Creative Destruction

April 9, 2007

Chemical Weapons are not WMD

Filed under: Iraq,War — Daran @ 7:12 am

The Register:

Improvised protective gear might well get you through a VX attack unharmed, Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage antics in The Rock notwithstanding. Staying indoors would work even better. Once the attack was over, in many cases you’d be able to escape the area with no more than a pair of wellingtons. I’m not saying that a chemical attack would be a completely trivial matter, but it would almost always be preferable to being hit by the same weight of high explosives.

So, if your aim is to kill and injure as many people as possible, you’d be a fool to use chemicals. And yet chemicals are rated as WMDs, while ordinary explosives aren’t. So too are biologicals, even more amazingly. Biological “weapons”, in the modern sense, have yet to be even demonstrated.

I’ve long been of the view that chemical agents are more weapons of mass propaganda than real threat. The Tokyo Subway Attack, for example, involved five separate releases of gas, under ideal conditions for a gas attack, and killed just twelve people. Tragic for those affected, but far less deadly than a bomb or even an accidental fire.

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22 Comments »

  1. Emphasis on the word “mass” which would better be called “dispersed”.

    High explosives are highly localized. The blow shit up in the immediate vicinity of what you hit. Indeed, the military trend has been towards smaller ones with better guidance systems that can blow up a single house, or even a single room in a single house.

    Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons tend to operate in a much broader area. A nuclear weapon will take out a whole city. A chemical weapon might make an entire neighborhood toxic and keep it toxic for years. Ditto dirty bombs and nastiness like depleted uranium shells. Biological weapons coud easily spread over an entire country, out of the control of those who launched them.

    In short, the bad thing about WMDs is that they have a strong tendency to kill combatants and non-combatants indiscriminately. You can use high explosives in that manner, but most war makers (sovereign and insurgent alike) tend not to do so. Even wars seemingly characterized by terrorism and “state terrorism”, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which use mostly high explosives, tend to be far more focused on combatants, as defined by the respective parties to the conflict, than media portrayals would suggest.

    Comment by ohwilleke — April 9, 2007 @ 11:41 am | Reply

  2. I’ve long been of the view that chemical agents are more weapons of mass propaganda than real threat.

    Although I might partially agree with this statement, the implications worry me. Chemical weapons aren’t very good WMD…therefore their use in warfare should not be banned? …therefore their use is not terrorism? …therefore they should be sold on the open market? Etc. I don’t see any real advantage to unbanning their use for governments and their use certainly can create terror (perhaps out of proportion to their real threat), so what’s the point of asking whether they are “real” WMD or not?

    Comment by Dianne — April 9, 2007 @ 2:11 pm | Reply

  3. …so what’s the point of asking whether they are “real” WMD or not?

    Because they were used to sell us a war in which real weapons of mass destruction were used – by us.

    No they shouldn’t be legal, but neither should we go around invading countries willy-nilly on the grounds that they have them, still less that they only might have them, and still less that have them according to documents we’ve forged in order to justify the war that we wanted anyway.

    Comment by Daran — April 9, 2007 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  4. so what’s the point of asking whether they are “real” WMD or not

    Casting aspersions on justifications for the invasion of Iraq, I wager.

    Comment by Robert — April 9, 2007 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  5. Crossposted. Yep, that was why.

    Daran, what WMD have we employed? Pretty sure the news would have broken in to the Dresden Files last night if we’d been popping nukes over Baghdad.

    Comment by Robert — April 9, 2007 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

  6. Gregg Easterbrook concluded that nukes are the only real WMD back in 2002.

    It’s not a trivial point. Yes, Saddam Hussein used chlorine gas against the Iranian soldiers, but it proved pretty ineffective in killing them; efforts to limit Hussein’s access to chlorine, however, proved quite effective at killing Iraqi kids with bad drinking water.

    We need to understand what’s a real threat and what isn’t. Hateful people with boxcutters are a much smaller threat to the average US citizen than regulators who don’t care if there’s arsenic in the drinking water, particulate matter in the air, or a foundation under the levees.

