The world's attention was fixated on Syria in August and September of 2013, as it witnessed the first major deadly chemical weapons (CW) attack in armed conflict in some 25 years. The use of CW was able to do what more than 100,000 casualties hadn't done: provoke members of the international community, particularly the United States, to action. Many were left wondering how CW came to be singled out as a "red line" not to be crossed in the first place.
President Barack Obama's response – "I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line" – has a lot of truth to it, even if it downplays the critical importance of his own contributions, which ensured heightened salience of the international norm prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. That is, had the Obama administration largely downplayed the use of CW – as did the Reagan administration during Iraq's use of them in the 1980s – events would have turned out very differently. Like any taboos in society, someone must uphold international norms when they are violated for those norms to continue to be valid, lest the violations become routine. But Obama's remark is correct in the sense that a global taboo was firmly in place long before his threats to Syria. Of all the weapons of war, why is it that chemical weapons represent a threshold of unacceptable wartime conduct?
The global taboo against chemical weapons is more than a century in the making and owes its development to a fascinating combination of several factors: successful moral entrepreneurship, which has produced a series of international legal prohibitions based largely on fears of the mass threat to civilians posed by CW; a developing tradition of nonuse, aided by some fortuitous bits of timing along the way; and good old-fashioned power politics (with an interesting modern twist).
The easy explanations for how it has come to be that the world today virtually never sees the use of these weapons are just that: too easy. Among them, it has been speculated that people have an intrinsic and special aversion to CW akin to our opprobrium toward poison; that CW have been banned because they aren't seen as useful by militaries; or that they aren't used due to the power politics of deterrence – fear of retaliation in kind. Upon close historical examination, these explanations are found incomplete. For example, deterrence doesn't explain the scores of wars in which a CW-armed opponent faced an enemy without a retaliatory CW capability, and they still weren't used.
Are chemical weapons not useful? For countries like the United States, alternative means to accomplish its missions are certainly at hand. But that doesn't explain how we got to that point, particularly when along the way there have been assessments such as Brig. Gen. Alden Waitt's during World War II that "gas is the most promising of all weapons for overcoming cave defenses" of the Japanese in the Pacific island campaign that cost so many lives. There is a fascinating historical record of contradictory assessments that gas is a useful weapon here to stay, or that its functions could be attained by other methods.
Most weapons in history, particularly in their early days, have their pros and cons, but continual innovation refines them over time and they come to be deployed in situations where they have some value, often in combination with other tactics. That typical trajectory has been forestalled in the case of CW, though the rare violations such as Iraq's use in the 1980s and the recent use in Syria exemplify that for some they are still seen to have tactical utility in certain situations. It is just that the political cost has been raised ever higher, never more so than today.
Is it the case that the very nature of chemical weapons – choking, blistering or nerve gas – is simply more awful than being attacked by conventional weapons? Views are far from unanimous. This indeed was the experience during the most massive use of CW the world has ever seen, World War I. Those who depicted the cruelties of gas in fictional or biographical accounts of the time did not argue that other methods were somehow enjoyable. They simply related how being attacked by gas was horrible, but so did those who wrote of shell shock and other depravities in the trenches.
Moreover, the reaction to gas was not uniform: some accounts embellished vivid memories of fear, and others provided relatively indifferent or technical descriptions. For every memorable rendition of the horrors of chemical warfare such as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," there is an "All Quiet on the Western Front," in which gas is unremarkable among the plethora of horrors of trench warfare and other miseries. In the case of Erich Maria Remarque's soldiers, tanks "more than anything embody for us the horrors of war."
As soldiers became more familiar with the use of gas and defenses against it, many of the initial inhibitions ebbed and gas became increasingly – though grudgingly – accepted as another unavoidable technology of modern warfare. Among others, well-known military strategist B.H. Liddell Hart was gassed in World War I and subsequently advocated the use of gas in future wars as more humane than conventional weapons. The American Legion, for its part, declared in 1926, "It was the experience of hundreds of thousands engaged in the last war that gas was one of the most humane weapons of warfare and also the most effective in bringing any war to an end." In postwar arms-limitation negotiations at the Washington Naval Conference, U.S. Gen. Amos Fries recommended that "the only limitation that should be considered by the United States is the prohibition of its use against cities and noncombatants in exactly the same manner as the use of airplane bombs, high-explosive shells, or other weapons are prohibited."
That recommendation underscores how differently chemical weapons were viewed during this period, even despite such differences of opinion as whether they were better or worse than being bayoneted or blown up. Any use of gas was the subject of considerable controversy even when used only against legitimate combatants, whereas for other weapons special revulsion and atrocity propaganda were reserved for when they were used in certain ways, such as against civilians or the wounded or shipwrecked. This politicization of the weapon can be largely attributed to the fact that international law had already prohibited the use of shells diffusing "asphyxiating or deleterious gases," according to the Hague Declaration of 1899. That ban itself was made possible in no small part because delegates at The Hague, in an effort to reach some agreements at the grandiose peace conference, ended up agreeing to ban a weapon that had yet to be developed as a standard tool of warfare. It was relatively easy to agree to ban something that no one yet had and thus was not regarded as of great importance.
