Sunday, February 21, 2010

Chemical Warfare, Part 2

Sometimes the footnotes illuminate and enliven a rather dull passage. In a section on civil defense Brown says, "Since it has to be assumed that an enemy would use the most destructive mixture of weapons available, gas shelters had to be bomb- and fireproof as well as gasproof." Why is this true? Note 48 at the bottom of the page explains: "High explosives to penetrate collective shelters and homes, incendiaries to drive the population into the streets, gas to kill in the streets." Brown tends to the passive voice in the text but can be vivid in the notes.

While the combatants of World War I expected gas warfare in future conflicts, none of the combatants in World War II attacked each other with gas with the exception of limited use in China. The aversion to gas warfare stands in stark contrast to the other two weapons introduced in World War I: the tank and the bomber. When World War II began in September of 1939, the German tanks backed by bombers made short work of Poland. The following spring the same German juggernaut ripped through France, Belgium, and Holland and defeated every major allied combatant except the United Kingdom. In the Pacific, the Japanese showed how effective ship-based bombers could be, winning many victories against neighboring countries in the early years of the war and eventually bringing the U.S. into the war with the carrier-based bomber attack on Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

The bomber and the tank became indispensable weapons for the major combatants of World War II, but gas warfare did not. Brown says the first reason was revulsion by military professionals. A small group of senior officers strove to make chemical warfare integral to the plans of the U.S. military, but most professional officers wanted no part of warfare they saw variously as inhumane, cowardly, and out of their control. Gas is also more complicated to use than conventional weapons. Gas warfare creates a logistics burden all its own: using gas means providing protective equipment for all friendly soldiers operating in the area affected by gas. Gas munitions displace conventional rounds. The more gas rounds fired, the fewer explosive rounds that can be fired by the same gun. In the fast-moving battles of World War II, persistent gas would slow the successful attacker, forcing his soldiers to operate in an area they contaminated. And in the case of naval use of gas, there is a potential disaster in any ship having a magazine loaded with gas rounds. Any leak of toxic gas inside a ship leaves the entire crew in a contaminated container with little prospect of escape.

Brown shows how politics pushed the warring nations further away from the use of gas. First use by one army meant retaliation by the other. Germany and England bombed each other throughout most of the war. Even when one country was clearly winning, the other was able to retaliate. If one side used gas, the other would be sending gas back across the Channel in short order. Neither of these particularly vulnerable countries wanted to provoke gas warfare, nor did they want any of their allies to add gas to the mix of weapons. Also, the men at the head of the largest armies in the war were for their own reasons strongly opposed to gas warfare. Hitler was gassed during World War I and Brown shows that the German leader did not seriously consider using gas until the final days of the war. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was opposed to gas as a "barbarous and inhumane" weapon; he stated to the world in 1943 that the United States would not initiate gas warfare but would retaliate in kind if necessary.

Brown's main narrative closes at the end of World War II. He shows that gas was never seriously considered as an alternative to the use of the atomic bomb or invasion of the Japanese mainland. In his conclusion Brown judges that the circumstances which prevented the use of chemical warfare in World War II still obtained in 1968. The professional military was largely opposed to the use of chemical warfare, and the main antagonists of the postwar period—the United States and the Soviet Union— both had many allies who would not want gas or nuclear weapons used on their soil.

Quite rightly, Brown took a measure of comfort in reflecting that the restraints which existed in World War II continued in the Cold War era. Alas, this modest reassurance does not carry over to our own day. Terrorists are not soldiers. As their name suggests, their purpose is to inflict terror on the civilian population, while at the same time they can trust traditional Western reticence not to respond with indiscriminate murder in retaliation.

For readers who would like to see Brown's book come to life, at least in fiction, I recommend Tom Clancy's Red Storm Rising. This 20-year-old best seller describes a conventional war in Western Europe in the late 20th century in which neither side uses chemical or nuclear weapons. The reasons could have been lifted straight from Chemical Warfare. The soldiers on both sides of the conflict share the attitude toward gas and nuclear weapons that Brown describes. And in a prescient prologue, Clancy's World War III begins with Arab terrorists blowing up a Soviet refinery, causing a crippling fuel shortage.

If I found the hopeful note in Brown's conclusion tied closely to the circumstances of the Cold War, I found some practical hope in Tucker's book. His long descriptions of the problems encountered by Saddam's chemists in the Iran-Iraq war—along with the troubles encountered by the cult that attacked the Tokyo subway—show how difficult it is to make nerve gas. The ingredients are corrosive and dangerous. The equipment required to make it is specialized and difficult to obtain. Even the most talented chemists and chemical engineers Tucker introduces in the book faced huge difficulties producing nerve gas—and in many cases failed partially or completely. Even for those with millions and millions of dollars to spend, nerve gas synthesis is very, very difficult. Luckily for us, no weapon in the real world is as easy to use or works quite as well as its fictional counterpart.

Neil Gussman writes a column on the history of chemistry for Chemical Engineering Progress magazine.

1. "Weaponized" means put in a bomb, artillery shell, mine, or other system for use. In 24, the nerve agent was loaded into pressurized cylinders that were intended for release in ventilation systems. Why the U.S. government would weaponize nerve gas in a form most useful for theft and use by terrorists rather than for the battlefield is a question only the show's writers can answer.