the exact same folks we've spent the better part of the last decade fighting in Afghanistan.

Wesley Messamore, however, thinks that we lack "moral authority" to intervene in Syria because of "10 chemical weapons attacks Washington doesn't want you to talk about."

Let's run down Mr Messamore's list, shall we?
#1 "During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military sprayed 20 million gallons of chemicals, including the very toxic Agent Orange, on the forests and farmlands of Vietnam and neighboring countries, deliberately destroying food supplies, shattering the jungle ecology, and ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people."
Agent Orange isn't a chemical weapon; it's an herbicide. Mr Messamore even conveniently links to the Wikipedia article on the substance which is identified, literally in the first sentence, as one of several "herbicides and defoliants used by the US military's chemical warfare program." Don't take that phrase "chemical warfare" to mean the same thing that it did in World War One though, the unofficial motto of the program -- termed "Operation Ranch Hand" -- was "only you can prevent a forest." In fact, the very same chemicals were provided to and used by the Republic of Vietnam to suppress vegetation around US military installations.
#2 "White phosphorus is a horrific incendiary chemical weapon that melts human flesh right down to the bone.... An Amnesty International team claimed to find "indisputable evidence of the widespread use of white phosphorus" as a weapon in densely-populated civilian areas. The Israeli military denied the allegations at first, but eventually admitted they were true."
There is no doubt whatsoever that a close encounter with White Phosphorus will ruin your entire day but that doesn't make it a chemical weapon. Obviously White Phosphorus is a chemical in the same sense that water and caffeine are chemicals but under that particular definition literally everything is a chemical weapon which isn't very helpful at all.

Article 1 of Protocol III of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons can be interpreted as banning White Phosphorus (though few countries take the Convention that way) as an incendiary weapon, which the Convention defines as "any weapon or munition which is primarily designed to set fire to objects or to cause burn injury to persons through the action of flame, heat, or a combination thereof, produced by a chemical reaction of a substance delivered on the target." Ostensibly White Phosphorus is not primarily designed for this purpose but is merely misused as an incendiary weapon -- it's primary purpose being the creation of smoke-screens.

Despite all of that, note the name of the Convention in question: The Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. White Phosphorus is not a chemical -- ie unconventional -- weapon.
#3. "In 2004, journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq began reporting the use of white phosphorus in Fallujah against Iraqi insurgents."
Sorry, Wesley, it's still not a chemical weapon.
#4 "CIA records now prove that Washington knew Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons (including sarin, nerve gas, and mustard gas) in the Iran-Iraq War, yet continued to pour intelligence into the hands of the Iraqi military, informing Hussein of Iranian troop movements while knowing that he would be using the information to launch chemical attacks."
This one I'll grant. The United States was involved in a Proxy War with the Soviet Union in the Middle East, pitting the US-backed Iraqi regime against the USSR-backed Iranian one. Iraq resorted to the use of chemical weapons, both against the Iranians and later to put down Kurdish uprisings in the North. What's more, the United States was both aware of Iraq's chemical weapons use and aided in the regime's production of the same, allowing Iraq to receive precursor chemicals despite knowing their ultimate purpose.

This was and is wrong. Nonetheless, if the United States were to consider itself morally unable to object to anything it had previously condoned a great many evils would still be with us. The history of the United States includes slavery, ethnic cleansing (notably of Native Americans), and eugenics, though few would seriously contend that we lack the moral authority to speak against those practices today.
#5 "In the early 1950s, the Army set up motorized blowers on top of residential high-rises in low-income, mostly black St. Louis neighborhoods, including areas where as much as 70% of the residents were children under 12. The government told residents that it was experimenting with a smokescreen to protect the city from Russian attacks, but it was actually pumping the air full of hundreds of pounds of finely powdered zinc cadmium sulfide."
An "exhaustive, independent review" which was requested by the United States Congress, "found no evidence that exposure to zinc cadmium sulfide... could cause people to become sick." The substance was, indeed, pumped into the air over St. Louis primarily to study the dispersal pattern of chemical and biological agents. ZnCdS was an ideal candidate to simulate these agents because it is fluorescent making its dispersal easy to detect and record. Far from being a nefarious chemical weapon, ZnCdS - which has yet to be shown to have any meaningful health effects - was deliberately chosen to avoid harming the general public. There's a reasonable argument to be had over the ethics of using American cities as scientific labs, but by every indication the US Government took appropriate steps to safeguard the population.
#6 "The savage violence of the police against Occupy protesters in 2011 was well documented, and included the use of tear gas and other chemical irritants. Tear gas is prohibited for use against enemy soldiers in battle by the Chemical Weapons Convention."
Tear gas is nasty stuff and is, strictly speaking, banned under international law as a chemical agent. Of course, hollow point bullets and pepper spray are also banned under international law for similar reasons. Yes, that means the ammunition in most police handguns and the little key-chain fob full of pepper spray you carry around are both illegal on the field of combat.

