Lewis Page, an 11-year veteran of the Royal Navy with significant experience in bomb disposal, describes his experience cleaning up phosgene shells in the UK countryside:
Lest anyone think the UK was hit by an enemy chemical bombardment a few years back without it making the press, I should point out that these WMDs were British. The place where I was standing was a test range, long ago. Boffins working on UK chemical weapons programmes fired thousands of gas shells into the area, showing the gay disregard for safety cases, compensation culture, and the Geneva Protocols so characteristic of the era.Page goes on to make several essential points. First, he notes that chemical weapons are not WMD unless you have a staggering amount of them (e.g., 10 or 15 tons of nerve agent), and that awestruck media reports of their lethality aren’t always based on realistic scenarios:
Even more casually, once they were done they simply opened the range up to the public. To this day, it's a popular spot for a bracing walk among the unspoilt beauties of nature.
A single kilogram of nerve agent is said to be enough to kill 100 million people….That is actually true: but one would have to break the kilogram down into individual doses and administer them orally, without wasting so much as a tenth of a milligram. It would be far simpler to shoot one's victims or blow them up. Even strangling them barehanded would be easier. And this is generally the case with chemical weapons.Second, the outrage over chemical weapons is morally incoherent:
Ordinary explosive rounds [can] take out a majority of unprotected people, rising to almost everyone at the high end. And in this case the protection required to survive isn't a cheap, portable suit and mask. One would want a bunker or a 30-ton armoured vehicle to withstand conventional artillery, and even then the risk of a direct hit would remain. Conventional ammunition is infinitely easier to get, store, and transport, too.I'd actually take this line of reasoning a bit further, as I did in an earlier post:
Sometimes I wonder if a certain amount of the horror that ordinary weapons should inspire has been deflected onto chemical weapons and their ilk, as though the distinction between blowing people up and poisoning them constituted a clear and decisive line between civilization and barbarism. Chemical weapons, properly so called, are inherently of limited use on the battlefield; their real utility, perhaps, lies in their ability to make other forms of mass murder seem relatively acceptable.Page’s final point can’t be overemphasized, especially at a time when hapless dead-enders are pointing to improvised chlorine bombs as “proof” that Iraq had WMD:
Toppling [Saddam] may or may not have been a good idea, but his possession or lack of battlefield chemical weapons shouldn't have affected anyone's thinking on the matter.In other CW news, the Chinese are claiming that the Japanese abandoned 2 million tons of CW in China at the end of World War II. Both countries are funding a clean-up effort that’ll utilize a mobile deactivation facility.
And in the Baltic, fishermen reportedly net three tons of unexploded munitions per year, some of which contain the nerve agent tabun; the United States dumped massive quantities of these CW overboard circa 1945.
On the bright side, researchers at Hawaii’s Ordnance Reef have found that sunken munitions comprise a far better foundation for coral growth than old tires.
For the sake of perspective, it’s worth remembering that in Cambodia alone, landmines and other UXO cause an average of two casualties per day (there were 875 casualties in 2005). Much as I dislike the idea of submerged nerve agents in our coastal waters, I’d rather we devoted more of our expertise and money to landmine removal in Indochina.
(Photo of Tooele Army Depot, Utah by Douglas C. Pizac/AP, via Cryptome.)
UPDATE: Cheery news from Danger Room:
A recent study out of the Air War College calls for using chemicals as "first-use weapons against terrorists" -- part of a larger pitch to rethink the long-time pariah of military warfare....