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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Chemical and Biological Weapons

Among the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), chemical warfare (CW) is probably one of the most brutal created. CW agents are extremely toxic synthetic chemicals that can be dispersed as a gas, liquid or aerosol or as agents adsorbed to particles to become a powder. These CW agents have either lethal or incapacitating effects on humans. They differ from explosive chemicals in which the destructive effects are caused by shear force and are localized.

Thousands of toxic substances are known, but only some of them are considered as CW agents based on their characteristics, viz. high toxicity, imperceptibility to senses and rapidity of action after dissemination and persistency, and are listed as scheduled chemicals in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). According to the CWC, chemical weapons are defined as toxic chemicals and their precursors, munitions and devices, and any equipment specifically designed for use directly in connection with such weapons.

The use of poisonous chemicals from plant extracts to poison individuals is widely documented throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but it was not until the expansion of industrial chemistry in the 19th century that mass production and deployment of CW agents in war became a possibility.

Chemical agents in the modern sense were first used in the Great War, when chlorine gas was released, from large cylinders, in a favorable wind, on 22nd April 1915 at Ypres, Belgium. This surprise operation caused massive casualties, demoralisation of the forces attacked and demonstrated the need for protection from this kind of warfare. The use of these toxic chemicals, including phosgene, sulfur mustard and lewisites caused 100,000 deaths and 1.2 million casualties in teh Great War.

The first improvised mask was a cotton pad soaked in sodium thiosulphate, glycerine and sodium carbonate. Subsequently in World War I, a great variety of chemical agents were used by both sides, the most damaging being the blister producing mustard gas. Military clothing, even with a respirator, gave little protection against this agent.

Immediately prior to World War II and during the early part of that war, Japan is supposed to have used chemical weapons against China. During World War II, President Roosevelt announced a no-first-use policy but had promised instant retaliation for any Axis use of chemical agents. Over 600 military casualties and an unknown number of civilian casualties resulted from the 1943 German bombing in Bari Harbor, Italy, of the John Harvey, an American ship loaded with two thousand 100-pound mustard bombs.

Millions of innocent civilians were killed by the Nazis with Zyklon B gas (hydrogen cyanide gas) during World War II.

At the end of the war stockpiles of newer agents, called "nerve gases," were discovered. These were found to be effective in much lower concentrations than those agents known up to that time. The end of World War II did not stop the development or stockpiling of chemical weapons. The U.S., which used defoliants and riot-control agents in Vietnam and Laos, finally ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1975 but with the stated reservation that the treaty did not apply either to defoliants or to riot-control agents.

US policy renounces the first use of lethal or incapacitating chemical agents. However, it retains the right to retaliate if deterrence fails to prevent the enemy's first use of chemicals. As is the case with nuclear weapons, the President of the United States must approve the initial use of chemical weapons. This approval procedure is known as chemical release.

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Page last modified: 05-11-2020 18:26:56 ZULU