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Updated on December 21, 2009


‘Papa’ Hemmingway had once observed “They wrote in the old days that it is sweet to die for one’s own country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet or fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason”. Indeed it could be worse, if the scourge of chemical warfare is unleashed, and for the unsuspecting citizen the kiss of death might come with a fruity odor.

Chemical warfare is not of recent origin. One finds descriptions of it in the Ramayanaand Mahabharata - of smoking projectiles that cough out death and turns into wasteland the flora and fauna of a virgin soil.

The Romans too were said to have used the ancient ploy of poisoning wells of a conquered city and 11th century Chinese were reported to have made use of toxic projectiles in times of war. But it was only in World War I that chemical weapons were used on a large scale.

April 22 1915 will for ever remain etched in human memory as the beginning of a nightmare that brought death and destruction to thousands of innocent people. Cecil Day Lewis  portrays the tragedy in these haunting words:

There was laughter and loving in the lanes at evening                                                                                                  Handsome were the boys then, and girls were gay                                                                                                  but in Flanders by medalled commanders                                                                                                                     the lads of the village are vanished away”

And by the end of the war 90,000 of them had vanished and Germany alone used 52,000 tons of gas as against France and Britain which used 26,000 tons and 14,000 tons respectively to snuff out life.

What are these unseen weapons of death which silently stifles life? Chemical weapons may be classified into three groups viz, Lethal agents, Incapacitating agents and agents which are wounding and possibly lethal.

Lethal agents are those like nerve gas such as Tabun GA, Sarin GB and VX which come either in liquid or vapour form and affect the eyes, heart, salivary and sweat glands apart from the respiratory, digestive and central nervous systems. These are either inhaled or absorbed through skin and it blocks the action of enzymes in the nervous system resulting in paralysis or heart failure.

Choking agents like Phosgene is a colorless gas which affects the respiratory organs of a victim who drowns in his own mucus. Toxin agents like Butolin X and A, Saxitoxin TZ  and Entertoxin B, come either in the form of powder or liquid and affects usually the central nervous system resulting in paralysis apart from the digestive and  excretory system.

Incapacitating agents, as the word conveys, is meant for temporarily incapacitating a person and usually affects the mind and produces hallucinations. Popularly known as tear gas, the common incapacitating agents are CN and BZ which are visible vapors and some like CN even has the odor of apple bloom.

Blister agents on the other hand are wounding and depending on the dosage, can be lethal. Distilled mustard gas and nitrogen mustard gas are the usual blister agents which come in either liquid or vapor form and affects the eyes, skin, lungs and other internal organs, resulting in bronchopneumonia. During the later part of World War I these blister agents were used on a wide scale.

There is a fourth group of chemical weapon which is an indirect method of chemical warfare known as defoliants. They are used for the killing of an enemy’s crop or on the jungle that hides him by spraying it from the air. It is alleged that such defoliants were used on a wide scale during the Vietnam War.

Faced with this prospect of chemical weapons, special clothing is needed for protecting a person. They comprise of Respirator, Rubber gloves, Boot covers and complete covering of skin and excretory exits by impregnated paper.

In terms of strategic value chemical weapons are of no great advantage apart from the element of surprise. In fact the efficacy of chemical weapons being dependent on weather, it can also turn out to be a liability to the user as the British army learnt during World War I.

Thus Liddel Hart commenting on the role of weather in a war states ‘….when the Germans introduced cloud glass at Ypres in 1915, as a means of opening the path, the prevalence of the South West wind which brings most of the rain in our shores helped first to diminish their opportunities of exploiting this new weapon and later turned into a boomerang’.

If that be the strategic value of chemical weapons then why should one build a stockpile of it? The reason is that for developing countries it is easier to develop one and escape the prospect of detection. In fact nuclear weapons plants are far easier to detect than that of chemical weapons.

Identification becomes difficult due to the fact that chemicals needed for making chemical weapon also have other legitimate applications and are known as ‘precursor’ chemicals. Thus Thio-di-glycol for instance is used in textile industry and also for making plastics and antifreeze. But the same chemical can also be used to make mustard gas.

The result is that middlemen have a field day in peddling chemical weapons to potential buyers and hence the unchecked proliferation of these unseen weapons of death.

Though the industrialized west have set up what is known as the ‘Australia group’ comprising of 19 countries to share intelligence information regarding chemical weapons the process of identifying and specifying precursor chemicals has been rather difficult owing to the commercial application of potentially precursor chemicals.

The only effective check against these lethal weapons boils down to self-imposed regulations which are therefore of a psychological nature. In fact to borrow the words of Mathew Meselson of Harvard ‘ it is more the human mind that you have to effect than hardware, you have to create an atmosphere in which people don’t  want to do it and that is very tough’

Trapped in the midst of war hungry rulers we realize the truth of the old Taoist saying that ‘Weapons of war are the tools of evil, those who truly admire them are murderers at heart’

[This article of mine was first published on 13-10-1990 in the INDIAN EXPRESS Weekend magazine]


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