What is – and is not – a weapon of mass destruction

by on May 18th, 2004

Wade through Eric Margolis’ usual anti-American blather and you’ll discover some very pertinent facts to keep in mind about the now-token term “WMD.” Important to know, when “OH NO, SARIN GAS IN IRAQ” is being sported at FoxNews Main right now.

Chemical weapons, which are not WMD, are blistering, choking, or toxic agents. Mustard gas possessed by Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt and other nations is World War I technology. Horrible as they are, these are strictly battlefield weapons, requiring large, clumsy holding tanks, and depend on favourable winds. Winston Churchill authorized using poison gas against “primitive tribesmen” – Kurds in Iraq and Afghans – when he was British home secretary. Benito Mussolini’s Italy used mustard gas in Ethiopia and Libya.

Choking gas, like chlorine, is also a tactical battlefield agent. French troops without gas masks defending a 4-km front at Verdun in 1916 were hit by 60,000 chlorine gas shells, yet held their lines. So did Canadian troops in Flanders, also without masks, who heroically fought off superior German forces.

Nerve gases, like Sarin and VX, are World War II vintage. Though deadly, they, too, are tactical agents designed for area denial and neutralizing high value targets. Using nerve gas requires specialized vehicles or aircraft with highly complex dispensing systems. Gas is dependent on temperature, humidity and wind. The Soviets tried various nerve agents in Afghanistan, but found them ineffective and dangerous to their own troops.

Nerve agents would be extremely lethal if released by terrorists in a large building, mall or airport but, again, they are weapons of localized destruction, not mass destruction. In 1995, a Japanese cult released nerve gas in Tokyo’s subway, killing 12 people.

Nerve gas was not used during WW II because of its unreliability and lack of wide area lethality. Many gases are unstable and have limited shelf lives. Iraq and Iran used poison gas during the 1980-88 Gulf War – killing or maiming many soldiers but achieving no strategic breakthroughs.

Given these facts, it’s important to dissipate the hysteria and confusion over WMD. Even if Iraq had chemical or biological weapons in 1993 – which it did not – they were not true WMD. Iraq had no means of delivering them to the U.S., and they could never have posed the threat Bush claimed.

I challenge readers to choose critical thought over their hopes that Saddam Hussein once posessed the means to destroy the world.