Chemical Weapons and Conventional Bombs

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Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas.

By Jim Clifford

Over the past few weeks that world has watched as the United States threatened to bomb Syria to punish the Assad Regime for using chemical weapons against his population. I, like many other people have wondered why chemical weapons are a “Red Line”, but deadly and efficient conventional weapons remain a widely used and legitimate. Conventional attacks can kill large number of people. Aerial bombing or shelling with high explosive chemicals or incendiary chemicals inevitably lead to civilian deaths.   The Syrian civil war has killed more than a hundred thousand people, but the Obama administration only reacted when chemical weapons killed 1300 (CNN). I expect the ratio of deaths between conventional bombs and chemical weapons in the 20th century were equally disproportionate.  Does history provide any insight into why chemical gases are taboo and chemical high explosives conventional?

Chemical weapons and aerial bombing with high explosives were both introduced on a large scale during the First World War in Europe. On January 15 two German zeppelins dropped bombs on English cities. A few months later, on April 22, the Germans made the first full scale chemical weapons attack of the war during the Second Battle of Ypres. The British condemned the use of gas, a form of warfare banned by Hague Convention in 1899, but eventually choose to respond with their own gas attacks. They also started developing long range bombers to attack Berlin, but did not deploy them during this war. Neither chemical weapons or aerial bombardment resulted in massive death tolls during the First World War, but they both represented the devastating potential of modern technologies applied to total war in the early 20th century.

Artists and poets reacted to these new forms of warfare during the war and the interwar period. Wilfred Owen and other war poets, memoirists and novelists captured the horrible experience of gas attacks, while Pablo Picasso represented the terrible consequences of the bombing of Guernica in 1937. In 1925 many countries committed to the Geneva Protocol to not use chemical weapons. There were some efforts to develop a protocol to prevent aerial bombardment of civilian targets during the interwar period, but nothing was ratified. For a number of complex reasons gas attacks were very rare during the Second World War, though Churchill did instruct his advisors to seriously consider their use, while the horrors of Guernica  were repeated thousands of times on a larger and larger scale through to nuclear strikes the ended the war in the Pacific. (The Nazis did, of course, use Zyklon B to terrifying effect in the gas chambers of their death camps killing millions.)

During the Cold War the technological sophistication of chemical weapon and conventional bombing increased exponentially. Both sides improved the nerve agents invented, but not used by the Germans, which were capable of inflicting significantly more deaths than chlorine or mustard gas . They also stockpiled large quantities of these chemicals. New missiles and other technology made it possible to deploy high explosives with increased accuracy, but collateral civilian deaths remained an ongoing problems. And trumping both of these developments, the United States and the U.S.S.R. also developed nuclear arsenals that guaranteed mutual assured destruction. In the shadow of the nuclear age, chemical weapons were lumped in, along with biological and nuclear weapons, into the weapons of mass destruction category, while aerial bombing became the main tool of western nations in their efforts to police the world. The taboo around chemical weapons developed to a point where in 1968 a group of 18 nations began negotiating the disarmament, and this lead to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1992.

University of British Columbia Political Scientist Richard Price argues that the limited use of chemical weapons throughout the twentieth century allowed these weapons to develop into an international taboo. The choice of both the Germans and Allied militaries to not use chemical weapons against each other during the Second World War helped make these weapons unacceptable, while the extensive used of arial bombing against British, German and Japanese cities helped normalize this horrific tactic of war. Almost a hundred years after the first gas attach and the first bombings of English cities it is somewhat comforting that we find some of the terrible weapons deeply disturbing, but it is troubling that we still turn to another set of terrible weapons as a solution.

Further Reading:

“The history of chemical weapons The shadow of Ypres,” The Economist, August 31, 2013:

Price, Richard MacKay. The Chemical Weapons Taboo. Cornell University Press, 1997.
Richard Price interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, September 15, 2013.

Jim Clifford is a co-editor of and an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Saskatchewan.

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