When Germany’s Fritz Haber, famous with Carl Bosch for the synthetic ammonia process, supervised the release of chlorine gas on Allied troops in World War I, his wife, Clara Immerwahr, shot herself in protest against this inhuman act. Since that time, chemical weapons have been periodically employed in spite of efforts by most governments to prohibit their use. In fact, they have become much more deadly over time, as nerve agents such as Sarin and Tabun, were produced and stockpiled by a number of countries even as they agreed, by treaty, not to use them.
The most egregious use was in the 1980s by Iraq, first against waves of Iranian infantry and then against villages housing Kurdish Iraqis who were supporting Iran. President Reagan did not then say that Iraq had crossed an imaginary “red line” that would call for retaliation for committing these atrocities, deemed above and beyond conventional warfare. In fact, U.S. sympathies in that war were clearly in favor of Iraq, which was fighting against a country and its Ayatollahs that had a few years earlier stormed the U.S. embassy and held its occupants hostage for many months. You could argue that there were, at that time, no television pictures of children gassed by Saran and therefore no way to convince the U.S. public to get enmeshed in a messy sectorial war.
It should be noted that “Chemical Ali”, the Iraqi general who supervised the use of nerve gas against the country’s Kurdish citizens was hanged in 2006 after conviction in a war crimes tribunal.
The U.S. did not react when hundreds of thousands were massacred in Ruanda and reacted only very cautiously as the toll of civilians in the current Syrian conflict reached one hundred thousand. But President Obama evidently believed that the Syrian government’s use of nerve gas did cross a “red line” that should be cause for punishment on moral grounds. And that is where we are right now.
In the complicated world we live in now, we see countries like the U.S., Britain, France and Russia agreeing to destroy stockpiles of nuclear weapons (but only so many), scary countries like North Korea and Pakistan with nukes and Iran threatened with cruise missile strikes if it decides to become a nuclear power. Most countries have signed treaties banning use of chemical weapons, yet continue to stockpile them for dire emergencies.
The latest development in Syria look hopeful. But chemical weapons, almost as easy to produce as insecticides and easy to deliver, will continue to bedevil us, as we saw when Sarin was released in Tokyo subway cars a number of years ago.
Note: Rather than publishing a blog post almost on a weekly basis, I will henceforth write mainly when a subject seems topical, rather than trying to meet a schedule.