Tear gas is used without controversy the world over for riot control and the same international treaties that bar its use in combat specifically allow for its deployment and use both in training exercises and as a riot-control aid. The inclusion of tear gas in anti-chemical weapons statutes is more accurately stated as a ban on lachrymal agents (chemicals which cause irritation of the mucus membranes) motivated in large part by the use of Bromoacetone and other lachrymal agents which, unlike the stuff used to disperse the Occupy protesters, are highly toxic and deadly.
#7 "At the infamous Waco siege of a peaceful community of Seventh Day Adventists, the FBI pumped tear gas into buildings knowing that women, children, and babies were inside. The tear gas was highly flammable and ignited, engulfing the buildings in flames and killing 49 men and women, and 27 children, including babies and toddlers"
Ignoring the issue of the legitimacy of the Waco raid, the use of tear gas is neither terribly surprising nor terribly controversial and the claims that the gas itself was flammable and contributed to the fires that ended the Waco siege is entirely unfounded.
#8 "In Iraq, the U.S. military has littered the environment with thousands of tons of munitions made from depleted uranium, a toxic and radioactive nuclear waste product."
First, let's address this notion of "nuclear waste." Most people think "nuclear waste" comes out of a nuclear reactor and the idea of shooting spent fuel rods at Iraqis would give more than a few Americans pause. Of course, that's not at all what depleted uranium is. DU is what you get when you separate out the U-235 isotope (the one useful for making bombs and nuclear fuel) from the far more common U-238 isotope. U-238, while fairly rare, is not exactly the stuff of nightmares and horror. You can buy it on Amazon if you really want to.

The great thing about U-238, if you're fighting a tank battle, is that it's absurdly dense. If you want to put a round through an enemy tank, having a very dense projectile makes it that much easier and the United States, what with its active nuclear weapons program, has loads of U-238 more or less sitting around. While there may very well be a case to be made that U-238 is toxic or has long-term side effects when used in large volumes near civilian populations, the fact remains that it is not used specifically for any of its alleged toxic properties. Like Agent Orange, any damage it has done to civilian populations after the shooting stopped was inadvertent and that puts it in an entirely different class than the use of weapons like Sairn, which is chemically engineered to kill human beings as rapidly and indiscriminately as possible.
#9 "Napalm is a sticky and highly flammable gel which has been used as a weapon of terror by the U.S. military. In 1980, the UN declared the use of napalm on swaths of civilian population a war crime. That's exactly what the U.S. military did in World War II, dropping enough napalm in one bombing raid on Tokyo to burn 100,000 people to death, injure a million more"
Like White Phosphorus, napalm isn't a chemical weapon; it's an incendiary weapon. Napalm is for setting things on fire and while setting houses and people on fire isn't terribly nice, it's a very different thing than exterminating them like cockroaches. Yes, the UN did declare the use of napalm on civilians as a war-crime... in 1980. That was, for those of you keeping score at home, a full 35 years after the end of the Second World War.

But since Mr. Messamore raises the topic of World War Two, perhaps a brief examination of the morals of that war is warranted. Chemical weapons made their first debut on the world stage in the battle of Second Ypres in World War One. The Great War was also the first major engagement to see widespread use of militarized airplanes. As both technologies continued to develop in the inter-war period, military thinkers began to ponder what role they might play in a future conflict. Far and away the presumed use of air power and chemical weapons was one in which strategic bombers blanketed a city with high explosives followed by the napalm that Mr. Messamore is so concerned about. Once the city centers were bombed to rubble and set afire, a third wave of bombers would hit the area with chemical shells to ensure that no rescue workers could operate in the area.

When war finally came the image of the great cities of Europe, cored out, on fire, and choked with the poisoned corpses of their citizens proved more than even Hitler could stand and the air forces of both the Axis and Allies were ordered to refrain from the use of chemical weapons. High explosives and incendiary weapons were par for the WWII course, but even the Nazis recognized chemical warfare as beyond the pale.
#10 "The U.S. Government Dropped Nuclear Bombs on Two Japanese Cities in 1945. Although nuclear bombs may not be considered chemical weapons, I believe we can agree they belong to the same category. They certainly disperse an awful lot of deadly radioactive chemicals."
Yes, the United States remains the only nation to use nuclear weapons in anger. While our modern viewpoint on the atomic bomb certainly places it on equal footing with chemical weapons, however, the view from 1945 is significantly different.

The health effects of radioactive isotopes were very poorly understood, even by the Manhattan project scientists who regularly worked under conditions that seem simply insane to our modern sensibilities In a particularly famous example, a prominent nuclear scientist was killed when he slipped while holding two halves of a critical mass of plutonium apart... with a screwdriver.

When the United States dropped nuclear weapons on Japan during the Second World War it did so in a moral environment which considered their use no greater an evil than the strategic bombardment of cities by much less efficient means. As Messamore himself points out, more than 100,000 died in entirely conventional bombardments of Tokyo in which nuclear weapons were not used. Military thinkers of the period considered the atomic bomb merely a larger and more powerful kind of bomb and made that judgement largely without understanding the long-term consequences of radiation poisoning.

And yet again, Messamore inadvertently raises a valid point. While 1945 saw nuclear weapons as simply larger, more effective bombs, today we know better. Yes, nuclear weapons are and should be judged to be the moral equivalent of chemical weapons today: the purpose of both, particularly when targeted against a civilian population, is to create as much innocent death and destruction as possible. Would the United States sit silent if Syria had targeted a civilian enclave friendly to the rebels with nuclear weapons? Would the world?

While Messamore set out to establish, though these ten examples, that the United States is not morally fit to pass judgement on the Syrian regime he has, instead, established something entirely different. War is terrible and, over the course of the last 100 years, we have had limited success making it less terrible and yet we continue to try. We have banned chemical weapons, biological weapons, incendiary weapons, and even certain kinds of bullets. We have established guidelines for the treatment of civilians, attempted to stem the use of child soldiers and even tried to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.

Many of these efforts have failed, and yet we continue to try. War is inevitable; as long as their are sovereign nations they will eventually come to blows. It is the duty of the international community, in any enlightened era, to do what it can to ensure that innocent lives are protected as best as possible when the systems of diplomacy break down.

The United States has an opportunity to try, however futile its efforts may prove to be, to make war a little less horrible and if our history is any guide, we know first hand how horrible it can be.

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