The increasingly bloody conflict in Syria has been ongoing now for more than one year, at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. None of the major powers have been willing to act, with Russia and China remaining decidedly anti-intervention. Diplomats have trotted out the commonplace statements of “grave concern” and condemnation of brutal acts against civilians. Yet the rhetoric changes sharply as the possibility of Bashar Al-Assad’s regime employing its (assumed) stockpiles of weapons in a no-turning-back-scorched-earth-manoeuvre is raised (at least one analyst thinks this outcome highly unlikely). Individuals such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton use phrases such as a “red line” and other Western leaders have followed suit. John Baird, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, alluded to the opinion of the “civilized world” as being immovable. Russia and China are said to privately warn the Syrian regime that such a move would negate their neutrality.
Many people instinctively feel that this talk of a “red line” is curious, though it is difficult for them to articulate why. Of course chemical attacks against civilians, such as those perpetrated by Saddam Hussein against the Kurdish minority in Iraq, are horrific and despicable. But, as some wonder, how is death by gas much different, in the end, from thousands of deaths due to shelling and aerial bombardment? The answer lies in the historic evolution of our notions regarding the rules of “civilized warfare,” and what is known as the “prohibitory norm.” Since ancient times, those who employ poison have been particularly loathed and viewed as cowards. In addition, weapons which imitate prehistoric violence (even if mechanized), such as rockets, shells, bayonets, and mortars have found greater acceptance as “natural” weapons. Chemical compounds have been regarded as illegitimate weapons of war on these grounds.
[Preparing for the nightmare world of gas warfare -- the 1930s]
The human aversion to gas warfare is visceral. As early as 1899 delegates to a Hague Peace conference voted against chemical warfare, charging that nations should “abstain from the use of projectiles the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases.” These attitudes remain an entrenched part of the international laws of armed conflict. The primary international agreement regarding the use of poison gas was the Geneva Protocol of 1925. It formally banned the use of chemical warfare, though Europeans in the 1920s and 1930s were not optimistic that it would be adhered to by a future aggressor.
There have always been some who took a more “sanguine” view of gas warfare – before, at least, the invention of modern gasses such as sarin. Some military professionals and commentators in the 1920s studied the casualty figures from the First World War and decided that gas was the least harmful of weapons deployed, since most men who were gassed in the trenches did survive (even if they suffered terribly). Military theorists such as the famous Basil Liddell Hart, J.F.C. Fuller, and J.B.S. Haldane tentatively proposed that gas even be considered a more “humane” weapon which might shorten wars and lead to less loss of life. Yet by the 1930s the uniform horror of gas warfare was enforced by doomsday novelists, pacifists and the international “taboo.” Gas warfare was not utilized against civilians in the Second World War as had been predicted, for reasons ranging from its unpredictability to the fear of retaliation.
The taboo against the use of poison gas has become so entrenched in both military ethics and practice to the extent that it is impossible to imagine the international community ever regarding it as simply one choice of weapon among many. The ethicists may ask why the “red line” does not also include the targeting of civilians in aerial warfare? Indeed, pacifist campaigners in the 1920s and 1930s were interested in outlawing aerial warfare in addition to the use of chemical weapons. Whatever does unfold in the sad reality that is current Syria, our collective questions about war, morality, and what is truly “taboo” have no easy answers. They will, no doubt, still be addressed by our descendants. But they, like us, will be constrained and influenced by the attitudes which have passed into general acceptance beforehand.