Syria (Maybe) Used Chemical Weapons — And the U.S. Sits in Judgment?

Nick Ut's famous photo of children fleeing napalm in Vietnam (NPR)
Nick Ut’s famous photo of children fleeing napalm in Vietnam (NPR)

W.J. Astore

The Obama administration’s outrage over the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government smacks of hypocrisy.  We might recall that the U.S. refuses to become a signatory to a ban on cluster munitions, which are particularly dangerous to civilians and children in the days and weeks following their deployment.  Or that the U.S. remains by far the leading weapons dealer in the world today, accounting for more than half of the world’s trade in arms.  Or that the U.S. has been profligate in its use of firepower (including depleted uranium shells) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Given these facts, and especially the profits we make from dominating the world’s arms trade, there is something quite morally obtuse about our nation’s posturing about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria as a cause for war.

The outrage against chemical weapons stems from World War I, when western nations were at pains to kill or wound one another by chlorine gas, mustard gas, phosgene gas, and similar chemical agents.  More than a million casualties of World War I were chemical casualties.  Western nations who had found plenty of excuses to gas each other during the war came together after the war to ban them.  And rightly so.

But then again, why not ban all chemical weapons?  Just think of the massive quantities of napalm (chemical incendiary), Agent Orange (chemical defoliant), and high explosive (yes, more deadly chemicals) we rained down on the Vietnamese in the 1960s and early 1970s.  Heck, bullets are propelled by a chemical reaction.  Let’s ban all these too.

And if we do that, then maybe, just maybe, our nation will have the moral authority to act outraged in cases like that of Syria today.