Why We’re Outraged by Poison Gas

Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM)
Zyklon-B stockpile used by the Nazis in World War II (Image: USHMM)

W.J. Astore

A good friend of mine wrote to me about chemical weapons/poison gas in World War I, and it got me to thinking about why we’re so outraged by the recent use of poison gas in Syria.

When you think about it (and who really wants to), there are so many bloody and awful ways to die in war.  Besides the usual bullets and bombs, the U.S. has used depleted uranium shells, white phosphorous, and cluster munitions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Why, then, the outrage over gas?  And why was it banned after World War I?

I think it was because chemical weapons/poison gas proved both indecisive and inglorious.  If chemical weapons had produced decision on the battlefield, they would have been retained, despite their inglorious and wretched effects.  But their military utility proved limited and their image disreputable to military concepts of honor, so they were outlawed.

Think of Syria today.  The use of chemical agents led to wanton death.  They produced no military decision.  And, assuming Syrian governmental forces used them, they only added to Assad’s disrepute.

But I also think that, when one thinks of the gassing of innocents, one can’t help but to recall, however tangentially or obliquely, the awful reality of the utter abyss of the Nazi mass murder chambers, where carbon monoxide and Zyklon-B were used to slaughter millions of innocents.

Chemical weapons are a ghastly symbol of man’s inhumanity to man.  We are outraged because of the outrageous effects of these weapons and the horrific uses to which they’ve been put.

But let us also be outraged by any weapon that treats human beings as matter to be snuffed out or destroyed.  Only then will we seriously question the wisdom (and the humanity) of responding to gas by letting “conventional” missiles fly.

2 thoughts on “Why We’re Outraged by Poison Gas

  1. Reblogged this on Bracing Views and commented:

    I wrote this article back in 2013, when chemical weapons were used in Syria (a “red line” for Barack Obama, who was then the U.S. president). Five years later, chemical weapons have been used yet again, though it’s unknown whether it was on Bashar al-Assad’s orders. Any U.S. retaliatory strike should answer at least these four questions before going forward: 1) Who exactly was responsible for this chemical attack? 2) How will a U.S. military attack solve anything? 3) What vital U.S. interest is at stake here? 4) How will killing Syrian people with U.S. missiles or bombs serve any just cause?

    Yet another U.S. military strike against a Middle Eastern country may make a few U.S. chickenhawks feel tough, but the risk of innocents being killed and yet more violence being spread in Syria and throughout the region outweigh the benefits. What are those “benefits,” exactly? Assuming Assad ordered the chemical attack, is he really going to be deterred by yet another U.S. missile strike?

    Poison gas attacks are abhorrent, but so too is a rush to judgment. More U.S. bombs and missiles that only kill more people is not the answer here.

    Like

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