Poison For War: Are Chemical Weapons Humane?

"Today the Chinese have what they call an anti-chemical warfare corps as part of the People’s Liberation Army, with its own special school and research and development sections. It is supposed to have developed considerable anti- chemical warfare expertise."


Poison For War: Are Chemical Weapons Humane?

The employment of chemical weapons is not a new phenomenon. Such weapons were used in World War I, The British suffered nearly 180,983 casualties from gas warfare, of whom 6,062 died, that is, nearly one in 30, while they suffered 21,91,693 casualties from bullets, shell and bayonet, of whom 819,000 died, a proportion of one dead to three wounded. So far as the Americans are concerned, out of 1,87,686 casualties due to bullets, shell or bayonet, the deaths were 46,448, roughly one in four. As regards gas, for 74,978 casualties, the deaths were 1,400, less than one in 50. The chemical agents used in the great war included chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas.

These statistics lead one to conclude that poison gas is 10 to 12 times more humane than high explosives. One might not agree, however, with this inference while discussing the Bhopal tragedy or, for that matter, the radiation leak at Chernobyl and the large resultant casualties. However, the first instance was entirely a case of gas leak and the second of radioactivity and these cases took place in normal surroundings and not on a bat­tlefield, Any comparisons as such would be incorrect.

A Well Considered Alternative?

"Chemical warfare remains a well considered alternative to conventional, biological or nuc­lear warfare and, as such, many nations have been giving serious thought towards its develop­ment and use."
Soldiers with the British Machine Gun Corps wear gas masks in 1916 during World War I's first Battle of the Somme; Archival Image

Chemical warfare remains a well considered alternative to conventional, biological or nuc­lear warfare and, as such, many nations have been giving serious thought towards its develop­ment and use. After World War I, the Japanese are suspected to have used chemicals against the Chinese during the 1923-43 periods. Cases of millions of Jews who were gassed in Germany are well known. In the fifties, the suspected cases of use of her­bicides by the British in Malaya and later by the Americans in Vietnam (Agent Orange) were brought to notice.

More recently, allegations against chemical attacks by the Russian were raised in Afghanis­tan. In the Iran-Iraq conflict, more than 50 claims were made of chemical attacks during the 1980-84 periods. Such attacks were launched; it is claimed, by means of artillery shells, aircraft or other munitions with nerve, mustard, and mycotoxin gases. Approximately 37 people suffer­ing from the effects of chemical agents were reported to have undergone treatment in Vienna, Brussels, Geneva, and London.

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In spite of all this, some people say that chemical weapons are more humane than even conventional munitions, let alone nuc­lear: weapons, while others feel that the chemical agents" are dangerous and because their use is unethical, they should be used only as a last resort. It has also been recommended that in view of their temporary effects, chem­ical agents are more effective in flushing out operations and accordingly should be used first in conjunction with convention­al weapons, particularly for im­mobilizing Military personnel, for instance, the crew in an air base.

Let us consider a situation where an adversary resorts to a sudden attack with tactical guided missiles on airfield run­ways followed by a chemical warhead to render all the crew temporarily immobile. Here is a possibility which cannot be dis­missed lightly and, if successful, would make an entire airbase op­erationally unfit. The U.S. Army doctrine visualizes and caters for a situation. It envisages the employment of chemical weapons against airbases at any critical point in a battle with a view to render an airbase ineffective though strictly on moral grounds one may deprecate the use of chemical weapons. But then all wars are not fought on moral principles. Every religion prohibits wars, yet some of the cruelest wars in history have been fought in the name of re­ligion.

Unfortunately, not much infor­mation is available and far less is known about biological and chemical warfare. Here a distinc­tion needs to be made between-biological and chemical warfare. It is hoped that nations would continue to remain averse to bacterial warfare who’s prime carrying agents are fungi, bac­teria, viruses and rickettsia (a minute micro-organism found in lice and ticks and in-the blood of patients suffering from typhus).

About 90 nations have ratified the 1972 treaty which prohibits the stockpiling and development of biological weapons. Though earlier, despite the ban imposed the Geneva Convention of 1925 on chemical and bacterial warfare, 40 percent of the nations, including the USSR and the USA, had retained the right and option of retaliation through them.

