All you need to know about… Chemical Warfare!

Elena Hochheiser, Editor

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Everyone knows about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. But very few know about the other mysterious weapons used throughout that world war and for over 1500 years before it. Called the “ the poor man’s atomic bomb” by Seth Baum of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, chemical weapons (of any type) are some of the world’s oldest forms of weapons and the most lethal killing machines on the planet.

Chemical Weapons were first used in 600 B.C. by Athenian warriors. They poisoned the wells of Sparta with natural chemicals that caused stomach aches and sickness to pass through the weakening city, but were quickly revenged by the Spartans, who lobbed sulfur and torches over the walls of Athens in hope of starting fires. There are archeological records of small fires throughout the city during that period, but no substantial blaze started. Even though it did not work, the Greeks had an idea that would be used in different forms for centuries– the idea that poisonous plants and chemicals could be used to enhance their weapons and give them an advantage in war.

Fast forward to 1800 A.D. Since their first moments in Athens, chemical weapons of some sort have been used in almost every major war in history. In Mongolia, Genghis Khan unknowingly followed the Spartans and threw mixtures of toxic chemicals over the walls of defending cities, spreading disease and fear through their inhabitants. In medieval England and France, armies put poison on the tips of their arrows, and later, bullets. Everywhere there was a war, chemical weapons were sure to be there too. In 1847, hoping to quell the use of these weapons, European nations attending the Brussels Convention on the rules of war called for a ban. Not surprisingly, it did not get approved.

Why not? As the leaders of those European nations knew, chemical weapons are the most effective weapons in the world, bar none. Many chemical weapons have the advantage of being invisible, meaning that the persons they are used on have no idea that they are being attacked. This also has a psychological impact as well. The majority of chemical weapons take a long time to set in, meaning that when someone knows they have been exposed to them, they are in constant suspense, waiting for the chemical weapons to set in. And if they do not know that they have been attacked with chemical weapons, survivors of attacks have described the what occurs as “terrifying”, with one even saying they were filled with “brain-numbing terror”. Many chemical weapons used in the medieval ages and prior either caused the human immune system to freeze and muscles to clench, causing the throat to contract and the person to stop breathing. Others used caused hives and boils to occur all over the person’s body, often creating a rash so itchy that the persons afflicted tear off large portions of their skin before dying from infection. Both of those types of reactions seem horrible in their own right, but one imagines how much scarier it would be if you had no idea why those things were happening. The psychological impact of using chemical weapons creates immense fear of the enemy, even if the weapons only kill or injure the same about of persons as physical or normal weapons do.

The next attempt to ban chemical weapons was in 1899, when the Hague Peace Conference nations banned the firing of weapons “the sole purpose of which is the diffusion and asphyxiating of deleterious gases”. Although all of the nations present (over twenty) signed the accord, the ban was often broken by those countries, especially in World War I, without major consequences. One of those companies was Germany, and in World War I, they attacked Allied forces in Belgium with Chlorine gas. This event was notable because it was the largest use of chemical weapons at one time to date. This set the precedence for the use of chemical weaponry throughout the rest of the war, and by the end, both sides had used phosgene (a gas that causes choking), chlorine gas, and mustard gas (which causes burns and blisters), killing over 90,000 persons, injuring over one million, and using a total of 124, 000 tons of poisonous gases.

The use of chemical weapons has continued from the end of World War I until the present. In the second world war, Japan was the only country to use chemical weapons on the battlefield, although Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used chlorine gas in almost all of the concentration camps during the Holocaust. During the cold war, the Americans and Soviets each kept enormous stores of chemical weapons– enough to wipe out all live on earth. The United States signed the Geneva Protocol, a ban on chemical weapons during war, in 1975, but did not begin to destroy its stores of chemical weapons until 1992, at the end of the cold war. The Chemical Weapons Convention occurred around the same time, and almost all nations in the world signed the accord to permanently ban the use of chemical weapons, and to begin the process of destroying their own stores of them. There are only seven countries in the world that have not implemented the accord– Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan, Syria, Israel, and Myanmar (the last two have signed it but not ratified it).

So why is this even relevant? Recently, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un (the dictator leader of North Korea), was killed by a chemical weapon called VX nerve agent, which essentially shuts the immune system down entirely and causes choking. This was the first use of chemical weapons on civilians not in a war zone in over ten years. The last time before that was a poisoning in a Tokyo subway by a doomsday cult. At the same time, Syrian forces have used toxic gases repeatedly throughout their civil war. Although it is unlikely that there will ever be a resurgence in the use of chemical weapons, it is still important to understand what they are and why they are used.

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All you need to know about… Chemical Warfare!