    Comment by nobody.really — April 9, 2007 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

  7. I think that the WMD reference is to depleted uranium shells, Robert.

    Comment by Glaivester — April 9, 2007 @ 6:53 pm | Reply

  8. Mustard gas and sarin are a bit more effective than plain old chlorine gas – particularly when you’re able to openly deploy them against population centers, as opposed to trying to sneakily deploy them in someone else’s infrastructure. I don’t know much about the history of chlorine interdiction efforts against Iraq, but since chlorine is an element which is abundant in nature, and which any high school chemistry lab can produce with electricity and seawater, I kind of suspect that if the Iraqis had needed to make some for water purification, they could have managed.

    The Iranians, by the way, say that a good 20,000 soldiers were killed by chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, out of 100,000 who were attacked. I suppose that is “pretty ineffective” if the standard for success is nuclear-level desolation.

    If you sincerely believe that DU shells are a weapon of mass destruction, but that chemical weapons (which have killed at least 200,000 people in the last century) aren’t…well, I have a bridge with a terrific bay view that you should really take a look at. I’m perfectly willing to buy the “if it isn’t a nuke, it’s a crap WMD” argument – but not in conjunction with handwringing about DU.

    Comment by Robert — April 9, 2007 @ 7:29 pm | Reply

  9. Because the notion of a chlorine blockade spurs the imagination, I did check into it. Iraq’s water purification system got hit badly in the bombings during the Gulf War. It wasn’t apparently a repair priority for the Hussein regime; sanctions made that situation worse by restricting his resources. So I suppose that if we want to Blame America First in this department, we have a plausible thread; Hussein couldn’t afford to re-arm AND provide clean drinking water for the population, he chose to re-arm, so obviously America killed those babies.

    It won’t hold up in Bobland but in the reality-based community the logic is probably unshakable.

    Comment by Robert — April 9, 2007 @ 7:40 pm | Reply

  10. You are right about the DU, Robert.

    While I think that arguments can be made that depleted uranium is an inhumane weapon to be used (assuming that the problems allegedly associated with its use pan out), it is not a true WMD because you need to use an awful lot of it in an awful lot of places to actually cause major problems.

    At worst, it is the equivalent of a “dirty bomb,” which is not a true WMD.

    Comment by Glaivester — April 9, 2007 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

  11. Gregg Easterbrook concluded that nukes are the only real WMD back in 2002.

    And nanobots. Don’t forget self-replicating nanobots.

    Comment by Glaivester — April 9, 2007 @ 9:16 pm | Reply

  12. I don’t know much about the history of chlorine interdiction efforts against Iraq, but since chlorine is an element which is abundant in nature, and which any high school chemistry lab can produce with electricity and seawater, I kind of suspect that if the Iraqis had needed to make some for water purification, they could have managed.

    If you’re saying that the chlorine imbargo was pointless and that the resulting harm was needless, I’ll not gainsay you.

    The Iranians, by the way, say that a good 20,000 soldiers were killed by chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war, out of 100,000 who were attacked. I suppose that is “pretty ineffective” if the standard for success is nuclear-level desolation.

    True, it is. And when you consider that roughly 1,000,000 people died in that war, one might conclude that chemical attacks were pretty ineffective when compared to bullets, conventional explosives and pointy sticks. Ok, and maybe nanobots. (Happy?)

    The point is not that chemical weapons are harmless. The point is that not all things labeled “WMD” warrant the response justified by a nulear threat. And quite a few things not labeled “WMD” pose a greater threat to public health, but do not receive corresponding attention.

    Comment by nobody.really — April 9, 2007 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  13. And when you consider that roughly 1,000,000 people died in that war, one might conclude that chemical attacks were pretty ineffective when compared to bullets, conventional explosives and pointy sticks.

