War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda

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9780375422294: War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda

Statesmen, generals, and diplomats have long debated the military utility and morality of chemical warfare. In 1925, the use of chemical weapons in war was prohibited by international treaty; in 1997 the ban on the use of chemical weapons was extended to cover their development, production, and stockpiling. Nevertheless, Iraq employed chemical weapons on a large scale as recently as the 1980s, first during its eight-year war with Iran and then against its rebellious Kurdish minority.

In War of Nerves, Jonathan Tucker, a leading expert on chemical and biological weapons, writes about chemical warfare from World War I to the present.

The author makes clear how, at the turn of the twentieth century, the large-scale use of toxic chemicals on the battlefield became feasible and cheap; how Germany first developed and employed toxic weapons during World War I, burying some 6,000 cylinders (containing 168 tons of chlorine) opposite the Allied trenches defending the town of Ypres, in Belgium. German troops simultaneously opened the chlorine cylinders, panicking two French divisions and tearing a gap four miles wide in the Ypres front.

Chemical warfare had begun: five months later, the Allies retaliated with their own use of chlorine gas. By the end of the war, chemical warfare had inflicted roughly one million casualties, 90,000 of them fatal.

Tucker writes about the synthesis of the first nerve agent—Tabun—in 1936 by a German industrial chemist developing new pesticides how its high toxicity made it unusable as a pesticide but viable as a weapon for the Nazi regime. A few years later, two even more toxic nerve agents—Sarin and Soman—were developed for military use. Hitler never employed this secret weapon; German intelligence concluded—incorrectly—that the Allies had developed a similar capability.

Following World War II, we see the rise of a Cold War chemical competition between the United States and the Soviet Union that paralleled the nuclear arms race, as each pursued the secrets of the German nerve agents; how the United States and Britain planned to mass-produce Sarin (only the United States did); how the superpowers developed and mass-produced V-agents, a new generation of nerve agents of extraordinary potency; and how nerve agents spread to the Third World, including their suspected use by Egypt during the Yemen Civil War (1963—1967), as well as Iraq’s use of nerve agents in its war against Iran and on its own people. Iraq’s use of nerve agents hastened the negotiation of an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons, which went into effect in 1997. Although the treaty now has more than 175 member-states, al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups are seeking to acquire nerve agents.

In this important and revelatory book, Jonathan Tucker makes clear that we are at a crossroads that could lead either to the further spread of these weapons or to their ultimate abolition.

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About the Author:

Jonathan B. Tucker received a B.S. in biology from Yale University and a Ph.D. in political science, specializing in defense and arms control studies, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For the past ten years, he has been a chemical and biological weapons specialist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Dr. Tucker previously worked as an arms control specialist for Congress and the State Department and as an editor at Scientific American and at High Technology magazine, where he wrote about biomedical research, biotechnology, and military technologies. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Chemistry of War

In the fall of 1914, the opposing armies on the western front huddled in their trenches near the Belgian town of Ypres, lobbing artillery shells at each other across a barren no-man’s-land strewn with thickets of rusty barbed wire, craters, and splintered trees. Germany had launched the war in August by carrying out the Schlieffen Plan, a massive surprise attack through neutral Belgium that sought to achieve the rapid conquest of France in the west, followed by a knockout blow to Russia in the east before the United States decided to enter the war. The initial operations had gone according to plan, but when the kaiser’s armies were thirty miles from Paris, a last-ditch counterattack by the French and British forces at the Battle of the Marne had halted the German offensive. Seeking cover from the lethal hail of shrapnel and machine-gun fire, both sides had dug in, building labyrinthine trenches that would ultimately extend some four hundred miles from the North Sea coast of Belgium to the Swiss border.

By fall, the adversaries found themselves trapped in a bloody stalemate in which neither side was able to advance. Infantry offensives inevitably bogged down after taking negligible amounts of territory, at a heavy cost in lives. Seeking to break the deadlock and regain the offensive, the Germans began to consider the use of toxic chemicals delivered by artillery shells to force the enemy out of his trenches. This idea was not entirely new: in 1862, during the American Civil War, a New York City schoolteacher named John W. Doughty had written to the Secretary of War suggesting the use of poison gas shells against the Confederate forces. He had designed a 10-inch projectile in which one compartment was filled with a few quarts of liquid chlorine and the second with explosives; when the shell burst, the explosion would convert the chlorine into an asphyxiating gas. But the Union’s chief of ordnance, Brigadier General James Ripley, had been resistant to new ideas and had rejected Doughty’s invention.

Because Germany possessed the world’s most advanced chemical industry, it enjoyed an inherent advantage in this type of warfare. The main obstacles were the existence of an international treaty specifically banning the use of shells to deliver asphyxiating gases and the deeply held belief that toxic weapons were illegitimate. This “chemical weapons taboo” appears to have originated in the innate human aversion to poisonous substances, as well as revulsion at the duplicitous use of poison by the weak (including women) to defeat the strong without a fair physical fight. Efforts to outlaw the use of poisons in war dated back to the classical Greek and Roman period. During the Middle Ages, German artillery gunners pledged not to use poisoned weapons, which were judged “unworthy of a man of heart and a real soldier.” The first known international agreement banning chemical warfare, a Franco-German treaty prohibiting the use of poisoned bullets, was drawn up in Strasbourg in 1675.