One other key feature that facilitated the Hague ban and has been critical for subsequent legal prohibitions, including the key Geneva Protocol of 1925 (which banned the use of any such gases, not just those in shells), is the continual association of the use of chemical weapons as a special threat to civilians. In a sense this could be seen as ironic in the post-World War I period. While some civilians were exposed to gas in the Great War, such exposure was overall quite rare and downplayed. But more to the point, the general lack of civilian population exposure actually made the interwar period's fear of it more galvanizing than it might have been if civilians were exposed to gas bombing as a regular feature of war. Such nonevents provide a key in understanding the establishment of CW as the red line they are today. Civilians have not generally had occasion to get used to this technique of warfare, as with conventional bombing, keeping CW anachronistically strange and keeping alive the special moral repulsion and fear usually reserved for the initial encounter with a novel technology of warfare. Chemical weapons remain novel beyond their time, and the unfolding of events in Syria in 2013 only confirmed this dynamic. The world has been reacting as if this were a first encounter with the weapons. For many, it is.
That points to a key factor in the development of chemical weapons as a special red line: the very fact that that they haven't been used very often. This tradition of nonuse has come about for a variety of reasons: mutual deterrence or fear of retaliation in kind, lack of perceived utility in certain contexts, belief in an inadequate capability to make it worthwhile, and moral and legal constraints felt by those in decision-making positions.
No "nonuse" event has been more important than World War II. Adolf Hitler had no compunction against using gas in concentration camps, yet even he did not launch CW attacks against Allied cities or armed forces – even though they could well have been decisive in such moments as the D-Day invasion. Fear of retaliatory attacks largely kept Hitler restrained, yet it is the sheer fact of that nonevent that has assumed importance, regardless of the reasons. In U.S. Senate debates over whether and how to respond to Saddam Hussein's use of CW in the 1980s, it was simply remarked that even Hitler didn't use them, so they must be particularly bad. Indeed, few decision-makers since have ventured to do what even Hitler wouldn't.
That tradition has been bolstered by fortuitous timing along the way. Was it possible that the United States would have used chemical weapons in World War II had the campaign in the Pacific islands dragged on for another year or two, given that Harry Truman did not seem to share Franklin Roosevelt's personal antipathy toward gas? Would the British have resorted to gas to thwart a German invasion had Hitler's forces crossed the Channel? It has been claimed that Hitler did in fact order the use of gas in the late days of the war, but was refused by his generals, who saw it as an act of madness.
What about the U.S. use of napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, which some have argued was chemical warfare? Didn't the United States violate the taboo? Napalm is an incendiary weapon and not defined as a banned CW, yet all the same it has largely disappeared from the battlefield in large part due to the controversies over its use in Vietnam. Defoliants have not been defined as part of the prohibited category of CW as such – those methods whose toxic properties cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals. Still, in the aftermath of the controversies over defoliants, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) of 2003 states in its preamble that its signatories recognize the
prohibition on herbicides as a method of war. The United States did not use what are universally understood as banned lethal CW, such as mustard gas or nerve agents like the sarin used in Syria, and in that sense has powerfully contributed to the tradition of nonuse of chemical weapons in that and all subsequent wars, even though it only joined the Geneva Protocol in 1975.
The added twist over time has been the metamorphosis of chemical weapons from being feared as a future weapon of the powerful at the turn of the 20th century to being seen more as a weapon of the weak a century later. Syria was one of the last of a number of Middle East holdouts to the CWC that had maintained that until the region became a weapon of mass destruction (WMD)-free zone it had the right to maintain the deterrent capability of its WMD. The message was that until Israel signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and got rid of its suspected nuclear arsenal, its potential enemies would hold on to their WMD of choice. That effort to acquire relatively on the cheap the kind of diplomatic, symbolic and political currency enjoyed by the possession of nuclear weapons has been resisted by the great powers, and accordingly has failed to a point that today only six states remain outside the CWC. Rather than being a currency of power like nuclear weapons, CW have become a marker of international pariah status, and this power-politic dynamic has now come to bolster the taboo over time.
Chemical weapons have never quite lived up to some of the apocalyptic fears frequently voiced in the post-World War I period, and in that sense have been something of the first weapon of mass destruction, before their time. But arriving as they did at a time when the promise of technological progress was dealt a shocking blow by the vast destruction of World War I, gas served as a litmus test and symbol of unease in the 20th century that humankind might actually not be able to extricate itself from the spiral of destruction wrought by technology. Among the members of the WMD category, it is CW, not biological and nuclear weapons, that have been used on several occasions since World War II. If biological or nuclear weapons were used, we would of course see an even greater explosion of concern and outrage. But as they haven't, it has been left to CW to serve as something of the humanitarian canary in the coal mine.
Some have suggested that since chemical weapons are not as inherently catastrophic in their effects as biological or nuclear weapons, and many "conventional" weapons are capable of mass destruction in their own right, that all the focus on CW is somehow misplaced. But that is to draw the wrong conclusion from the unevenness of how the world has sought to draw boundaries even when its peoples go to war. Just because the world doesn't react sufficiently to prevent all the
atrocities that humanity suffers doesn't mean we ought to gainsay the times we do. As with codes of conduct of the honorable soldier, such as how to treat prisoners of war, we ought to be grateful that, even as such norms are sometimes violated, they do often somehow survive even that harshest test of war – and they have to in a world in which humanity has the technological capacity to undo all that we would seek to protect.
Richard Price is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of "The Chemical Weapons Taboo" (Cornell University Press, 1997), portions of which are reprinted here with permission from the publisher.