Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Unspoilt Beauties of Nature


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.

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.
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:
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....

8 comments:

Joseph said...

As an American living in Germany, it amazes how many bombs they still find here from the Second World War. Just about every month they find one or two Fünf- or Zehn-Zentner-Bomben (500 or 1,000 lb. bombs) somewhere in the Bundesrepublik. Last October a road worker was killed on the A3 Autobahn when the machine he was running exposed and detonated a 500 lb. bomb. Just in the last month here in my local area they've found one bomb at a hospital construction site, as well as an entire British HP Halifax bomber (which may or may not still have it's 13,000 lb. payload) submerged between the two boat docks at the popular tourist spot of Maria Laach.

dan mcenroe said...

Chemical weapons have always seemed to be more effective psychologically than physically; they're scary. But not when you start to think about it - a chemical attack in New York City would have a hell of a time dispersing, and since most chemical weapons are heavier than air anyone above, say, the third floor of a building in the area is pretty safe. In suburban or rural areas, they'd have the opposite problem - they'd disperse too quickly.

But they are scary - and too many people I know who should have known better (including a former Army chemical weapons disposal officer - the guy who gave me the information I repeated above!) bought into that Iraq war rationale hook, line, and sinker.

Phila said...

But they are scary - and too many people I know who should have known better (including a former Army chemical weapons disposal officer - the guy who gave me the information I repeated above!) bought into that Iraq war rationale hook, line, and sinker.

Yeah, they are. Although what's really interesting to me when we identify something as "scary" is what we're announcing that we're comfortable with.

dan mcenroe said...

announcing that we're comfortable with.

I think there's a certain sense that bullets and bombs - conventional weapons, however horrible - are the weapons of honorable men who stand and fight (or at least fly into the range of your interceptors) and chemical weapons are employed by cowards and other sundry evil folk. I can't back that up with any data; it's just a gut feeling.

Phila said...

I can't back that up with any data; it's just a gut feeling.

You're probably right, though it's not a realistic attitude given our fondness for landmines and napalm.

Phila said...

Just in the last month here in my local area they've found one bomb at a hospital construction site, as well as an entire British HP Halifax bomber (which may or may not still have it's 13,000 lb. payload) submerged between the two boat docks at the popular tourist spot of Maria Laach.

I didn't know that...fascinating.

There was talk for a while of putting an LNG terminal in a munitions-strewn portion of (I think) the Irish Channel. Don't know if plans have moved ahead...

Joseph said...

though it's not a realistic attitude given our fondness for landmines and napalm.

We're good at that kind of rationalization:

Sneak attack on the US forces? Perfidy! Treachery! Those knaves!

Use of stealth attack platforms to gain unique first-strike capability? Brilliant!

Phila said...

Use of stealth attack platforms to gain unique first-strike capability? Brilliant!

Yeah. Funny how that works...