Before the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous poisonous chemicals had been discovered but could not be produced on a large scale. The emergence of the European chemical industry, which was capable of manufacturing vast quantities of dyestuffs and other synthetic chemicals, gave rise to new concerns over the potential use of lethal gases on the battlefield. In 1863, the U.S. War Department issued the Lieber Code of Conduct, which prohibited “the use of poison in any manner, be it to poison wells, or food, or arms.” Similarly, the 1874 Brussels Declaration on the laws and customs of war, signed by fourteen European countries but never ratified, banned the use of poison, poisonous gases, and weapons that caused unnecessary suffering.

At the 1899 International Peace Conference in The Hague, representatives of twenty-six countries, including Germany, signed the first Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land. Article 23(a) of this treaty prohibited “poison or poisoned weapons,” including the deliberate tainting of arms, bullets, food, or wells. The contracting states also signed a separate document, the Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases, which specifically outlawed “the use of projectiles, the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” This treaty effectively banned the use of chemical shells even before they had been developed.

In late 1914, however, amid the futile slaughter of trench warfare, the traditional legal and moral restraints on the use of poison gas began to erode under the pressure of military necessity. From the outset, the German High Command had interpreted the Hague gas projectile declaration as banning only the release of lethal gases from shells specifically designed for that purpose. The German military also considered tear gases and other nonlethal irritants to be equivalent to smoke and hence not covered by the legal ban. Indeed, the French had begun using tear gas grenades in August 1914, the first month of the war, albeit to little effect. Exploiting these loopholes, the Germans proceeded to develop a 105 mm artillery shell that was loaded with an irritant chemical (dianisidine chlorosulfate) and was also designed to generate shrapnel, so that its “sole” purpose was not the delivery of a toxic gas. In October 1914, the Germans fired three thousand irritant shells at the British forces near Neuve-Chapelle, but because the high-explosive charge burned the chemical agent and neutralized its effects, the British remained unaware that they had been subjected to chemical attack.

The Germans then developed a 150 mm howitzer shell containing seven pounds of another chemical irritant (xylyl bromide), once again combined with an explosive charge to disperse shrapnel. In January 1915, German troops fired more than 18,000 of these shells at the Russian positions near Bolimow, but the subfreezing temperatures prevented the liquid agent from vaporizing and rendered it harmless. The failure of these attacks with irritant gases, combined with a shortage of high explosives, led the German High Command to consider the use of shells containing lethal agents.

The individual responsible for developing chemical weapons for the German War Office was Professor Fritz Haber, a brilliant young chemist and ardent Prussian nationalist who directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Berlin. Although born Jewish, Haber had converted to Christianity at the age of eighteen. In 1905, together with his colleague Carl Bosch, he had invented a revolutionary process for the large-scale synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. Because ammonia was used to manufacture nitric acid, a key ingredient of both fertilizers and explosives, the Haber-Bosch process freed Germany from its previous dependence on imports by sea of Chilean nitrates, which were cut off shortly after the world war began. Without a synthetic source of ammonia, Germany would have quickly run out of food and ammunition, and Haber’s essential invention made him a national hero.

In late 1914, Haber had the idea of loading artillery shells with chlorine, which the German chemical industry produced in large quantities for the production of dyestuffs. When a shortage of artillery shells ruled out this method of delivery, he proposed instead that chlorine be released directly from pressurized gas cylinders, allowing the wind to carry the poisonous cloud over the enemy’s trenches. This tactic offered a number of potential advantages: chlorine released directly from cylinders would blanket a far larger area than could be achieved with projectiles, and the gas would dissipate rapidly, allowing the affected areas to be occupied by friendly troops. Haber also noted that the release of chlorine from pressurized cylinders would not technically violate the Hague declaration, which banned only the use of specialized chemical shells.

In early January 1915, these arguments won over General Erich von Falkenhayn, the chief of the German General Staff, who considered poison gas “unchivalrous” but hoped that its use would result in a decisive military victory. As the site of the first chlorine attack, von Falkenhayn selected the Allied-held town of Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. Just west of the town, the line of Allied trenches extended about four miles into German-controlled territory, forming a bulge called the Ypres Salient that was nine miles across at its widest point. Holding the line on the left side of the Salient, near the village of Langemarck, were the French 87th Territorial Division and the 45th Algerian Division, made up of French-Algerian soldiers known as Zouaves. British and Canadian units defended the center and right portions of the bulge.

In mid-January, Haber ordered the chemist Otto Hahn and several other colleagues to help prepare the chlorine attack. When Hahn objected that chemical warfare would violate the Hague Convention, Haber replied that the French had already made use of gas-filled munitions and that countless human lives would be saved if the effective use of chemical weapons brought the war to a rapid end. The German chemists helped to organize a special unit for gas warfare called Pioneer Regiment 36. These troops received training and equipment for handling chlorine, including the so-called Dräger self-preserver (Drägersche Selbstretter), which they would don for their protection when releasing the lethal gas.

On January 25, 1915, General von Falkenhayn ordered Infantry General Berthold von Deimling, who commanded the German XV Army Corps at Ypres, to report to the f...

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