Professor Richard Price of the University of British Columbia has a very interesting post at Foreign Affairs that explores a very interesting question: how did chemical weapons become viewed as unacceptable in warfare? After, all, lots of modern weapons kill and maim. Why do we ban chemical weapons, but not other weapons. Price argues that the weapons were banned not for their effect on combatants, but on their potential use against civilians:
Why are chemical weapons singled out as so intolerable? Observers have usually explained the taboo by speculating either that humans harbor a unique fear of poison or that militaries have never considered chemical weapons useful. But these theories do not stand up to scrutiny. From the crossbow to the firearm to the submarine, many new weapons technologies throughout history have been greeted with protestations that they cross the boundary of acceptable conduct even in war. Moreover, after World War I, the American Legion actually argued that poison gas was one of the most humane weapons of warfare, a preferable alternative to explosives and bayonets, which often left survivors maimed and suffering from horrifying infections. What galvanized the world’s attention to try to ban these weapons after World War I was the fear that they could be employed with catastrophic lethality against civilian populations — especially in future wars, in which air power might be used to devastate major cities.
Read it all here. Note that arguments on land-mines and cluster munitions have also focused on civilian casualties more than the effect on combatants. What do you think?
Charles A. Blanchard
United States Air Force