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The Other Gas Problem

Today's Boston Globe has a rather simplistic column (as if that's anything new), calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. And the author has hit on what he thinks is a fairly clever idea: use the ending of poison gas as a model.

Mr. Carroll titles his piece as a rhetorical question -- "If Poison Gas Can Go, Why Not Nukes?" But I'm going to take it as a serious question -- and try to answer it.

First up, as Mr. Carroll notes, the treaty banning gas (and, later, all chemical weapons) was first put forth in 1907. Less than a decade later, they were used most prolifically during World War I. Another push was made for banning them in 1925. This was so well received that the United States didn't bother to ratify it for another fifty years.

Despite that, poison gas was almost entirely foresworn as a weapon during World War II. The reason was not because of any treaty or agreement, but the simplest of reasons, the one that is the most compelling in times of war -- fear of retaliation. Nearly all the combatants had extensive supplies of poison gas, and none of them wanted to use them because they knew that their enemy would use them right back. It was "MAD" -- Mutually Assured Destruction -- long before it was given a name and applied to nuclear strategy. Mad, but it worked.

In fact, the few times poison gas has been used as a weapon, it's been when there has been little to no fear of retaliation. Saddam Hussein, for example, used it against enemies both foreign and domestic, because he knew neither the rebels he was suppressing nor his Iranian adversaries had the wherewithal to meaningfully retaliate.

The United States did get rid of most of its chemical weapons, along with its biological weapons, but kept its deterrence at hand. We did that by lumping chemical and biological weapons into the same category as nuclear weapons (or, as Tom Clancy put it, "a nuke is a bug is a gas") and saying that we would be ready to retaliate against any one of those attacks with a nuclear weapon -- if we so chose.

And again, that seems to have worked pretty well. It kept the Soviets at bay for decades.

I'd rather not give up that security blanket, thank you.

Also, Carroll goes to great lengths to describe how the use of chemical weapons in World War I killed a relatively small number of people (10,000 out of about 10,000,000), but left about a million wounded -- some maimed for life. That was a very powerful and constant reminder of just what chemical weapons do.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, perhaps we haven't used them enough. The United States struck two Japanese cities, but that was the only use of nuclear weapons. Most of the survivors of the attacks are long dead, and the cities have been rebuilt. We don't really have constant reminders of what nuclear weapons can do, apart from old pictures and film clips and stories -- and those just aren't very immediate, as "real" as chemical weapons were back in the aftermath of World War I.

And let's face it -- chemical weapons, at least for military use, are obsolete. They are most effective at large formations of infantry, and there really aren't that many nations that use such tactics. China might, because sheer numbers is their greatest strength, but that's about it.

Nuclear weapons, though, still have some very good military applications. They are very effective against massed concentrations of all types -- infantry, armored units, artillery, and the like. They are also very good at destroying underground otherwise reinforced structures. They work pretty well at naval warfare -- especially against submarines, when the old joke about how "almost only counts in horseshoes, hand grenades, and thermonuclear weapons" applies. And they are fantastic at area denial -- nuke an area, and NOBODY's gonna pass through that area any time soon.

So Mr. Carroll wants to get rid of nuclear weapons. Nice idea. Too bad it won't happen any time soon.

Ain't reality a bitch?


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Comments (8)

Is there any case in all of... (Below threshold)

Is there any case in all of recorded history where a weapon was discarded for a reason other than:

1) obsolescence (examples: longbow, sword, spear, etc.)
2) people forgot how to make it (example: Greek fire)

Does Mr Carrol have an answ... (Below threshold)
GarandFan Author Profile Page:

Does Mr Carrol have an answer for the nation that goes nuclear after everyone else gets rid of theirs? Besides passing a UN declaration of rebuke?

Another fact about the use of poison gas is that it tends to linger in low spots, giving you a nasty surprise hours later. Biological weapons also have a tendency to linger. French farmers are still getting killed today when they unearth WWI gas muntions.

Boston Globe is comprised o... (Below threshold)

Boston Globe is comprised of a bunch of simple-minded twits!

Of course, Ahmadinejad and his nutbar pal in No. Korea are going to abandon their nuclear ambitions just because President Obama asks them to do so! And I'm going to wake up tomorrow morning at least 75 pound slimmer than I am today!

Wanna buy a bridge?

I know....let abolish guns,... (Below threshold)

I know....let abolish guns, knives, and big sticks while we are at it.

F'n libtards want to pretend that we can all live in a fantasy land of cotton candy and gum drops. Can the REAL world please give these people the ol' (R)omeo (S)ierra. --(Reality Slap)...ugh..

"So Mr. Carroll wants to ge... (Below threshold)

"So Mr. Carroll wants to get rid of nuclear weapons. Nice idea."

No it is not. It's a fantastically bad idea. Nuclear weapons are the one and only deterrent that puts the people who initiate aggressive wars on the same plane of vulnerability as the soldiers they send forth. You could say that nuclear weapons "democratize" warfare.

Are there risks to be borne because of the existence of nukes? Assuredly, yes. But imagine how wild the Soviets would have run in Europe and the Middle East had we not possessed our nuclear forces. Imagine how many more attacks Israel would have suffered, had she not nuclearized (with our assistance). Like it or not, the world has to learn how to live with, and cope with, this necessary item for the sake of the peace it's provided.

"Say what you will about the H-Bomb, it's never taken a life. There's no other bomb with a comparable safety record. You could get to love a bomb like that." -- Russell Baker.

Also, poison gas was notori... (Below threshold)

Also, poison gas was notoriously unreliable. A sudden change in wind direction and your own soldiers would be subjected to "blowback" of a most unpleasant kind.

Carroll is an ignorant boob. And yet he actually gets paid to write columns. This is a mystery.

Even though chemical weapon... (Below threshold)

Even though chemical weapons were not used in WWII, the United States did produce and stockpile them as a reserve. Many casualties were caused when a cargo ship in harbor loaded with chemical weapons was hit in the Italian theater by German bombers. The United States' plans for invading the Japanese home islands included provision for employing chemical weapons against what were feared to be massed suicide attacks against invading US troops.

One element from the poison... (Below threshold)

One element from the poison gas scenario was the fact that people didn't like the human destruction they wrought. Getting rid of them was an "easy" call for Europe.

If nuclear weapons were used on a similar scale, I think there would be far more serious calls to ban them, too.

I actually think the United States should dismantle all its nukes ....

... provided that everybody else dismantles THEIRS first.


PS. Wouldn't the nukes' relatively efficient explosive power also be useful if an asteroid careens toward the Earth?






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