During the First World War, the most fearful weapons on the battlefield were characterized not by explosive power, but by clouds of poison gas. First, French and German armies began using non-lethal tear gasses with catchy names like ethyl bromoacetate and xylyl bromide. Then the Germans began bombarding enemy trenches with chlorine gas that could kill hundreds at a time, and soon the British were responding with chlorine weapons of their own. The allied powers escalated to phosgene, an even more potent and deadly poison. The axis powers soon followed suit.
Finally, the Germans introduced mustard gas to the battlefield—a chemical that would cause your skin to burn, your eyes to sting, your lungs to bleed, and your mucous membranes to inflame. If you had received a fatal dose, you would likely languish for weeks in agonizing pain before finally succumbing to your wounds. If your exposure was less severe, you would likely survive . . . but only after an excruciating period of recovery, and you would likely be left permanently disfigured. Following the now-familiar pattern, the allies soon began producing and using mustard gas as well, and developed an even more ‘improved’ chemical called Lewisite. Fortunately, the great war came to an end before it could be deployed on the battlefield.
War is never a good or pleasant thing, but it is rarely worse than when chemical weapons are deployed in the battlefield. In the aftermath of the First World War, people all around the world wanted to make sure that poison gas would never be used again. The victorious allies immediately prohibited Germany from ever again using, manufacturing, or importing chemical weapons (Treaty of Versailles, Article 171). In 1925, representatives from thirty-eight nations signed the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the use—but not the manufacture or storage—of chemical or biological weapons. Today, a total of 137 countries are party to this agreement.
As a result, chemical warfare was but a small part of World War Two—the worst conflict that the world has ever seen. The Japanese army did use chemical weapons against some other Asian countries during the war, but never against westerners (out of fear of retaliation). The major powers in Europe, as well as the Soviet Union and the United States, produced stockpiles of chemical weapons and had them at-the-ready in case the other side used them first, but they were only used on the battlefield in a few isolated incidents. Of the nearly 417,000 U.S. military deaths in World War Two, fewer than one thousand were killed by chemical weapons. In the decades since, chemical weapons attacks—like Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s genocidal massacre of Kurdish civilians in Halabja and the Sarin terror attack in Tokyo—are especially notable because they are unusual.
In 1993, representatives from 165 countries signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a treaty that goes much further than the Geneva Protocol by outlawing the production, stockpiling, and the use of chemical weapons. Additionally, it requires that existing stockpiles be destroyed. Today, 188 countries are party to the agreement, and two more have signed but have not yet ratified it. It is estimated that over seventy percent of the world’s chemical weapons have already been destroyed. Only six countries—Angola, North Korea, Egypt, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria—have not signed or acceded to the agreement.
Syria, which has been embroiled in a two-year civil war, has long been suspected of having a chemical weapons program much like the one that existed in Iraq before the First Gulf War. Although not a party to either the Geneva Protocol or the Chemical Weapons Convention, the Syrian government—led by President Bashir al-Assad—had denied having chemical weapons . . . that is until mid-2012, when they threatened to use them. Syrian foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said, “No chemical or biological weapons will ever be used, and I repeat, will never be used, during the crisis in Syria no matter what the developments inside Syria. . . . [They] will never be used unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.” This was, apparently, an effort to discourage international involvement in the ongoing civil war.
But despite this promise, it emerged today that chemical weapons have now been used for the first time in the conflict—although it is unclear whether the Syrian government or the opposition rebels are responsible, and both sides are pointing fingers at each other. President Barack Obama (D) has previously said that the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict would be a ‘red line’ that could trigger American involvement, perhaps along the lines of the 2011 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya. The world has almost-unanimously categorized the use of chemical weapons as a war crime, and rightfully so. It the Syrians (on either side) deploy them in their conflict, the world has to respond.
Speaking about this development in an interview with CNN, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, “I think the probabilities are very high that we’re going into some very dark times.” If chemical weapons are really being deployed on the battlefield in Syria, then she is absolutely right.