British Major General Henry Shrapnel invented the exploding shell a century and a half ago. Its descendants -- from cluster bombs to land mines -- are part of the conventional munitions of modern warfare. We know the prolonged suffering that results from their use in Iraq and Afghanistan – and even the Boston marathon bombing. Despite the pain and suffering caused by shrapnel, we seem to accept it as a part of warfare. Yet, we demonize the use of chemical weapons. Why?
John Burdon Sanderson Haldane posed that question in 1925 in his book: Callinicus: A Defense of Chemical Warfare. Haldane had both the scientific knowledge and the wartime experience to defend chemical warfare.
Haldane became a brilliant biologist pioneering study of chemical evolution and evolutionary genetics. He was also a British nationalist speaking publicly of the threat of Hitler's rise to power. He was no pacifist.
Years before the submarine experiment, Haldane wrote Callinicus, his defense of chemical warfare. It was based on his experience during World War I. Haldane describes the use of gas warfare in the Argonne, when Germans shelled 2400 unprotected French troops with tear gas.
German soldiers in goggles merely walked across the battlefield, disarmed the temporarily blinded French soldiers, formed them into columns, and then led them back—"almost all unwounded." 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. These chemicals range from tear gas to pepper spray and all the way up to the instantly fatal chemicals used today.
Haldane compared the distress, pain, and lasting effects of gas and conventional weapons. Here’s what he wrote: "Apart from the extreme terror and agitation produced by the gassing of uneducated people, I regard the type of wound produced by conventional shells as more distressing than the pneumonia caused by chlorine or phosgene. The pain and discomfort arising from the chemical experiences were utterly negligible compared with those produced by a good septic shell-wound."
Haldane is puzzled by why we 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 a flame-thrower? Haldane would be quick to point out that modern nerve gases such as VX and Sarin may cause far less suffering than napalm, the firestorms that result from massive incendiary bombing, and of course, shrapnel.
Let me paraphrase Haldane when he says: "the objection to scientific weapons like poisonous gas is essentially an objection to the unknown. Fighting with lances or guns, a person thinks he can calculate his chances. But with gas or rays or microbes… that’s an altogether different state of affairs."
In the end, Haldane concludes that our citizenry is scientifically illiterate, and fear drives our policies.
Haldane would be dismissive of the way we demonize chemical, biological and nuclear weapons today–calling them "weapons of mass destruction."
Instead, he would be asking this question: why are we outraged when 14-hundred innocent women and children die from chemical gas… but less outraged by the 100,000 women, children and other civilians already killed in Syria by conventional weapons?
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."