Chemical Weapons 101

by Bob Schwartz

We are in one of those moments that we often reach in modern public discussion: unequal measures of facts, opinions, emotions and agendas, stirred up so that we are no longer sure of what we know, what we feel and what we think. That’s where logic and learning come in, helping us to sort things out.

Unfortunately, developing and exercising logic is going to take more than visiting a website (and if you do want to sharpen your logical skills, please don’t be looking to some of our politicians for that). But if you want to learn more about chemical weapons, and particularly about why we have agreed to abhor them, you can learn the basics in one stop. Visit the site of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)  and you will be way ahead of many know-it-all pontificators:

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997. As of today the OPCW has 189 Member States, who are working together to achieve a world free from chemical weapons. They share the collective goal of preventing chemistry from ever again being used for warfare, thereby strengthening international security.

Among the pages of information, along with descriptions of the work currently being done by OPCW in the Syria situation, you will find a Brief History of Chemical Weapons Use:

Although chemicals had been used as tools of war for thousands of years—e.g. poisoned arrows, boiling tar, arsenic smoke and noxious fumes, etc.—modern chemical warfare has its genesis on the battlefields of World War I.

During World War I, chlorine and phosgene gases were released from canisters on the battlefield and dispersed by the wind. These chemicals were manufactured in large quantities by the turn of the century and were deployed as weapons during the protracted period of trench warfare. The first large-scale attack with chlorine gas occurred 22 April 1915 at Ieper in Belgium. The use of several different types of chemical weapons, including mustard gas (yperite), resulted in 90,000 deaths and over one million casualties during the war. Those injured in chemical warfare suffered from the effects for the rest of their lives; thus the events at Ieper during World War I scarred a generation. By the end of World War I, 124,000 tonnes of chemical agent had been expended. The means of delivery for chemical agent evolved over the first half of the twentieth century, increasing these weapons’ already frightening capacity to kill and maim through the development of chemical munitions in the form of artillery shells, mortar projectiles, aerial bombs, spray tanks and landmines.

After witnessing the effects of such weapons in World War I, it appeared that few countries wanted to be the first to introduce even deadlier chemical weapons onto the World War II battlefields. However, preparations were made by many countries to retaliate in kind should chemical weapons be used in warfare. Chemical weapons were deployed on a large scale in almost all theatres in the First and Second World Wars, leaving behind a legacy of old and abandoned chemical weapons, which still presents a problem for many countries.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both maintained enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons, amounting to tens of thousands of tonnes. The amount of chemical weapons held by these two countries was enough to destroy much of the human and animal life on Earth….

And a Brief Description of Chemical Weapons:

The general and traditional definition of a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.

The Convention defines chemical weapons much more generally. The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves.

The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorised as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. The most well known agents are as follows: choking agents—chlorine and phosgene, blister agents (or vesicants)—mustard and lewisite, blood agents—hydrogen cyanide, nerve agents—sarin, soman, VX….

Above all you will find an overview and details of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Parties to the the OPCW “represent about 98% of the global population and landmass, as well as 98% of the worldwide chemical industry.”

You may have better things to do than learn about chemical weapons and their elimination; our political representatives and leaders don’t. Whether we unilaterally respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, whether that response stops Assad from their further use, whether stopping this particular weapon changes the sociopathic path he is on with respect to his citizens (it likely won’t), whether the response has collateral consequences in the region and world (it likely will), at least we can think and act knowledgeably.