John Kerry said in regard to last week's chemical attack in Syria "this is about the large scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilised world long ago decided must never be used at all."
Is he right? Absolutely not. Well, not the way he means it. Here's the modern history of chemical weapons.
The Nineteenth Century saw the rise of chemical weapons in warfare, but nothing substantial. Members of the Napoleonic school of warfare, where men march lock step into artillery and machine guns, hated the idea of using deadly gas to turn the tide in battle. Why, poison gas takes the nobility out of the gentlemanly sport that is warfare! When white men fight against savages in foreign lands they can use whatever dirty tricks necessary to bring those subhuman animals under the proper yoke, but when good, civilised white European men fight they must wear their best dress blouses and shake hands first before taking their proper sides of the field and marching lock step to certain death like a bloody good match of polo or association football. The good white European nation states got together and signed a treaty vowing to never use poison gas as a means of ending the unnecessary suffering men would face on the battlefield by getting shot to death.
The United States disagreed. The upstart, boorish, backwater that had bested the British twice said it would not hold back its own technological progress because a bunch of stuffed shirts thought it ungentlemanly. But what did a bunch of damn Yanks know?
Scottish chemist Lyon Playfair sided with the Americans. He wanted to launch cyanide shells on the Russians to end the Crimean War. He couldn't understand the reaction of the good civilised white Europeans:
There was no sense in this objection. It is considered a legitimate mode of warfare to fill shells with molten metal which scatters among the enemy, and produced the most frightful modes of death. Why a poisonous vapor which would kill men without suffering is to be considered illegitimate warfare is incomprehensible. War is destruction, and the more destructive it can be made with the least suffering the sooner will be ended that barbarous method of protecting national rights. No doubt in time chemistry will be used to lessen the suffering of combatants, and even of criminals condemned to death.
But he's a Scot! They're almost as bad as Americans, so you can't trust him.
Well, the good civilised white Europeans broke their own "rules of war" in 1915 when the stalemate of the trenches had already condemned a million men to death. The French used it first, but the Germans were the ones who figured out how poison gas was supposed to be used.
On the afternoon of 22 April the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine gas into a stiff wind that took it over a four mile stretch of the front occupied by French colonial troops. Heavier than air, the chlorine sank into the trenches and filled the eyes and lungs of the men, turning into acid and eating away at the insides of their bodies. Thousands of men died within minutes and thousands more turned and fled in blind panic. No one had ever imagined a weapon this effective could exist, not even the Germans themselves! Stunned by their own success at breaking the French line the Germans failed to take advantage of the attack and made only insignificant gains.
Courage only goes so far. When a man sees his end at the hands of an unfeeling cloud inexorably rolling across the landscape there is not a thing in this world that can make him stand his ground. Self-preservation takes over. Deep down inside every man is the brain of a lizard, responsible for the basic functions of survival. Whenever the organism is threatened the lizard brain overpowers the rational mind of man and the inner animal is unleashed to fight or flee. And there is no way to fight a cloud of death, so the man takes to his feet and hauls ass in the opposite direction.
A man whose lungs are destroyed by chlorine cannot be saved. Doctors cannot alleviate his suffering. He fights for hours to pull life giving breath from the air to no avail until he finally succumbs to the inevitable. It's not a good death, but then again neither is bleeding to death from shrapnel. And chlorine does one thing shrapnel cannot: it breaks trenches. Chlorine could have won the war in 1915 if the Germans capitalised on their initial success. They could have saved the lives of tens of millions of men and reshaped the destiny of the continent. It's possible the Holocaust could have been avoided had poison gas been used to its fullest for a swift German victory, but there is no way to know for sure.
The point of war is not to kill your enemy, it is to get your enemy to surrender with the least amount of force expended and the fewest friendly casualties. A war that can be won without killing a single man is the most successful war of all. The Mongol horde utilised terror to force cities to surrender before their horses even got within earshot of the city walls. Poison gas can do the same. Men will run away from gas by the thousands, territory can be occupied without having to kill anyone, and wars can be won by terror alone. As horrible a death asphyxiation is, it is a lot better for a few thousand men to die by poison gas than millions to die from attrition in the trenches.
And that is what happened. The Germans held back, the Entente developed countermeasures, and the gases got more deadly. A chemical arms race began that would eventually lead to the production of enough lethal nerve gas to kill everyone on the planet several times over at the height of the Cold War.
Once the First World War had ended a new treaty was signed, and once again the good civilised white Europeans agreed never to use poison gas. If a war can be won without attrition, without millions dying from bullets and shells, without protracted land battles, why that isn't fair! That's not the gentleman's war, is it? Why should the smartest country, the country that invests the most in science, the country most invested in the preservation of land and human lives win the war instead of the country willing to make the most human sacrifices? Surely chemical warfare is evil because it spares millions from being interred beneath soil contaminated with millions more tons of lead fragments. Chemical warfare does not produce lost villages, so badly contaminated that they can never be inhabited again. A cloud of gas rolls over an enemy line and vanquishes it, it does not persist until the last private has bled out in a shell hole somewhere in the mud.
No, chemical weapons, when used correctly, are the most humane weapons of all. It is only backward thinking, the inertia within the minds of politicians and military planners, that draw a line in the sand and seek to prevent quick wars that do not throw men and treasure into the fires of destruction. It is their thinking that is a moral outrage, not the weapons they revile so fervently.