29 August 2013

The Humanity of Chemical Warfare

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.

The Eve of World War Three in Syria

Last Wednesday a chemical attack outside Damascus resulted in the death of over 1000 people. The UN was quick to come in and blame Syrian president Assad without evidence. US Secretary of State John Kerry said this was a moral outrage and requires US intervention (war, or "kinetic action" as the Zero regime likes to call it). Sources claim that attack is immanent, maybe even happening sometime today (Thursday 29 August), if not within a week.

None of this makes any sense. Think about it. Assad has killed fifty times as many people using conventional means. He has the upper hand in the war and the backing of Russia, China, and Iran. The quickest way to destroy his own success and alienate himself from his powerful allies would be to use chemical weapons. There is no sane or logical reason why Assad would have ordered that attack. Assad is an evil man, but he's not stupid. He is focused entirely on holding power, which is something he cannot do if he were to use chemical weapons and have the world turn against him.

BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner shares my suspicion: "the timing is odd, bordering on suspicious. Why would the Assad government, which has recently been retaking ground from the rebels, carry out a chemical attack while UN weapons inspectors are in the country?" He does, however, believe a chemical attack did occur.

UN weapons inspector Rolf Ekeus agrees: "It would be very peculiar if it was the government to do this at the exact moment the international inspectors come into the country....at the least, it wouldn't be very clever."

Regarding the attack a US intelligence official commented "We don't know exactly why it happened. We just know it was pretty fucking stupid."

Why would Assad call in UN weapons inspectors then launch a chemical attack in close proximity to where the inspectors would be? That does not make any sense.

And yet we are rushing headlong into another poorly planned war with no exit strategy in mind and no thought as to the consequences of our actions.

Noah Shachtman writing for Foreign Policy states "However, U.S. spy services still have not acquired the evidence traditionally considered to be the gold standard in chemical weapons cases: soil, blood, and other environmental samples that test positive for reactions with nerve agent. That's the kind of proof that America and its allies processed from earlier, small-scale attacks that the White House described in equivocal tones, and declined to muster a military response to in retaliation."

We are rushing into a foolish war that will only end badly with less evidence than there was for WMDs in Iraq a decade earlier! There were years of UN inspector reports and other intelligence that strongly suggested Saddam Hussein had a thriving chemical and biological warfare infrastructure in place and after the invasion nothing was found. With Syria we have precious little evidence that a chemical attack happened at all.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the US intercepted panicked phone calls between defense officials in Damascus and the commander of a chemical weapons unit demanding details about the strike, Foreign Policy reported early Wednesday.

The report comes just days after a report in a major German publication claiming that an IDF intelligence unit had listened in on similar conversations between senior Syrian officials discussing the chemical attack.

US intelligence says that these panicked phone calls prove that Assad or someone in his government was behind the attacks. Now I'm no intelligence expert, but I was right about Egypt and Libya, and I did predict the Benghazi attack two full years before it happened, but these guys know what they're talking about, right? I mean, when the Syrian Minister of Defense demands answers regarding who the hell ordered the attack that proves that the Syrian government was behind it, right? When they start panicking about a move that would mean suicide in the world of geopolitical realpolitik, a move that is "pretty fucking stupid," and then immediately begin working on damage control that means they must be responsible, right?

I mean, it's not like we have members of the Free Syrian Army (the Islamist rebels who ate a man's heart and posted it to YouTube - note, this is a mirror, not the original) on video talking about how they intend to use chemical weapons

Oops! Just ignore that. Didn't happen.

There are only two possible alternatives as to who launched that attack: either it was the rebels themselves or it was operatives from the US or some other country looking for a "responsibility to protect," a casus fœderis, for which to intervene.

Russia and China have warned the United States not to intervene, as has Assad himself. Intervention in Syria will spread the conflict to neighboring countries. A relatively contained problem will grow into a full scale war between, basically, the United States versus Russia and China. China holds the lion's share of US debt. They have the power to economically destroy the country immediately if they so choose. Israel and Iran will be drawn in. There may be a nuclear exchange, or at least the use of a nuclear bunker buster to take out Iran's own nuclear program. Of course, the problems with nukes is when one country uses them it sparks other countries to use them too, resulting in the mutually assured destruction that the world has tried to prevent for six decades.

At the very least a million Syrians will die and the US will be out another trillion dollars.

We cannot go to war in Syria. We cannot help the rebels. If the US gets involved this will be WWIII and it won't end until millions are dead.