Weapons of Fear

Read Time:
3m 52sec

Chemical Warfare From World War I
to Al Qaeda.

By Jonathan B. Tucker.
Pantheon. 479 pp. $30

Like many other journalists, I covered the 2003 Iraq war with my gas mask close to hand. Fumbling it onto my face while dashing down to some Kuwaiti basement, or bundling it into a pillow to snatch some sleep inside Iraq, I came to see it as a constant part of life. But more than that, it was a talisman against the creeping fear of a most dreadful kind of war. The fear had to be taken seriously because Iraq had, in fact, used chemical weapons and nerve gas before—on its own Kurds at Halabja in March 1988, and against Iranian troops on the Al Faw peninsula the following month.

For all its psychological comfort, the gas mask would not have afforded much protection. Saddam Hussein favored the odorless sarin, a lethal nerve gas that had been developed by the IG Farben group in Nazi Germany. Like other classic nerve agents, sarin can be absorbed through the skin, causing convulsions, paralysis, and other symptoms, so for serious protection a full-scale protective suit of activated charcoal with sealed cuffs is required. This book begins with a chilling description of young recruits at the U.S. Army Chemical School in Missouri training in these “MOP suits,” exposed to sarin and to a series called the V-agents, produced jointly by the British, Canadians, and Americans during the Cold War.

There remains a powerful taboo against the use of chemical weapons. Just as the Cold War was defined in one sense by the determination on both sides not to use nuclear weapons, our current war on terrorism will be shaped in large measure by whether terrorists “graduate” from conventional explosives to the use of chemical and nerve agents. They are not, by comparison with nuclear weapons, all that difficult to produce, and their psychological effect can be devastating.

Jonathan Tucker, a specialist in chemical and biological weapons formerly with the U.S. government and more recently at the Monterey Institute, has produced a serious history of these weapons for the general reader. His title is something of a misnomer: There is relatively little about World War I. But he does note that by that war’s end about 10 percent of U.S. Army shells were chemical. This underestimates the significance they had taken on. By the late summer of 1918, the British were routing the German field army with barrages that used as many gas shells as high explosives, and, as minister of munitions, Winston Churchill had begun to triple gas output for the expected campaigns of 1919.

One of the victims of British gas, Tucker writes, was the young Adolf Hitler, who understandably developed an awed respect for the weapon. While Hitler strongly supported the development of vast stocks of chemical weapons and nerve agents in World War II, he refrained from their use for fear of Allied retaliation. He was probably right to do so. The budget of the U.S. Army Chemical Warfare Service rose from $2 million in 1940 to more than $1 billion in 1942, and large stocks of mustard and phosgene gas were readied for use if Hitler ignored the clear warnings of massive retaliation from President Franklin Roosevelt.

Tucker’s excellent account shows how Allied intelligence failed to discover the extent of the German program and above all missed its technological breakthrough into nerve agents. Even when British Army intelligence sent back from North Africa a detailed report of the interrogation of a German officer with personal knowledge of the program, British officials took no action, although they were developing their own (inferior) agent, called DFP. After the Third Reich fell, the discovery of its chemical programs, and the realization that the Soviet Army had captured almost intact the Nazi nerve gas production center at Dyhernfurth (in what became East Germany), launched a chemical arms race that lasted throughout the Cold War. Although some Soviet-produced chemical weapons were used by Egyptian forces in Yemen in the 1960s, the taboo against them broadly held—until the Iraqis broke it in 1988.

The taboo has now been largely reinstated by diplomacy and treaty, and even Saddam never actually used gas in the 2003 Iraq war, maybe because of the impact of international inspections in destroying Iraqi chemical warfare stocks and production facilities. But Tucker’s study of the spasmodic progress of international conventions and the painfully slow destruction of the vast Cold War stocks in Russia and the United States does not make comforting reading. Perhaps that is why, like others who spent time in Iraq, I have not thrown away my gas mask.

—Martin Walker

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