On a January day 50 years ago, two Egyptian combat jets flew low over the nondescript Yemeni village of Kitaf, their pilots secure in the knowledge that there was no air defence in hundreds of kilometres that might conceivably scrape the paint off their aircraft. They dropped bombs on the area that residents may, at first, have thought didn’t explode. But they would then have encountered the unfamiliar scent of fresh-mown grass in the dust-bowl where Kitaf is located — tears would have followed, along with nausea and a hacking cough. Six hours later, they would have been experiencing acute pulmonary distress.
The next morning, troops from Prince Hassan bin Yahya’s royalist army counted 140 bodies, and at least another 130 severely injured. The gas was likely phosgene — a First World War-vintage agent responsible for an estimated 80% of casualties directly caused by chemical weapons in that conflict.
U Thant, the UN Secretary General, said he was “powerless” to intervene, and the massacre was covered over by the sands.
As audiences across the world contemplate the hellish images that have emerged of the chemical weapons attack on Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun Tuesday, many are demanding history not be allowed to repeat itself. Chemical weapons use, it is argued, crosses a red line that civilisation cannot countenance defiled, even during war. In August 2012, President Barack Obama had said the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s government would constitute a “red line” beyond which, he implied, military intervention would become inevitable. He did not invade when Syria used chemical weapons at Ghouta in 2013, killing more than 281 — but he did secure a deal stripping the country of its chemical weapons stocks.
In the time since, though, chemical warfare has become an entrenched part of the Syrian civil war: jihadists are accused of having used various agents regularly, while the government is alleged to have used them in east Hama and Raqqa. In the absence of an independent investigation architecture, flat-out denial is the norm: Russia and Syria, for example, claim their jets hit a jihadist stockpile in Khan Sheikhoun.
Perhaps even more than these currently hard-to-answer questions of culpability, though, are some unaddressed ethical questions on chemical weapons. Why is it that killing people with chemical weapons is taboo — but the far more largescale, and every bit as painful, killing of people with conventional weapons considered legitimate?
These are questions that interrogate one of the most durable fictions of our age: that war can be tamed, as it were, through documents drawn up by lawyers sitting in conference rooms safely distant from the brutal realities of battle.
For the answers, we have to go back to the dawn industrial warfare. Early in the evening of April 22, 1915, with World War I raging in Europe, German troops opened the valves on 6,000 steel cylinders installed along their defensive line in Ypres, Belgium. For the next 10 minutes, clouds of chlorine, 168 tonnes in all, drifted slowly downwind towards the French, Algerian and Moroccan soldiers on the other side of the barbed wire. The clouds, a witness wrote, turned “yellow as they travelled over the country, blasting everything they touched”. French soldiers staggered in, “lips speechless with agony”.
The experience was to embed itself in European culture, becoming a metaphor for the horror of industrial warfare — few students emerge from a high-school education even today without encountering Wilfred Owen’s searing anti-war poem, Dulce et Decorum est.
On June 17, 1925, 16 major world powers signed what has come to be known as the Geneva Protocol, declaring that chemical and biological weapons are “justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world”. But in practice, there was no shortage of states willing to use these weapons in the years after the First World War. The UK and Italy struck at rebellious tribes in Mesopotamia, India and Abyssinia using chemical agents. Imperial Japan gassed Chinese Kuomintang and Communist troops. Nazi Germany desisted from using the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin only because it wrongly believed its adversaries had similar assets. Elsewhere, it was deterred by its dependence on horse-drawn transport. Freed of such constraints, such as at the battle of Kerch in 1942, it showed no restraint.
After the Second World War, biological and chemical agents were used in Angola, North Yemen, Rhodesia, Iran and Iraq — none, apparently, qualified as breaching civilisation’s “red line”. The US, the Congressional Research Service recorded in 2012, exposed 4.8 million Vietnamese to the defoliant Agent Orange; 350,000 veterans, their children and their grandchildren still suffer effects. Rhodesia planted chemical agents in insurgent food and water supplies, killing hundreds.
Iran and Iraq’s mutual gas attacks, the largest modern war involving the use of chemical weapons, claimed over 100,000 lives — but even Saddam Hussein’s large-gassing of Kurdish civilians at Halabja did not lead to a rupture of his relationship with the US.
Did these uses of chemical weapons in fact represent an exceptionally savage kind of warfare? The evidence suggests not. The scholar Gerald Fitzgerald has estimated that by the end of World War I on November 11, 1918, chemical weapons had caused 90,000 deaths — a tiny percentage of the 9.7 million soldiers’ lives lost. The soldier Basil Liddell-Hart, who knew firsthand about the horrors of the battlefield, trenchantly observed in a June 15, 1926 article for London’s Daily Telegraph that gas was “more humane than shells”.
“I did not see in 1917”, the chemist James Conant wrote in defence of his work with chemical weapons, “why tearing a man’s guts out by high explosive shells is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs”.
In 1993, the bulk of countries — though not Syria — agreed to abolish chemical weapons. Conant’s question, however, remains unanswered — more so when a range of new weapons from lasers to thermonuclear bombs are now part of militaries’ legitimate arsenals.
Every historical experience tells us this: Syria’s use of chemical weapons is likely militarily ineffective, the work of a desperate government seeking to inflict terror. The scholar John Muller has shown that of 27,000 Iranian soldiers exposed to chemical weapons in March 1987, just 262 actually died. Even at Halabja, one of the great crimes of modern war, the largest estimates of chemical weapons fatalities stretch to 400; the bulk of the slaughter was caused by conventional munitions.
Shane Harris and Matthew Aid argue that the US “applied a cold calculus three decades ago to [Saddam] Hussein’s widespread use of chemical weapons against his enemies and his own people. The Reagan administration decided that it was better to let the attacks continue if they might turn the tide of the war”. Like the US, Russia has the same hope today — and it isn’t unreasonable.
The real red line in Syria shouldn’t be chemical attacks in which a few hundred have lost their lives, but a war in which an estimated 500,000 are dead and almost 11.5 million have been displaced. This is a war brought about by great-power hubris, which led to the dismantling of the Syrian state; by the grim despotism that holds power there, bereft of legitimacy; by jihadists backed by regional proxies who seek to erect a vile dystopia on its ruins.
There is no way forward now bar the victory of one. The world must make its choices — and no choice can be a moral one.