How Should Peace Activists Think About Chemical Weapons?

By Chris Lowe (April 9, 2017)

A question for peace and anti-war and international law oriented friends:

As I have been thinking about the recent episodes in Syria of the apparent sarin gas attack by the Syrian government and the U.S. bombing in response, I have started to wonder about the way we, or at least the media, talk about “chemical weapons.”

All explosives are in some sense chemical weapons. Alfred Nobel the inventor of dynamite was a chemist. Even bullets are propelled by a chemical reaction. 

Sometimes the distinction is drawn relating to “weapons of mass destruction.” The at least partial validity of this can be seen if we reflect on the scale of mass deaths caused by several deployments of poison gas by Hussein in Iraq in the 1980s, for example. Causing mass death may have been an element of the original international law ban going back to the experiences of World War I.

A related idea is indiscriminateness. Poison gas is uncontrolled once released.

Yet scale varies widely. The recent chemical bombing in Syria reportedly killed about 80 people. A single 2000 pound bomb or a barrel bomb, or a car bomb, exploded in a crowded area, often causes similar scale deaths. At the other end, I have seen activists locally in Portland criticize use of mace and tear gas by police as chemical warfare, and I think at least some agents used to repress demonstrations are banned for use in war under international law.

More to the point is this: Does singling out chemical weapons becomes a cover for mass destruction and indiscriminate killing caused by mass application of “conventional” weapons?

The horrors of gas attacks in the First World War were real, but the vast majority of mass deaths and maiming came as the effects of artillery and machine guns combined with the cannon fodder mentality of moral cretins commanding the armies. Most anti-war people are familiar with and have thought about fire bombings in World War II and the “carpet bombing” mass bombing horror campaigns of the U.S. in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

In Syria, the country has been wrecked, hundreds of thousands killed, and millions displaced by mass indiscriminate use of “conventional” artillery and bombs.

What is the right approach to this question? Is it to give up the distinction?

Is it to try to consistently point out when we speak of chemical or nuclear weapons that while their specific mass indiscriminate qualities matter, conventional weapons deployed at scale also cause mass, indiscriminate death often directed at civilians?

Is it to focus on mass warfare in all forms so as to shift the focus to warfare and militarism?

Something else?


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