Why Are Chemical Weapons A Red Line?

I am well into Things I Don’t Understand™ territory here so forgiveness ahead of time if I’m talking out of my ass.

President Obama said a month or two ago that the use of chemical weapons in Syria by the Assad government was a “red line” that could not be crossed.  It wasn’t specified, but people have rightly taken this to mean that the use of chemical weapons would be the deciding factor in U.S. intervention in Syria.  Well, chemical weapons have almost certainly been used in Syria now and the Obama administration is, thankfully, hedging and saying that we don’t know for sure if chemical weapons were used and, if they were, we don’t know who used them.

That’s all fine and dandy, but why the “red line” on chemical weapons to begin with?  Why is a chemical attack so greatly reviled while a 2,000 lb bomb is not?  It seems completely arbitrary to me.  Do chemical weapons produce more secondary casualties than cluster bombs?  Do the effects of a chemical attack linger longer than depleted uranium ammunition?  Do chemical weapons cause massive infrastructure carnage on top of the loss of life?  Do chemical weapons produce much larger amounts of casualties than conventional weapons?  Is losing a loved one more devastating because they died from a chemical weapon?

The only thing that I can think of is that chemical weapons are more psychologically devastating to those of us 10,000 miles away.  What little we see from the devastating effects of conventional war can be written off in our minds;  oh, that person had his limbs ripped off and suffered a massive head wound, of course he’s dead.  The same can’t be said for many chemical weapons.  The body is intact, often whole.  Large groups of perfectly formed dead people causes a mental block in our heads; these people shouldn’t be dead, they look so whole.  Dead is dead, though.  How they got that way is immaterial.  The fact that the dead most likely didn’t deserve death is all that matters.

15 thoughts on “Why Are Chemical Weapons A Red Line?

  1. Steven Scott

    From Wikipedia – “Children in the areas where Agent Orange was used have been affected and have multiple health problems, including cleft palate, mental disabilities, hernias, and extra fingers and toes.”

    From HowStuffWorks.com – You might experience some of the following symptoms after you inhaled or touched mustard gas [source: Centers for Disease Control]:
    Eyes: irritation, redness, burning, inflammation and even blindness
    Skin: itchy redness that is replaced with yellow blisters
    Respiratory system: runny or bloody nose, sneezing, hoarse throat, shortness of breath, coughing, sinus pain
    Digestive system: abdominal pain, diarrhea, fever, nausea and vomiting

    I think the difference is in the fact that bombs kill people, but chemical weapons are pure torture. I would rather be a shadow on the wall of Hiroshima, than praise God that my wife finally gave birth to a blind, six-toed son with downs syndrome after three miscarriages.

  2. Chris Studt

    Steveo hit it pretty solid, chemical attacks are usually more devastating that conventional weapons because a conventional weapon (bombs & bullets) will cause death and destruction and then stop. The bullet’s finished it’s trajectory or the bomb has exploded? Not much more damage is done afterward.

    Chemical weapons are more insidious in that they can cause massive death (and destruction), but they usually linger on in poisoning the people and land around where they hit, sometimes causing generations of damage due to birth defects/diseases and can even make the land unlivable for humans and/or animals/plants for significant amounts of time.

    1. Jean-Paul Post author

      But that’s completely untrue. Conventional weapons like landmines and cluster bombs cause issues generations after wars are over. Places where we’ve used depleted uranium munitions have shown marked spikes in cancer and birth defects.

      A much larger number of people are maimed by conventional weapons than are killed by them. I would say that people who lose limbs or have shrapnel embedded in their bodies for life would say that conventional weapons are pretty torturous as well.

      1. Steven Scott

        Calling depleted uranium rounds conventional is preposterous. It would be like calling a nuclear bomb just a bomb.

        Your other examples of landmines and people missing limbs, to me is like comparing switchblades to chainsaws. Your conventional weapons still do a lot of damage and leave suffering a devastation in their wake. I’m just arguing that Chemical weapons are -worse-.

        Worried about landmines in that field you wish to plant? It might be expensive, but you can hire people to come with dogs and other fancy equipment to go through it. How about over in that Agent Blue field to the left? Oh, sorry. You can’t farm there. At all. Ever.

        A soldier losing a leg fighting against armed guerrillas is a terrible thing. We can provide him with a modern prosthetic and physical therapy, and while he will still feel ghost pains, PTSD, and other bouts of shame…he should still be a valuable member of society. That soldier over there though who got sprayed in the face with a chemical that specifically targets the lining of the eyes. We can teach him braille and hope that they can find a job that doesn’t involve using ones eyes.

