The Chemistry of War

The Western world has not always found the use of chemical weapons in war to be morally abhorrent.

In 1919 Winston Churchill, then secretary of state at the British war office, was a keen advocate of what today — when others seek to acquire them — we like to call ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Churchill wrote that he did not understand squeamishness about the use of gas.

I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes … It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gases; gases can be used which would cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.

According to Churchill, chemical weapons such as mustard gas represent the application of Western science to modern warfare.

We cannot, in any circumstances acquiesce to the non-utilisation of any weapons which are available to procure a speedy termination of the disorder which prevails on the frontier.

Australia’s most famous and highly decorated immunologist clearly shared Churchill’s enthusiasm. In 1947, Nobel prize winning microbiologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet secretly urged Canberra to develop biological and chemical weapons for use against Indonesia and other South-East Asian countries. According to Burnet:

The most effective counter-offensive to threatened invasion by overpopulated Asiatic countries would be directed towards the destruction by biological or chemical means of tropical food crops and the dissemination of infectious disease capable of spreading in tropical but not under Australian conditions.

The use of such weapons had ‘the tremendous advantage of not destroying the enemy’s industrial potential which can then be taken over intact’, Burnet argued.

During the Vietnam war, the United States sprayed chemical weapons on South Vietnam in order to defoliate the countryside. Australians are aware of claims which connect herbicides such as Agent Orange with birth defects in veterans. However, we have heard very little about the terrible human toll exacted on the Vietnamese, with reports linking as many as 250,000 casualties directly to the use of defoliants during the war. These are some of the invisible victims of Churchill’s civilised world.

Perhaps most surprising of all, Israel has been manufacturing a wide range of chemical and biological weapons at a research institute in Nes Ziona near Tel Aviv. According to military analyst Uzi Mahanaimi, Israeli F-16 aircraft can be fitted with active biological or chemical weapons within minutes of receiving an order to do so. According to the British Foreign Office Report, one such device was used in the failed attempt by Mossad agents to kill Hamas political bureau head Khaled Mishal in Jordan in September 1997.

In the absence of a plausible casus belli connecting Iraq in any way to the September 11 atrocities, it was inevitable that the Bush administration would invoke ‘the threat of chemical weapons’ as it prepares US public opinion for Washington’s next encounter with Saddam Hussein.

Assuming few will question the conflation of two unrelated issues — the so called ‘war against terrorism’ and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — Bush recently characterised Saddam as ‘a man who is willing to kill his own people by using chemical weapons’.

The US President is referring here to the afternoon of 17 March 1988 when Iraq’s airforce attacked the Kurdish city of Halabja, which is located just inside northern Iraq on the border with Iran. Within half an hour 5000 men women and children were killed when chemical weapons containing mustard gas and the nerve agents sarin, tabun and VX were dropped upon them. Though few of the victims would have regarded themselves as Saddam’s ‘own people’, this was a horrendous crime against one of Iraq’s most persecuted ethnic minorities.

In light of President George W. Bush’s efforts to construct a pretext for the next US strike against the Iraqi dictator, how did Washington respond at the time to this despicable act? Were there passionate denunciations of the attack and calls for a military strike against the man who, only after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, became known as the ‘butcher of Baghdad’? Were sanctions imposed?

There was nothing of the kind. Initially, and outrageously, the US blamed Iran for the attack, a particularly cynical ploy given that Saddam had also used chemical weapons against Teheran’s forces during their nine-year conflict in the 1980s. In fact Washington continued to treat Saddam as a favoured ally and trading partner long after the attack on Halabja was exposed as his handiwork. At the time the Reagan Administration tried to prevent criticism of Saddam’s chemical attack on the Kurds in the Congress and in December 1989, George Bush’s father authorised new loans to Saddam in order to achieve the ‘goal of increasing US exports and put us in a better position to deal with Iraq regarding its human rights record’.

If the White House was unconcerned by Saddam’s use of chemical weapons in 1988, why would it be genuinely worried now?

In the weeks leading up to what is misleadingly called the next front in the ‘war against terrorism’, we will be hearing a lot about the monster who gassed ‘his own people’, and who therefore deserves a Taliban-style attack. There may be good reasons for toppling the dictator in Baghdad and encouraging a transition to democracy in the country, but it won’t be based on Western moral outrage at his use of chemical weapons.


Scott Burchill is a lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University.

Categorised: Against the Current

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