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Keuka College News

The Use of Gas is a Departure from the Norms of War

By Dr. Sander A. Diamond, professor of history

Conventional weapons—most in accord with the rules of war and Geneva Conventions—have killed millions on an unimaginable scale. In the Syrian civil war, an estimated 125,000 people have been killed by conventional weapons; 1,500 died from gas poisoning. Yet, gas and other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are prohibited by international law for use on the battlefield or against one’s people.

At the root of the prohibition against unconventional weapons is the long-held belief that WMDs are a departure from the norms of war, a cruel and inhuman way to kill either a handful of people or millions. Soldiers and civilians have conditional protection against conventional weapons. This is not the case with WMDs. When sarin-loaded missiles struck a suburb of Damascus, the civilians had no protection. Death by gas is a horror in its own constellation.

In late April 1915, French and British troops were defending the medieval Flemish city of Ypres. For the second time, the Germans had mounted a massive assault; the first attack, in October-November 1914, failed. Amid the German shelling, which filled the air with grayish-black smoke and the smell of spent gunpowder, yellow clouds appeared. The French troops were the first to inhale what was soon known as chlorine gas. They started to cough their lungs out, which were filled with blood. Disoriented and blinded from the chemical mix, many of the defenders were dead in minutes, others suffered agonizing death. Clouds of German-made gas followed the air currents. The British and French soldiers dropped like flies. An estimated 6,000 were killed; those who initially survived died a horrible death in field hospitals. Survivors had to live with scarred lungs and many were blinded. Others went insane or endured a lifetime of deep depression, in those years dubbed the “shell shock” syndrome.

World War I claimed the lives of nearly 15 million soldiers on all fronts and left more than 20 million wounded and maimed. Of those killed, roughly 90,000 died from gas poisoning and 10 times that were disabled. As we remember the Great War, the slaughter that took place at the battles of the Marne, Verdun, and the Somme are recalled with horror. A generation perished. But we will recall the Second Battle of Ypres with a special horror since a chemical weapon was introduced to the battlefield for the first time.

When the war ended in 1918, the Allies dismantled the German military machine and the gas- filled artillery shells were dumped into the Baltic Sea. In the inter-war period, military planners went to work developing technologies and new inventions that would permit mobile warfare. But gas was deemed taboo and in 1925, the Geneva Convention banned its use on the battlefield and the ban was later extended to its use against civilians. Later, biological and bacteriological weapons were also banned.

The prohibition against the use of gas has been violated, but fewer times than most people believe. While gas may have been used in the fog of war on many occasions, the evidence reveals that the Italians used it in the African Campaign in the 1930s, the Japanese in China prior to and during World War II, the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1970s, Saddam against the Kurds, and most recently, Bashar al-Assad in the brutal Syrian civil war.

Hitler did not open his huge stockpile of chemical weapons on the battlefield during World War II. But this was not the case when it came to the Jews and others the Nazis deemed “life unworthy of life.”

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