Why Chemical Weapons Are Banned

In recent days, the question has arisen as to why we are concerned about Syria's use of chemical weapons.  After all, in the Syrian conflict, tens of thousands of people have been killed by what are called "conventional weapons."  Conventional weapons include bullets and bombs and the like.  By comparison, only a very small fraction of the deaths in Syria has been caused by chemical warfare.  Chemical weapons include poison gases such as chlorine and sarin.

The argument goes, death is death, whether by bullets or gas.  Why should we punish one but not the other?

At first, that argument makes sense, but as with so many other seemingly simple things, the reality is more complex.  Why is it that poison gas is deemed to be so much worse than bullets – so much so, in fact, that international law has banned chemical weapons for nearly the past hundred years?

The very survival of nations was in play during World War II.  Yet chemical weapons were never deployed in combat, not even by the Nazis and their equally uncivilized allies, the Japanese – not even as a last and final resort to stave off defeat.

To understand all this, we must dust off the history books and find some answers.

In medieval times, there was this political and cultural entity called "Christendom."  Christendom was loosely held together by the tenuous authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  As the lords and vassals of Christendom conducted almost endless warfare against each other, they did so in a fashion every bit as brutal as that of non-Christian nations.  Enemies were to be slaughtered or enslaved and, if enslaved, to be essentially worked to death.

Not only was this a morally repugnant state of affairs, but it threatened whatever authority the Church could claim over Europe.

To mitigate the matter, the Church, under programs titled "the Truce of God" and "the Peace of God," began to proclaim certain rules of warfare.  For example, no combat was to occur on Sundays or holy days.  Gradually, the rules were expanded to include limited protections for noncombatants, and then to combatants themselves – though at first, only the highborn were protected.  Prisoners were to be treated humanely.  For many years, the rules were violated, but at least there was general agreement on what the rules were.  If nothing else, everyone knew that there were rules.

Eventually, the rules of war became not only widely accepted, but more importantly, they became internalized.  In Western Europe and the Americas, the contest of war became not entirely unlike the concept of sports, with its rules and its ideas of fair play.  When the game ends, everyone goes home, not to a slave labor camp.

By the beginning of World War II, Americans and their allies had internalized these rules to such a strong degree that, when confronted by the Japanese, our men were both confused and horrified at what they regarded as the savage, uncivilized inhumanity of the Asian armies.  Because of their adherence to a debased version of the Bushido code, the Japanese were pre-medieval in their outlook.  Enemies were to be slaughtered or enslaved, and the conditions of slavery were cruel, even fatal.  It seemed incomprehensible.  Furthermore, the Japanese warlords had almost as little compassion and respect for their own people as they did for subjugated enemies.  Reciprocity, therefore, had no moderating effect, since the Japanese despised any Japanese who surrendered.  The only two honorable results of combat were victory and death.

The Germans had a much more Western outlook and, for the most part, followed the rules of war – but only against their Western enemies.  They mercilessly slaughtered Russians, both civilian and captured soldiers.  Their treatment of Jews was worse than barbaric and violated every basic decency imaginable.

This was in stark contrast to the manner in which they treated Allied soldiers in the West, for the most part humanely.  Reciprocity played a key role, because both sides feared reprisals if they mistreated the other's people.

How does this relate to chemical weapons?  As we said, the rules of war might not make mathematical sense, but they are a beginning.  If we ignore the laws that prohibit chemical warfare, then we are providing tacit, indirect toleration of rules that even the Nazis obeyed.

Ironically, even our worst enemies respect us.  They will not admit it, but when the chips are down, they know we are honest and fair.  They may hate us to the depths of their dark souls, but even so, they know we wield a moral authority that they can never defeat.

They do not like the rules, and they break the rules, but they know that, indeed, there are rules.

Drawing a red line and defending it to the limits of our ability is our gold medallion, our guarantee that with God's help, we will prevail.  Therefore, this is no time for us to lower our standards.

