Friday 6 September 2013


 'Gassed' by  John Singer Sargent

So the G20 has agreed to disagree on Syria. Russia and China are in the definitely no military action camp. America and France are in the limited punishment by missile means. The UK is out of it. Which is good news for us. The last thing the country needs is involvement in another expensive conflict with a nation that we have no strategic interest in. Led by the USA who is out of step with the UN and the Church, and a lot of their own citizens. Where the charge of a war against Islam can be laid at our door and so only increasing our own risk of revenge terror attacks. And all in exchange for involvement in a foreign civil war in which we secretly hope both sides lose. So we are better off out.

However, in fairness to David Cameron and president Obama, their principles are quite correct. The use of chemical weapons is a breach of the Geneva protocol of 1925.

...prohibits the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices" and "bacteriological methods of warfare"...

The treaty needs to be seen for what its intention was. Its not just some old 100 year old ancient irrelevent piece of hippy thinking.

1925 was only 7 years after the bloodiest conflict in human history had ended. WW1 casualties are difficult to estimate but it seems that by the end of 1918 the planet was coming up some 15 million human beings short of its 1914 total. 
And then immediately followed the Spanish flu that killed another 20-40 million people. There had never been so much death and suffering. 

The Geneva protocol was an attempt to restrict the use of a deadly weapon. Pacifism had broken out throughout the world. Countries wanted an end to nation warring. Peace was the ideal of the day . And banning chemical weapons would be a major step to achieving that. 

Recently people opposed to conflict in aid of  Syria "so they can shoot 1,000 civilians a day but not gas them, then?" ..Well...yes. Exactly that. The Geneva protocol was a first step in global arms reduction. More would have followed. However the depression and the subsequent fall of capitalism and rise of socialism and fascism put paid to peace.

But the chemical  biological was the most important step. It was the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of its day. The bombing of civilians in WW1, by Zeppelin and bomber, had shown how vulnerable to attack a nation's homeland could be. The advent of the true bomber aircraft in 1918 had made all nations aware of a new air threat. The Vickers Vimy that entered service with the RAF in 1919 could carry 2500lb of bombs. An impressive amount for its day.The Heinkel 111 that came 15 years later only managed 4000lb. And the Vimy was famously used by Alcock and Brown to make the first ever non stop crossing of the Atlantic. 
Military theorists were predicting fleets of bombers {770 Vimy had been ordered in 1917-none arrived in time for war} flying unopposed over cities dropping high explosives and canisters of mustard gas or Spanish flu or worse and killing not hundreds but hundreds of thousands in each attack.
 It was a real live horror on a par with nuclear war in the 1960s.  But in many ways it was a worse spectre. There is nothing difficult about making chlorine gas. Any marginally technically proficient industrial nation could do it. And there was nothing very technical about aircraft. Of ships and submarines and tanks and heavy guns ..the aircraft of that era were the easiest to produce. No heavy equipment or specialist engineering or metallurgical knowledge required. 
So there was a very real possibility of even a peasant nation like 1920's Spain effectively acquiring gas/bombs and planes and having the modern equivalent of an independent nuclear capability.
Something that all nations recognised in the inter-war years and that, coupled with the genuine horrors of gas attacks on the western front in world war one made the world ready to sign up to reject these vile weapons.
The devastation caused and the relative ease of use and difficulty to resist is what caused the deliberate use of chemical attacks by military means to be absent from world war two, despite the fear they would be which was behind much of the appeasement that allowed that conflict to get out of hand in the first place.

Every civilian and military man woman and child in Germany, France and the UK was issued with a gas mask. Babies had incubator gas suits. Initially everyone carried their gas masks, fearful of the bomber getting through.
Even on D-day all the pictures show troops wading ashore loaded down with extra equipment, and all still carry gas masks. In fact the USA was so concerned about a beachhead gas attack theyissued a special anti-gas coated uniform that only caused a large number of their soldiers to become violently sick.
This picture is of a drill in 1941 when the bombers were still flying over UK cities. All sides still feared a mass chemical/biological attack that would kill tens of thousands and potentially knock a country out of a war. By 1941 few civilians actually did carry a gas mask.

There have even been attempts to strengthen the original protocol over the years. To make use by any nation a cause for all the other signatories to automatically be at war with the aggressor.

