Why do we accept the invention of Major-General Shrapnel but prohibit the use of chemical weapons? John Burdon Sanderson Haldane posed this question in 1925 in Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare.
Haldane had both the scientific knowledge and the wartime experience to defend chemical warfare. Haldane’s father was a professor of respiratory physiology. When John Scott Haldane was called to the scene of a coal mine accident, he took along young J.B.S. who learned firsthand how science could save lives, and ignorance could cost lives. J.B.S. Haldane became a brilliant biologist, proposing the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis for the chemical evolution of early life and pioneering evolutionary genetics.
Before WWII, when a British submarine sank on its maiden voyage, it was Haldane who volunteered to conduct tests for an escape system. In characteristic Haldane fashion, only he would be the test subject for the highest pressure, highest carbon dioxide, and lowest oxygen levels—signaling just before he passed out—and they would pull him unconscious from the pressure chamber. Physiologists still refer to experiments where the researcher participates in risks as "Haldane experiments."
It was a younger Haldane who wrote Callinicus, fresh from his service in World War I where he observed the effects of gas warfare. As a fresh college graduate, Haldane served in The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) and led raids behind enemy lines. On April 2, 1915 the Germans first used poison-gas warfare and the British eventually responded in kind. In Callinicus, Haldane explains how over 25 different chemical agents were used on the battlefield.
In the Argonne, the Germans shelled 2400 unprotected French troops with tear gas. German soldiers in goggles merely walked across the battlefield, disarmed the temporarily blinded French soldiers in their trenches, formed them into columns, and led them back—"almost all unwounded." This he clearly saw as an effective use of tear gas in warfare. Yet this would be "illegal’ today based on the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Hague. Haldane points out the dilemma: tear gas is chemical warfare. And so is the pepper spray a woman can carry in her purse. While these agents are terribly distressing but not fatal, others do graduate up to the fatal chemicals countries stockpile today.
More-lethal gases were used in World War I. Haldane compared the distress, pain, and lasting effects of gas and conventional weapons. "Apart, however, from the extreme terror and agitation produced by the gassing of uneducated people, I regard the type of wound produced by the average [conventional] shells as, on the whole, more distressing than the pneumonia caused by chlorine or phosgene. Besides being wounded, I have been buried alive, and on several occasions in peacetime I have been asphyxiated to the point of unconsciousness. The pain and discomfort arising from the other [chemical] experiences were utterly negligible compared with those produced by a good septic shell-wound."
Haldane asks why people find chemical weapons bad but ignore the devastation of conventional weapons? While mustard gas is a terrible blistering agent, does it cause more suffering than the Flammernwerfer (flamethrowers)?
Haldane did not live to see modern nerve gases such as VX and Serin, but he would have been quick to point out that they may be far more rapid and merciful than napalm or the firestorms that result from massive incendiary bombing.
"If, then, in future wars we are to avoid gross mismanagement in high places, and panic and stupidity among the masses, it is essential that everyone should learn a little elementary science, that politicians and soldiers should not be proud of their ignorance of it, that ordinary men and women should not be ashamed or afraid of knowing something of the working of their own bodies."
And "the objection to scientific weapons such as the gases of the late war...is essentially an objection to the unknown. Fighting with lances or guns, one can calculate, or thinks one can calculate, one’s chances. But with gas or rays or microbes one has an altogether different state of affairs." The bottom line is that our citizenry is scientifically illiterate, and fear drives our policies.
Haldane would be dismissive of our demonizing of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons as "weapons of mass destruction." He pointed out : "I need hardly remark that future governments will not enter on war without first persuading the vast majority of the people of its justice. This appears to be a relatively simple process under modern conditions."
Why are we outraged today at perhaps 1400 women, children and innocent civilians dying from chemical gas but not outraged by the over 100,000* women, children and civilian deaths by conventional weapons in the Syrian civil war? Does outrage over one form of supposedly "bad" warfare justify our afflicting even more pain, suffering and death using another mode of supposedly "good" warfare?
Haldane concludes: "If it is right for me to fight my enemy with a sword, it is right for me to fight him with mustard gas; if the one is wrong, so is the other." This remains a powerful statement from a scientist who intimately understood the effects of gas warfare, and was not a pacificist.