Saturday, February 20, 2010

Chemical Warfare, Part 1

Just a few months before I decided to go back in the Army, I wrote about chemical warfare and spoke about it at my day job at Chemical Heritage Foundation.

So I had chemical weapons on my mind (luckily not in my lungs) even before I went back in the Army. The following was published in Books and Culture magazine in January 2007:


Nerve gas is becoming the weapon of choice for tv doomsday scenarios. In last year's season of 24, for example, Russian terrorists steal twenty canisters of a made-for-tv nerve gas and threaten to kill tens of thousands of people. They do manage to kill about 100 people, despite the best efforts of series hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

Watching season five of 24 makes it clear why we should be afraid of gas, particularly nerve gas, although this terrifying weapon was cleaned up and tamed for tv. The "Weaponized Centox" featured on 24 kills its victims with the lethal efficiency of real-world nerve gas—vx, Tabun, Sarin, and so on—but unlike other actual nerve gases, Centox then conveniently disappears.1 Real nerve gas poses a huge decontamination problem. It sticks to walls and wings, cars and computers, and it is just as deadly on the skin as in the air. When the tv nerve gas Centox is released within CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) headquarters in Los Angeles, the gas quickly kills nearly half of the staff, but those who make it to sealed rooms and survive simply return to their workstations and resume the high-tech fight against determined terrorists inside and outside the government.

Personally, I would not want to be tapping on a keyboard and drinking coffee in a room that had held a lethal dose of nerve gas just a few minutes before. But if TV gets the details wrong, it gets the terror right. Closed, crowded places make tempting targets for terrorists. The 24 terrorists attack a mall, offices, and attempt to attack thousands of homes through the natural gas system.

If you are interested in the history of the most deadly class of chemicals used in warfare, War of Nerves by Jonathan B. Tucker recounts many tales of developing, producing, and deploying chemical weapons, with a particular focus—as the title suggests—on nerve gas. The author of previous books on smallpox and leukemia and editor of a volume on chemical and biological warfare, Tucker takes the reader from the German laboratory where the first nerve agent was developed right up to the present.

So absorbing is Tucker's chronicle that you may lose track of time while learning how an errant U.S. Army test of vx nerve gas killed thousands of sheep in Utah in the 1960s. Lest you think this is exaggeration, I asked my then 15-year-old daughter, Lisa, to read chapter 16 while we were on a rather long drive to a mall. When we arrived, she had two pages left and wanted to finish the chapter rather than run straight in to Abercrombie & Fitch. Chapter 16 describes the life of the man responsible for the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack that left twelve dead and hundreds injured. Most histories of chemical warfare would not slow a teenager on the way to a clothes store.

In his dramatic style, Tucker occasionally reaches beyond knowable facts to get inside the mind of his subjects. He says that Dr. Gerhard Schrader, in his lab at I.G. Farben, "[a]s always, felt a pleasant tingle of anticipation as a new substance emerged from the synthetic process." At the time, December 23, 1936, Dr. Schrader was working in a lab decorated with "a large framed photograph of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in heroic profile." A man in these circumstances could have experienced a tingle for any number of reasons: chemistry, Christmas, or Hitler's portrait. But Tucker doesn't hesitate to read minds.

Aside from this quibble, the stories Tucker finds of ordinary people are both delightful and chilling. Delightful because they are well told and give the reader some insight into the kind of person who would develop or mass-produce weapons of mass destruction. Chilling because his subjects focus on the problem at hand—making thousands of tons of nerve gas, for example—with no apparent qualm. It's the job. They do it.

My favorite of Tucker's tales is the story of Boris Libman, a native of Latvia who could have walked straight out of the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Born in 1922, Libman was just 18 when the invading Russians confiscated his family's land and property and drafted him into the Soviet Army. He was seriously wounded early in the war, returned to duty after a long recovery, and was again badly wounded, the second time left for dead. He survived the war and applied to study at the Moscow Institute for Chemistry tuition-free as an honorably discharged disabled veteran. Libman was turned down because he was officially dead. He managed to prove he was alive, attended university, and became quite a talented chemical engineer. He supervised production of thousands of tons of nerve gas on impossible schedules for many years. In trying to do his best for the Soviet Union, he made an error with a containment pond for toxic wastes. A storm caused a flood, the pond burst its dike, and tons of toxic waste poured into the Volga River. Months later the delayed effects of the spill killed millions of fish for 50 miles downriver. Libman was blamed and sent to a labor camp to appease an outraged public. But as it turned out, no one else could run the nerve gas plant, and Libman was quietly released and returned to work after one year.

Fear of toxic gas and wild exaggeration of its dangers have their American roots in the debate over chemical warfare after World War I. In Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints (first published by Princeton University Press in 1968 and now reissued by Transaction with a new introduction by Jeanne Guillemin), Frederic J. Brown recalls the terror of gas during the years between the world wars. "Propagandists were totally irresponsible in their exaggerations of new weapons developments," Brown writes. He quotes H. G. Wells on the aftermath of a fictional chemical attack by aircraft using the Centox of the 1930s, what Wells called "Permanent Death Gas":

[the area attacked] was found to be littered with the remains not only of the human beings, cattle and dogs that strayed into it, but with the skeletons and scraps of skin and feathers of millions of mice, rats, birds and such like small creatures. In some places they lay nearly a metre deep.

Not quite "blood as deep as horses' bridles," but still a vision to warm the heart of apocalypse addicts.

Brown—Lieutenant General, retired, U.S. Army; he was a junior officer when he wrote the book—carefully recounts the military history of the use and, more significantly, the non-use of chemicals as weapons in both world wars and the period in between. Thorough and well documented, his book also captures the policy decisions and leaders' attitudes that kept chemical weapons, for the most part, off World War II battlefields.

Brown's book has the fat footnotes that have long been out of style even in scholarly publishing, but these footnotes are a delight for the reader who wants details. On page 18 is a three-paragraph, nearly full-page, small-type footnote describing President Woodrow Wilson's attitude toward gas warfare, with references to his biography and a meeting with the French commander at the battle of Ypres.

----More tomorrow-----

Books reviewed:
War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda
by Jonathan B. Tucker
Pantheon, 2005
479 pp., $30

Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints
by Frederic J. Brown
Transaction, [1968] 2005
388 pp., $29.95, paper

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