The Other Gas Problem

Today’s Boston Globe has a rather simplistic column (as if that’s anything new), calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. And the author has hit on what he thinks is a fairly clever idea: use the ending of poison gas as a model.

Mr. Carroll titles his piece as a rhetorical question — “If Poison Gas Can Go, Why Not Nukes?” But I’m going to take it as a serious question — and try to answer it.

First up, as Mr. Carroll notes, the treaty banning gas (and, later, all chemical weapons) was first put forth in 1907. Less than a decade later, they were used most prolifically during World War I. Another push was made for banning them in 1925. This was so well received that the United States didn’t bother to ratify it for another fifty years.

Despite that, poison gas was almost entirely foresworn as a weapon during World War II. The reason was not because of any treaty or agreement, but the simplest of reasons, the one that is the most compelling in times of war — fear of retaliation. Nearly all the combatants had extensive supplies of poison gas, and none of them wanted to use them because they knew that their enemy would use them right back. It was “MAD” — Mutually Assured Destruction — long before it was given a name and applied to nuclear strategy. Mad, but it worked.

In fact, the few times poison gas has been used as a weapon, it’s been when there has been little to no fear of retaliation. Saddam Hussein, for example, used it against enemies both foreign and domestic, because he knew neither the rebels he was suppressing nor his Iranian adversaries had the wherewithal to meaningfully retaliate.

The United States did get rid of most of its chemical weapons, along with its biological weapons, but kept its deterrence at hand. We did that by lumping chemical and biological weapons into the same category as nuclear weapons (or, as Tom Clancy put it, “a nuke is a bug is a gas”) and saying that we would be ready to retaliate against any one of those attacks with a nuclear weapon — if we so chose.

And again, that seems to have worked pretty well. It kept the Soviets at bay for decades.

I’d rather not give up that security blanket, thank you.

Also, Carroll goes to great lengths to describe how the use of chemical weapons in World War I killed a relatively small number of people (10,000 out of about 10,000,000), but left about a million wounded — some maimed for life. That was a very powerful and constant reminder of just what chemical weapons do.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, perhaps we haven’t used them enough. The United States struck two Japanese cities, but that was the only use of nuclear weapons. Most of the survivors of the attacks are long dead, and the cities have been rebuilt. We don’t really have constant reminders of what nuclear weapons can do, apart from old pictures and film clips and stories — and those just aren’t very immediate, as “real” as chemical weapons were back in the aftermath of World War I.

And let’s face it — chemical weapons, at least for military use, are obsolete. They are most effective at large formations of infantry, and there really aren’t that many nations that use such tactics. China might, because sheer numbers is their greatest strength, but that’s about it.

Nuclear weapons, though, still have some very good military applications. They are very effective against massed concentrations of all types — infantry, armored units, artillery, and the like. They are also very good at destroying underground otherwise reinforced structures. They work pretty well at naval warfare — especially against submarines, when the old joke about how “almost only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and thermonuclear weapons” applies. And they are fantastic at area denial — nuke an area, and NOBODY’s gonna pass through that area any time soon.

So Mr. Carroll wants to get rid of nuclear weapons. Nice idea. Too bad it won’t happen any time soon.

Ain’t reality a bitch?

Unqualified Leadership
Life in Florida IV