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One taboo that has never been normalized

  • (San Jose Mercury News)

“Clearly,” wrote an exasperated Winston Churchill in the summer of 1944, ”I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time.” Through most of that July the British prime minister had been asking his military chiefs to reconsider the question of using poison gas against Germany, telling them he wanted ”cold-blooded calculation” rather than moralistic arguments about the unique iniquity of chemical weapons. The joint chiefs unanimously came down against the idea.

Churchill grumpily acquiesced.

The history of chemical weapons is largely a history of occasions on which they have not been used. This is in part because they were prohibited — indeed, they were banned before they were actually used. At the time of the Hague convention of 1899 no one had actually tried to use projectiles “the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases” — the sort the convention banned. It is also in part because they are horrible. To be fair, so are most weapons, and many have been decried as such when first introduced, before utility and familiarity find them places in the arsenals of the powerful. But chemical weapons have never been normalized in that way.

Neither the innate horror nor the strictures of the Hague convention stopped first Germany and then its opponents from using chemical weapons in World War I. At least 90,000 soldiers were killed by them, and more than 10 times that number wounded.

The weapons often had the effects their users desired; the argument that chemical weapons have largely been forgone because they do not deliver tactical advantage is wrong. They continued to be used in the 1930s, in the invasions of Ethiopia by Italy and of China by Japan. Still, as Richard Price of the University of British Columbia argues in a study of the taboo on chemical weapons, chemical weapons were already seen as different from other sorts of weapons.

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