The History of Chemical Warfare

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Issue 17, Volume 111

By Mahir Hossain 

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The word “damage” has a lot to do with science. Various creations, including bombs and dynamite, are glorified in Hollywood movies but are also capable of causing extreme damage, namely blowing up everything in sight in hopes of eliminating a target. The introduction of chemical warfare to the table excited many, as it was more discreet than physical explosives. Chemicals such as carbon monoxide are odorless and colorless making them seem harmless, but in truth, slowly choke enemies to death. Though the introduction of modern chemical warfare is often associated with World War I, the practice dates back to ancient times across the world, even before chemical weapons were mass manufactured.

It is important to first categorize the four types of chemical weapons and their effects on the body: nerve agents, blister agents, choking agents, and blood agents. Nerve agents attempt to put the body out of control by causing muscle twitching and coma. Blister agents create scars, while choking agents attack the lungs through the release of hypochlorous acid or hydrochloric acid that degrades lung cells. Blood agents, such as cyanide, throw off the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in red blood cells.

The first traces of chemical warfare came from an archaeology find in Dura-Europos, a Roman city in modern-day Syria. Outnumbered, one Persian soldier set fire to sulfur crystals and bitumen coal and trapped the Roman soldiers in one tunnel, all of whom perished from the acidic smoke. Unfortunately, the Persian soldier who set the fire also perished. Though this type of warfare was effective, chemical weapons such as ovens filled with sulfur and coal needed to be more portable. Poisoned arrows were widely used by tribes in South America, but they took a long time to make, especially durable ones.

Millenia later, the Industrial Revolution created new technologies in Europe that were then used in the World Wars. The works of Fritz Haber, a German chemist, were realized during World War I. Haber, known as the “father of chemical warfare,” created both mustard and chlorine gas for German soldiers to use in trench warfare. His inventions were successful, but they started debates regarding the ethics of chemical warfare. Haber argued that “death was death”—if you were to shoot someone with 10 bullets, they would die. With choking gas, it takes longer, but the victim still ends up in the same place: death. After World War I, however, many countries ceased chemical weapons production altogether.

The United States today adopted the Chemical Warfare (CW) program dedicated to incinerating chemical warfare stocks from as far back as World War I ammunition. However, there is still ongoing production and usage of chemical weapons in massive amounts in Egypt, North Korea, and Sudan. There is much speculation on how these nations will ban the use of chemical weapons. Some countries are finding loopholes to produce even more toxic weapons that are not directly stated as illegal by the CW program. The best way to ensure civilian safety is by stopping the exportation and importation of chemicals and analyzing questionable substances.

Chemical weapons are truly one-of-a-kind. However, until we can better resolve conflicts between nations and find adequate compromises, chemical warfare can interfere with daily life and civilian safety because of its stealthiness. Chemicals can mask themselves in a way that makes it hard for the naked eye to see, yet produce lethal effects that can lead to the death of unsuspecting civilians. By implementing the CW program and improving diplomatic relations, we can keep civilians away from the mass destruction these weapons can unleash.