In recent days, the question has arisen as to why we are concerned about Syria's use of chemical weapons.  After all, in the Syrian conflict, tens of thousands of people have been killed by what are called "conventional weapons."  Conventional weapons include bullets and bombs and the like.  By comparison, only a very small fraction of the deaths in Syria has been caused by chemical warfare.  Chemical weapons include poison gases such as chlorine and sarin.

The argument goes, death is death, whether by bullets or gas.  Why should we punish one but not the other?

At first, that argument makes sense, but as with so many other seemingly simple things, the reality is more complex.  Why is it that poison gas is deemed to be so much worse than bullets – so much so, in fact, that international law has banned chemical weapons for nearly the past hundred years?

The very survival of nations was in play during World War II.  Yet chemical weapons were never deployed in combat, not even by the Nazis and their equally uncivilized allies, the Japanese – not even as a last and final resort to stave off defeat.

To understand all this, we must dust off the history books and find some answers.

In medieval times, there was this political and cultural entity called "Christendom."  Christendom was loosely held together by the tenuous authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  As the lords and vassals of Christendom conducted almost endless warfare against each other, they did so in a fashion every bit as brutal as that of non-Christian nations.  Enemies were to be slaughtered or enslaved and, if enslaved, to be essentially worked to death.

Not only was this a morally repugnant state of affairs, but it threatened whatever authority the Church could claim over Europe.

To mitigate the matter, the Church, under programs titled "the Truce of God" and "the Peace of God," began to proclaim certain rules of warfare.  For example, no combat was to occur on Sundays or holy days.  Gradually, the rules were expanded to include limited protections for noncombatants, and then to combatants themselves – though at first, only the highborn were protected.  Prisoners were to be treated humanely.  For many years, the rules were violated, but at least there was general agreement on what the rules were.  If nothing else, everyone knew that there were rules.

Eventually, the rules of war became not only widely accepted, but more importantly, they became internalized.  In Western Europe and the Americas, the contest of war became not entirely unlike the concept of sports, with its rules and its ideas of fair play.  When the game ends, everyone goes home, not to a slave labor camp.

By the beginning of World War II, Americans and their allies had internalized these rules to such a strong degree that, when confronted by the Japanese, our men were both confused and horrified at what they regarded as the savage, uncivilized inhumanity of the Asian armies.  Because of their adherence to a debased version of the Bushido code, the Japanese were pre-medieval in their outlook.  Enemies were to be slaughtered or enslaved, and the conditions of slavery were cruel, even fatal.  It seemed incomprehensible.  Furthermore, the Japanese warlords had almost as little compassion and respect for their own people as they did for subjugated enemies.  Reciprocity, therefore, had no moderating effect, since the Japanese despised any Japanese who surrendered.  The only two honorable results of combat were victory and death.

The Germans had a much more Western outlook and, for the most part, followed the rules of war – but only against their Western enemies.  They mercilessly slaughtered Russians, both civilian and captured soldiers.  Their treatment of Jews was worse than barbaric and violated every basic decency imaginable.

This was in stark contrast to the manner in which they treated Allied soldiers in the West, for the most part humanely.  Reciprocity played a key role, because both sides feared reprisals if they mistreated the other's people.

How does this relate to chemical weapons?  As we said, the rules of war might not make mathematical sense, but they are a beginning.  If we ignore the laws that prohibit chemical warfare, then we are providing tacit, indirect toleration of rules that even the Nazis obeyed.

Ironically, even our worst enemies respect us.  They will not admit it, but when the chips are down, they know we are honest and fair.  They may hate us to the depths of their dark souls, but even so, they know we wield a moral authority that they can never defeat.

They do not like the rules, and they break the rules, but they know that, indeed, there are rules.

Drawing a red line and defending it to the limits of our ability is our gold medallion, our guarantee that with God's help, we will prevail.  Therefore, this is no time for us to lower our standards.