Chemical warfare was the last thing I had on my mind as I wandered down the library stacks toward the entomology section. A book on the shelf caught my eye in passing: “Haldane”. Was this JBS Haldane, the great biologist? I pulled the small volume looked inside the cover and yes, it was by John Burdon Sanderson Haldane; the book was “Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare.”
The title is taken from the Syrian officer Callinicus, who was the first to use flammable liquids (“Greek fire”) in war about 800 AD.
But how could Haldane defend chemical warfare? As a child, JBS Haldane’s father was a professor of respiratory physiology. Whenever there was a coal mine accident, John Scott Haldane was called to the scene, and he took his son with him. There the young man learned that science knowledge made a difference–it saved lives. Later in life, JBS Haldane became a brilliant biologist, proposing that chemical evolution led to early life, pioneering evolutionary genetics, and pursing a wide range of biological research. Just before WWII, when a new British submarine sank on its maiden voyage, it was Haldane who volunteered to test 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. He would signal just before he passed out, and they would pull him unconscious from the pressure chamber in order to perfect the first submarine escape system.
But it was as a much younger Haldane that wrote this book, fresh from his service in World War I where he had seen gas warfare first hand. On April 2, 1915 the Germans first used poison-gas warfare and eventually 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 none were wounded or suffered any lasting harm.
So here is the dilemma: tear gas is chemical warfare, just a scale-up of the pepper spray a woman can carry in her purse. And while some agents are terribly distressing but not fatal, others do gradate up to terrible and fatal chemicals. Haldane wrote his defense in 1925 and he died in 1964. But had he been alive last year, I know he would have stepped up to the soapbox at Trafalgar Square, as he often did as a younger man, to defend the chemicals used in rescuing the hostages held by Chechen guerillas at the Russian theater. By selecting a more toxic gas that incapacitated the rebels before they could set off their explosives, the Russians also lost over a hundred hostages. But any other assault method would have likely seen conventional explosives maim and kill many more.
And that is Haldane’s point. “What is it?” he asks, that makes all chemical weapons bad but ignores the devastating invention of Major-General Shrapnel? And while mustard gas is a terrible blistering agent, does it cause more suffering than 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 from incendiary bombing.
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 is a powerful statement from a scientist who was directly familiar with mustard gas, and was not a pacificist.
Haldane was also a political realist and his book concludes: “The views which I have expressed do not coexist in the mind of any party leader or newspaper proprietor, and must therefore be those of a crank. But until some stronger argument can be waged against them than that they are unusual and unpleasant, there remains the possibility that they are true.”
And so I close Haldane’s little book and slip it back onto the shelf.
To be educated is to understand that few issues are black-and-white.
Times of war claim such black-and-white assertions.
Haldane showed me the gray.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.