“Gas! Gas! Gas! Nasty, wicked pois’nous gasssssssssss!!!!!!!”
There, is your knee-jerking yet? Have you started to salivate and get sweaty palmed and developed the requisite insatiable craving for moralistic war against the media designated demons responsible for such unbelievable, unique, and unprecedented evil?
No? Then, your conditioning will have to be continued, the voltage upped, so that, whenever necessary, your leaders and betters will be able to sell you another ugly little war in which the mighty hollow West can bomb some destabilized little patch of naturally-occurring chaos or tyranny back into tyranny or chaos again.
But why has gas been ascribed this holy, sanctifying, incense-like role in the lustrations of war? A little history is perhaps in order.
Although there may have been crude forerunners in more primitive times, its use in modern warfare and mass moral hysteria dates from WWI and the German attack on the French trenches at Ypres on April 22, 1915, when a cloud of creeping green gas, released from cylinders, caused thousands of casualties and created a four-mile gap in the front, which the Germans, alas, were unable to exploit due to a lack of reserves.
This of course was a war that was not short on ways of killing vast swathes of humanity, but for some reason this relatively novel method was greeted with particular opprobrium. As the war historian and my partial namesake, Captain Basil Liddell-Hart put it in his history of the Great War:
The chlorine gas originally used was undeniably cruel, but no worse than the frequent effect of shell or bayonet, and when it was succeeded by improved forms of gas both experience and statistics proved it the least inhumane of modern weapons. But it was novel and therefore labeled an atrocity by a world which condones abuses but detests innovations. Thus Germany incurred the moral odium which inevitably accompanies the use of a new weapon without any compensating advantage.
~ The Real War 1914–1918, p. 129
The introduction of gas by the Germans was a mistake as the British and French were more than capable of retaliating while enjoying a meteorological advantage — the wind generally blows from the West in that part of the world. But, more importantly, gas fitted into the dominant British propaganda narrative of the war, with its music hall version of the “dastardly Hun,” forever raping nuns and spearing infants on his bayonet.
The fact that Britain devised its own terrible novelties, like the starvation blockade, creeping barrage, and the mass explosive mining of entire sectors, as at Messines, was neither here nor there. Their propaganda was much better.
After the war, the stench of propaganda hung so heavily around this particular method of killing that it was banned by the Geneva Protocol, whereas aerial bombing, massed artillery, barbed wire, and machine gunning weren’t — a ban surprisingly that lasted throughout WWII, which added area-bombing, fire-bombing, and nuclear bombing to the mix, along with ethnic cleansing, and mass rape, all methods of war that made localized gas attacks seem rather innocuous by comparison.
The fact that the Germans refrained from using gas in WWII must have come as something of a disappointment for the propagandists of the West, as an aura or atrocity continued to hang around the method that could easily be converted into moral capital. This is more or less what happened after the war when the narrative of the Nazis gassing 6 million Jews was developed.
This association, whether based on facts or not, continued to maintain the extreme moral odium of gas well above all other methods of warfare into the post-war period. This can be demonstrated by the part that Saddam Hussein’s gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja played in his subsequent demonization.
There are historical and associational reasons why gas is so abhorred, but, in a world in which many other and worse horrors exist, the particular moral odium reserved for gas remains something of an absurdity.
The special emotions that poison gas evokes also make it a convenient trigger for war-mongers, so any appearance of gas in a situation like the present one in Syria, combined with calls for war, should be treated with the same kind of circumspection and doubt we would show if Secretary of State Kerry had declared that the Syrian army was adorned with pointy tails and raping nuns and bayoneting babies.
But even if the Syrian army is using gas instead of US Special Forces or Syrian rebels doing so in order to create an incident to justify NATO aggression, would this really be any more evil than what America has been doing in recent years? Why is a whiff of Syrian gas any worse than shock and awe or thousands of drone attacks in which countless civilians have also been killed.
The projectile weapons (shells, missiles, bullets, etc.) that the pseudo-moralistic West prefers to employ differ from gas in that, in theory, they can be targeted, whereas gas by its very nature acts in a more nebulous and indiscriminate way.
Even if it is used with careful attention to local weather conditions and for precise military reasons, gas, once it is released, can be said to take on a life of its own, as unexpected gusts of wind and other hard to calculate factors take effect. Its inherent unpredictability was probably the main reason the Germans avoided using it in World War II.
Yes, unpredictability of consequence is definitely a good moral reason not to use something or to do something. So why, then, are Western leaders pushing for yet another war that will have a hard-to-predict outcome?
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and after supporting the stupidity of the Arab Spring, the lesson is clear: no matter how precise the West’s weapon systems may be, the effect of their use, in destroying local power structures and destabilizing relationships in the nations affected, is tantamount to releasing a giant, nebulous, and unpredictable cloud of death, and one that could blow back on us at some time in the future.