(Referring to the view that chemical weapons are "more humane than high explosives”. The author (Major General V K Madhok) says that the threat from them has increased in recent years not only because of the scientific capability to reduce more deadly varieties, but also be­cause of the development of sophisticated missiles which can carry them. He suggests that civil defence officials should look into the need for educating people about this kind of warfare.)

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It is reported that the U.S Army has suspended its work on chemical research and development in Maryland. This would affect the project on 155 mm binary shell. A couple of years ago a sulphuric acid spill is reported to have ta­ken place over there which re­portedly got mixed up with a nearby stream.' Perhaps, the Americans feel that the Soviet chemical weapon capability is growing while their retaliatory ability is diminishing. As a result, an effort was made not only to modernize its chemical stockpile and to change the obsolete chemical munitions with newer binary weapons, but to keep their options open for use against the USSR.

At a NATO ambassadors conference held in May 1986, various aspects of chemical weapons are said to have been discussed. While Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway remained opposed to the production of binary weapons, Greece favoured a poli­cy of a European chemical weapons free zone and a worldwide ban. One reads that the U.K. decontaminated is­land off the west coast of Scot­land from anthrax with a 12-man strong team; suitably inoculated, with protective clothing and necessary breathing equipment. This island is supposed to have remained contaminated follow­ing biological warfare trials in 1940. It was intended to burn off the ground cover and apply a sol­ution of formaldehyde and sea water, the entire process taking about six weeks.

Today the Chinese have what they call an anti-chemical warfare corps as part of the People’s Liberation Army, with its own special school and research and development sections. It is supposed to have developed considerable anti- chemical warfare expertise. This corps also participated in various nuclear tests.

In some countries, chemical warfare situations are included as part of their field training. This is especially where such countries have suffered in the past. For example, in a recent river crossing exercise held in Vietnam, engineers forming a part of assaulting troops had to first carry out decontaminating operations before the main troops reached the other side.

One could safely draw a few simple conclusions from the above scenario. First, that the use of chemical weapons is an option which is very much available and that, besides protective aspects, many countries have gone in for a retaliation capability, Secondly, the chemical scientists have the ability to produce newer weapons and would not hesitate to do so. Lastly, with the availability of sophisticated; means of delivery in the shape of precision-guided munitions (one-hit capability weapons) chemical warheads can be launched from hundreds of miles away on pin -point targets.

Chemical warfare would be an entirely new experience in our, subcontinent. Therefore, it is essential to understand its effects. It can be most damaging to health and even strikes at the unborn. Agent "Orange" con­taining a small dose of dioxin, used as a defoliant in Vietnam, caused several such prob­lems for the civil population. At the diplomatic level in the next SAARC conference, it may be advisable to moot the question of a chemical weapons free zone. But at the practical level, individual as well as collective protective measures from gas masks to protective clothing and gloves are areas which need looking into by the civil defence experts.

Chemical Agents: A Multitude of Delivery Options

"Such a weapon could easily be delivered by artillery shells, aircraft, missiles, and rocket launchers and from ships or merely after screwing adaptors on rifles and pistols."
Soldier in protective equipment; Image for Representation Purposes

Adversaries would be encouraged to use chemical agents on sensitive areas like airfields nuc­lear installations, important factories and headquarters prior launching overt or covert operations on such installations. As chemical agents are cheaper and easier to produce, the terrorists would also be tempted to use them. The need arises, therefore, of considering whether separate chemical warfare experts are necessary. Also, there is an obvi­ous need to develop detection and decontamination equipment of which there is now a flourish­ing industry in Europe and some other countries.

The scientists are now on trail of a non-lethal chemical; weapon which would place at the disposal of mankind a weapon which would reduce, though not completely elimi­nate, the necessity of killing as well as cause far less casualties and yet achieve decisive results. It would help to overcome resistance by spreading panic, causing temporary immobility, thereby, reaping the benefits of victory with far less damage and des­truction, thus achieving the military objective of subduing an enemy's will to resist. Such a weapon could easily be delivered by artillery shells, aircraft, missiles, and rocket launchers and from ships or merely after screwing adaptors on rifles and pistols.

(Maj Gen. VK Madhok is a product of the 1st Course JSW/NDA and was commissioned into the 3 GR. He was the BGS HQ Southern Command and the COS at HQ 4 Corps. He retired as the ADG (TA). He lives in Pune. The author can be reached on Email: majgenvkmadhok@gmail.com. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')

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