        1. Jean-Paul Post author

          Depleted uranium rounds are standard issue for the U.S. Army for many 20mm and higher weapons. It is also used regularly by at least 20 other countries. If that’s not conventional, what is?

          Please, name just one chemical agent that makes it so you can’t farm there again. Ever. Not even radiation is forever. Cleaning up soil after a chemical attack is normally simply a matter of removing the contaminated soil. That’s not any more difficult than cleaning up after landmines. I’d argue it’s even less so.

          Interesting that you don’t think blind people can be valuable members of society.

          1. Steven Scott

            So you are saying that proliferation is what makes any weapon ‘conventional’?

            “But an independent Canadian team, Hatfield Consultants, have studied the levels of dioxin that still exist in one area that was heavily sprayed and found disturbing results….Vietnamese scientists have been shocked by the Canadian team’s findings. There is talk of evacuating contaminated areas – a quarter of a century after the spraying stopped. ”

            “The $32 million project will remove dioxin from 71 acres (29 hectares) of land at the Danang site where a 2009 study by the Canadian environmental firm Hatfield Consultants found chemical levels that were 300 to 400 times higher than international limits.”

            At roughly a half million an acre, we would have to roughly spend 12 trillion dollars to fix what we sprayed in the Vietnam war. Sounds easy to clean up.

          2. Steven Scott

            I’m not implying that blind people can’t be valuable members of society, I’m saying its harder for them become so. How much do you use your eyes at your job? At home? Would travel be harder to manage than having a prosthetic?

          3. Jean-Paul Post author

            Weapons are generally categorized into nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional. Would you like to create new groups?

            Agent Orange was used as a defoliant, not as a chemical weapon. Regardless, though, now look up some statistics on cleaning up after landmines and show me that it’s much less expensive.

          4. Steven Scott


            Estimated costs to remove all landmines in the world that have been placed over the last 100 years….33 Billion

            Estimated cost to clean up Agent Orange that we sprayed over 9 year…
            12 Trillion.

            Yeah, that’s not close.

            As far as classification of weapons…

            Agent Orange was a chemical we sprayed at our enemies…maybe not their soldiers, but we used it as a weapon to target their supply lines and their cover. Its not like we were helping them get rid of some weeds.

            Depleted Uranium Bullets should be (IMO) classified as Nuclear, since it uses radioactive material as its payload and leaves behind radioactive waste, although there is some debate about that.

          5. Jean-Paul Post author

            That $33B number (from 1997 by the way) is as simplistic as your $12T number. They simply took the minimum cost to dispose of one landmine and multiplied it by the estimated number of landmines just as you took the costs to clean up the most polluted, most difficult to clean acre and multiplied it by the number of polluted acres.

          6. Steven Scott

            Ok, lets say that even though the Government/Military has a tendency to underestimate costs of things, that it only takes one percent of what I originally quoted you. That’s still 120 Billion Dollars. Which compared to the UN number adjusted to Inflation (48.2 Billion), is still much, much, greater.

          7. Jean-Paul Post author

            Taking two unreasonable numbers and multiplying them by two other unreasonable numbers does not give you a reasonable result.

          8. Steven Scott

            Unless you have other more ‘reasonable’ numbers, I don’t know what to tell you other than you are beginning to sound like fox news trying to throw out the facts because they don’t ‘feel right’.

  3. Eric S.

    I’m not sure chemical weapons are that much more physically damaging than conventional bombs. Both kill, maim, and torture the victims / targets. Both can have lingering effects on the environment generations after use. (It wasn’t that long ago a live WWII 500 lb bomb was pulled from a German river.)

    I do think the difference is psychological. When a remnant of a cluster bomb goes off severing the leg of a farmer in the field we understand what happened. When school kid steps on a landmine and split in half we understand what happened. When a child is born with a cleft pallet or fields don’t produce edible food it is an “invisible” hand that is doing the damage.

    I also think it is psychological on the battle field. While chemical and biological weapons have been around in various forms for centuries truly effective weaponization is a little over 100 years old. Dying just because you took a breath is terrifying. People know the stories of suffering in the trenches of WWI when mustard gas floated across the field. The compare that to what they wrongly assume is the clean, quick death from a bullet and feel the chemical agent is more barbaric.

Comments are closed.