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Home » Opinion » Comments on public policy » Chemical Weapons: Why the Distinction?

Chemical Weapons: Why the Distinction?

Chemical Weapons Kill Just Like Any Other Weapon

What is the national interest of the United States in whether one of the parties to the Syrian civil war uses chemical weapons to kill innocent civilian noncombatants? They are just as dead and suffered just as much no matter which weapon killed them.

All the rhetoric notwithstanding, the question is not whether “chemicals” are “bad,” but whether the effects are “acceptable”.

Most weapons of war are chemical and to the extent that they kill living organisms, especially human beings, they are biological. Since the first stone thrown by a Neanderthal, weapons have had as their sole raison d’etre to injure or kill.

As a nation concerned with the “Rule of Law,” we must ask whether there is any real distinction between “chemical-biological,” nuclear or conventional weapons in the arsenals of “civilized” nations or the suicide vest of a committed terrorist?

If the principle purpose of warfare is to “kill the enemy,” and the tactical and strategic purposes are to capture enemy territory and appropriate resources; is not any weapon acceptable so long as it is directed toward an enemy combatant in a “just” war?

In 1874, the Declaration of Brussels contained the principle that “the laws of war do not concede to belligerents an unlimited power with reference to the choice of means of injuring the enemy.”

It has been said, “the law speaks too softly to be heard amid the din of arms”, but before World War I the rules of warfare were to a large extent well defined and clear. “The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited,” said the “Rules of Land Warfare”.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, discussions of the rules of warfare quickly became meaningless. To commence a war would be the gravest of international crimes and the nation which brings on a war will be deemed an international criminal, condemned in advance, and branded an outlaw throughout the civilized world.
Since neither the criminal nation nor its criminal leaders can expect worse punishment for additional acts against humanity than for the crime of commencing a war, all that will save them from dire punishment will be victory, by whatever means. Faced with the probability of ruthless and total war on the part of the “criminal” nation, the other nations need not be bound by any rules or considerations toward humanity.

As a result, precedent now exists for the following as some of the new rules of warfare:

  • Any type of weapon may be used.
  • Bombing of civilian populations is permitted.
  • Devastation of non-military cities is permitted.
  • Upon the conclusion of hostilities and the annexation or occupation of territory by the victors, the local population may be expelled and its property confiscated.
  • After the hostilities have ceased, the victor may continue the devastation of occupied territory.
  • Private nonmilitary property of enemy civilians may be confiscated at will, wherever found, after hostilities have ceased.
  • The victor may retain prisoners of war as human reparations for such period as it sees fit.
  • After the war has been concluded, under rules established by the victors and before a court of their own representatives, the victors may try military, government, and industrial leaders of the vanquished nation for any crimes designated “war crimes” by the indictment, whether ex post facto or not, and the accused has no appeal from the judgment.

These are the rules of war today or until the conclusion of World War III.

So long as the specter of “total war” haunts the world, any weapon which is appropriate to the military objectives of a belligerent is going to be used. Those who condemn the use of “chemical” and “biological” weapons in warfare are really seeking to return to the days of chivalry.

In the case of the “total war” practiced by revolutionaries and terrorists, “chemical and biological” weapons are likely to become the rule rather than the exception. The philosophy of terror and revolution is based on the premise that the end justifies any means toachieve it.

The “power” behind world leaders is the technological expertise and economic resources of a few—500 or less—essentially stateless, multinational, transnational, conglomerate corporations for which “total” war should be an economic catastrophe. When the leaders of those corporations recognize that “total war” or an “all out” effort to destroy an entire population—even an entire army— is economically counterproductive, war will cease to be an acceptable element of international policy.

The people of the United States, as the world’s policeman, must engage in a debate over the extent to which we are willing to risk the future of our young men and women and the economy of our nation by becoming combatants in violent conflicts throughout the world.

But before we go to war once again, first answer the questions, “Who is the “enemy?” “Who are the “enemy combatants?” “Is it a just war?” “Is it a regional conflict?” “Is it a civil war?” “What, if any, is the United States national interest?”

These are not merely rhetorical questions. The answers will irrevocably dictate the future path of American society. The Congress of the United States provide a forum for the discussion of these questions of national interest. It is time they open that forum and begin that discussion!

Victor Yannacone, Jr. is credited with establishing the field of environmental law. He was the attorney and advocate for the Vietnam combat veterans in the Agent Orange class action.
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