    The conventional wisdom among infantry tacticians is that 100 rounds are expended for every casualty inflicted. I suspect the relative effectiveness wedge of chemical weapons is greater than you think.

    The point is that not all things labeled “WMD” warrant the response justified by a nulear threat.

    Indeed, and I heartily agree.

    And quite a few things not labeled “WMD” pose a greater threat to public health, but do not receive corresponding attention.

    Here you exemplify being right on the immediate question and wrong on the greater concept. Sure, there are things that pose more risk and which get less attention. But the matrix of outcomes has two axes: the axis of risk posed and the axis of effectiveness of risk abatement. Unsound swimming pool design may pose a lethal risk to ten thousand people; the President can have no impact on the issue. A rogue mullah may threaten five thousand lives; the President can stop the attack and neutralize the threat completely. Should the President spend his time on mullahs, or architecture review board meetings?

    The severity of a threat is not necessarily the only, or even the major, component in prioritizing resources. The public health risk of a Cretaceous-level meteor impact, for which we are quite solidly due, is “six billion deaths and the approximate extermination of humanity”; it does not thereby follow that the President should spend all his time at NASA and stop being concerned about Iraq, or even swimming pool design. It just means that attention will be paid with an eye on net results per unit of attention.

    Comment by Robert — April 10, 2007 @ 12:11 am | Reply

  14. FWIW, the President certainly has a choice between spending money at NASA to keep humanity from being eliminated in a meteor strike, or spending money at NASA on the dubious goal of returning man to the Moon sooner rather than later. But, he wiffed when forced to make that choice.

    Comment by ohwilleke — April 10, 2007 @ 1:39 pm | Reply

  15. To nobody.really

    You wrote:

    Ok, and maybe nanobots. (Happy?)

    You seem to have taken that more seriously than I meant it. I was making a joke about the earlier posting “Malicious Ecophagy.”

    Comment by Glaivester — April 10, 2007 @ 4:54 pm | Reply

  16. No, no, I got it; it was a perfect thread-blending remark. I was just trying to respond in kind. 🙂

    Comment by nobody.really — April 10, 2007 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

  17. There are still many unknowns about the release of the Sarin gas in Tokyo. I worked with research scientists in this field. They believe the agent was not ‘gassified.’ So it would have served only as a splash agent, not a gas agent. Since sarin is a neurological gas it would explain the result.

    Do not be mislead, Sarin, in a 2 kg quantity, properly gassified would result in a very very very bad situation.

    Comment by Vilon — April 12, 2007 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  18. Daran, what WMD have we employed? Pretty sure the news would have broken in to the Dresden Files last night if we’d been popping nukes over Baghdad.

    Conventional weapons containing high explosives and which wreak massive amounts of destruction.

    Comment by Daran — April 13, 2007 @ 6:19 am | Reply

  19. Hussein couldn’t afford to re-arm AND provide clean drinking water for the population, he chose to re-arm, so obviously America killed those babies.

    It won’t hold up in Bobland but in the reality-based community the logic is probably unshakable.

    So what does hold up in Bobland? If sanctions didn’t prevent him from rearming, and didn’t remove the need for a subsequent war, what exactly did they achieve?

    Comment by Daran — April 13, 2007 @ 6:22 am | Reply

  20. Nothing, really. I was opposed to the sanctions regime; if you’re going to war against someone, war against them. Don’t pussyfoot around. Sanctions were an attempt to do what was necessary without paying the actual price of a war. That doesn’t work.

    Comment by Robert — April 13, 2007 @ 10:56 am | Reply

  21. Daran, what WMD have we employed? Pretty sure the news would have broken in to the Dresden Files last night if we’d been popping nukes over Baghdad.

    Conventional weapons containing high explosives and which wreak massive amounts of destruction.

    And nanobots.

    And pointy sticks.

    Comment by nobody.really — April 13, 2007 @ 3:07 pm | Reply

  22. I tell you, that rabbits a killer!

    Comment by Robert — April 13, 2007 @ 3:34 pm | Reply


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