Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Old Lie

     President Obama rose to power as an effective speaker. I haven't heard him give a bad speech yet, and last week's was no different. As I listened to him explain Tuesday why we need to make a limited air strike against Syria, why he could order it as president, but wants Congress's approval, as icing on the cake, it seemed to me the whole argument hinges on poison gas being an unacceptable weapon, as if it differs in some important and fundamental way from bullets and bombs and missiles. 
     Does it? And if it does, where did that distinction come from? I had a vague belief that it can be traced to World War I, but that's about all I knew, and I decided to look into the matter a bit. The result is in Sunday's Chicago Sun-Times. 
     One element that didn't make its way into the column is this—one truth that echoes loudly from World War I, gas or no gas—is the insanity of war, the horrendous human cost for muddled and minor political motives. World War I is not the war to invoke when proposing ill-conceived military jaunts. Claiming they will be quick and easy only makes it worse. They're always supposed to be quick and easy, at the start. When the war to end all wars began in August, 1914, everybody thought it would be over by Christmas, and young men raced to enlist, lest they miss the fun. When President Obama invokes gas, he unknowingly invokes Wilfred Owen's haunting poem "Dolce et Decorum Est," which I've linked to below. When you look at what World War I was like, it's amazing that anybody ever fought another war.  But that's people for you. They forget. Even smart people like Barack Obama forget. Two bloody and dubious Middle East wars barely come to a close, and we're already lurching toward our next one. Saying it will be quick and easy. As always.

     What’s so bad about poison gas?
     Bad enough that the United States could sit on its hands, uttering a few feeble protests, while 100,000 Syrians were killed through conventional means. But 1,300 civilians were murdered Aug. 21 in a poison gas attack, and that spurred us to action, or to near action.
     Where’s this distinction coming from?
     It’s a century-old revulsion. People associate poison gas with the horrors of World War I, but its use in warfare was already illegal according to international law — and already produced by most major powers anyway — in the late 19th century.
     What World War I did was loosen qualms against using poison gas. The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the last gasp of military chivalry: there really was a spontaneous Christmas truce in Flanders in 1914, with soldiers meeting in No Man’s Land to shake hands, sing carols and exchange gifts. Using poison gas was seen as “cowardly.”
     But by spring 1915, the wholesale trench warfare slaughter made such notions laughable. The First Battle of Ypres cost 100,000 lives. By the second clash outside the flattened Belgian city, qualms against gas were set aside. On April 22, 1915, the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas from 5,700 cylinders across a five-mile line into a wind blowing toward French Moroccan troops, who saw the green cloud coming, then were suffocating, vomiting blood, burying their faces in the dirt seeking relief.
     Most of the French front line died or fled in panic, opening a four-mile gap in Allied defenses which the Germans, understandably reluctant to charge into their own gas - they had gas masks but didn't trust them - and lacking reserves, did not take advantage of. Raw Canadian troops, outnumbered but improvising respirators from handkerchiefs soaked in urine, rushed to fill the breech and held their line, a feat of bravery that, at the time, was deemed glorious and predicted to be "the theme of song and story as long as the world endures" but, of course, wasn't.
     So why did poison gas seem so awful in a war that saw the first general use of machine guns and armored tanks and aerial bombing and flame throwers? Gas was silent. It could linger on battlefields for days. Heavier than air, it crept into basements and trenches, the very places where soldiers fled expecting a degree of safety. It killed men in "horrid and unendurably painful ways," often blinding them. Gas masks didn't always work. The Germans later introduced mustard gas, which didn't suffocate, but burned, invisible, and soldiers could be exposed and not even know it for days (that's why WWI soldiers always look so overdressed, in leggings and wraps; the practice was to cover every inch of exposed skin).
     Plus, it hadn't been used. "The novelty of poison gas," wrote Michael S. Neiberg. "Its unnatural greenish and yellow colorations, and its use in contravention of international law all lent gas an air of barbarity and savagery that other weapons never had."
     To top it off, while all nations had it, gas had been first used effectively by the Germans, one of the "heinous devices created by these demons of depravity," to quote W.C. King's post-war book "Germany's Crime Against Humanity." The British called mustard gas "H.S.," for "hun stuff."
     So poison gas was bad because our enemy used it - that's what history remembers, a bit of lingering propaganda. Though the U.S. military, loath to lose any weapon, tried to rehabilitate poison gas after the war.
     "War is abhorrent to the individual, yet he accepts blowing men to pieces with high explosive, mowing men down with machine guns, and even sinking a battleship in mid-ocean with its thousand or fifteen hundred men being carried to certain death," Earl J. Atkisson, head of the U.S. 1st Gas Regiment, wrote in 1925. "However, to burn the skin of a man outrages all his civilized instincts."
     The bottom line is that any weapon that depends on the wind is of limited strategic use. Thus it is gas' undependability, more than anything else, that places it in a special category of disapproval. If it worked better, we'd find it in our hearts to use it. Land mines are devastating against civilians, too, in a sense worse than gas, since they remain a threat for years after being deployed. The world is nearly united against land mines, but the U.S. feels it needs mines to hem in the North Koreans, so we refuse to join all land mine bans. Morality has its limits.
     Gas is bad because all weapons of war are bad. That President Barack Obama would single it out in this fashion is more a quirk of history than any absolute ethical point. Odd that we would risk war over some century-old propaganda. Then again, it's been done before.

Wilfred Owen, Britain's great martyr poet of World War I, wrote a haunting poem about a gas attack, Dolce et Decorum Est. For those whose Latin is a little rusty, "dolce et decorum est, pro patria mori" means "sweet and proper it is, to die for one's country."


  1. Is that Wells or Lake St?
    Haven't walked across either in months.

  2. Lake Street. About 11 a.m. on a weekday. It surprised me that it would be, even momentarily, empty.

  3. Neil,

    Given that my family's history took a major course change that has continued to impact my life even almost a hundred years later thanks to my grandfather getting gassed in WW1, I think that the problem with gas warfare is due to its long lasting consequences. You don't recover from getting gassed like you do when wounded by some other weapon of war. Gunshots can be stitched up and bones mended and even faces rebuilt but you can't do the same with your eyes or your lungs. It would be ironic if medical advances that gave you replacement eyes or lungs would open the door to gas warfare.

  4. David --

    I'm sure there are a lot of disabled vets who might argue that point with you.

  5. Neil,

    That may be true. However, you have to remember that none of our living veterans be they disabled or not have experienced a gas attack. Time may have erased the horror of gas warfare from our minds but we ought to recall that the fear and loathing were still strong enough to keep the combatants in WW2 from using it on each other even though there were precious few other exceptions. They had the experience with it that we lack today.


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