So any transgressor should be punished. Obama and Cameron are right on that. Chemical warfare is a terrible genie to allow out of the gas bottle.


rwendland said...

An irony of the Geneva Gas Protocol - as it was called in the U.S. - is that while the U.S. was a leading proponent of it, when it came to the crunch in Congress, the U.S. military and American Chemical Society lobbied against it. Hence the U.S. did not agree to it for 50 years, in 1975.

So when Obama talks about this near 90 year old international convention on no chemical weapon use, he is neglecting to mention that the U.S. objected to it for over half that time. In fact in Vietnam the U.S. used adamsite and masses of herbicides (Agent Orange etc), which most of the world regarded as banned by the Geneva Protocol.

Funny thing history, when you look under the spin.

Sackerson said...

Yes, we must definitely rush into Syria and punish, er, somebody. The Saudis, Qatar and US appear to be in the lineup.

Interesting background briefing, though, BQ.

Demetrius said...

I recall collecting unexploded incendiary bombs because I thought they could save a lot of time in lighting the fire. Just hit them with a hammer to get it started. My father, alas, did not agree and nor did the local fire service.

Blue Eyes said...

It was the nuclear non-proliferation of its day? Then surely Obama should be proposing missile strikes against Israel/Iran/India/Pakistan/North Korea as well?

OK so they have not used those weapons, but, err, those countries have been allowed to develop them without threat of military intervention by the USA.

I don't have any positive suggestion of how to solve all this, but saying that the UK has opted out of its responsibilities is rather, err, blinkered.

Elby the Beserk said...

The claim that only Assad has the means to manufacture Sarin seem spurious to me. Remember that crazy sect in Japan who let Sarin lose in their underground? If they can make it, so can the rebels.

Also - how come white phosporus (as used by the US at Fallujah) and depleted uranium are NOT considered to be chemical weapons? Or Napalm? Or Agent Orange.

Whilst it may be that loose elements in Assad's army are responsible for this, who benefits most from American intervention? And given that the USA have history with regard to supplying Al Qaeda in various forms with weaponry, how on earth can we be sure who did this?

I suspect I won't be commenting her for much longer as I am finding the Captchas harder and harder to read. The audio ones - it's just noise. So ...

rwendland said...

If we focus on legalistic rather than moral matters, Syria hasn't actually breached the 1925 Geneva Protocol as it was then worded. The Protocol only applied to international armed conflicts, and was not worded to cover use within a state’s own borders in a civil conflict - as in Syria.

During the 1970s, after two United Nations General Assembly resolutions and the U.S. joining, the main elements of the Protocol began to be established as part of customary international law - but still only for "international armed conflicts", not internal conflicts.

During the 1990s an extension to cover internal conflicts (as in Syria) as well international ones was claimed by some organisations. In 2005 the International Committee of the Red Cross concluded that customary international law included a ban on the use of chemical weapons in internal as well as international conflicts. So a number of important organisations say it now covers internal conflicts, but I am not aware of any international court confirming this extension, or the UN passing an explicit resolution stating this. International courts could well confirm this extension if a case was brought to them, but in the absence of a precedent or explicit treaty extension it would be arguable. It would be good for a prosecution of someone to take place to clarify international law here.

There is a VERTIC brief titled Syria: international law and the use of chemical weapons that discusses this.

International lawyer types discuss this in much more depth in this great blog post. One difficulty in getting international law to make the use of chemical weapons prosecutable in the ICC, is doing it without also making the use of nuclear weapons prosecutable (which the big powers absolutely don't want to happen).

Anonymous said...

"However, in fairness to David Cameron and president Obama, their principles are quite correct. The use of chemical weapons is a breach of the Geneva protocol of 1925."

"With the help of American satellite imagery, key areas such as supply lines, command posts, and ammunition depots, were hit by a storm of mustard gas and sarin nerve gas, as well as by conventional explosives.

One of the most successful Iraqi tactics was the "one-two punch" attack using chemical weapons. Using artillery, they would saturate the Iranian front line with rapidly dispersing cyanide and nerve gas, while longer-lasting mustard gas was launched via fighter-bombers and rockets against the Iranian rear, creating a "chemical wall" that blocked reinforcement."

I don't remember the outrage about this.

Blue Eyes said...

I read an article saying that Saudi Arabia had supplied the Syrian rebels with the gas and that it had gone off by mistake.

Normally I would take this with a pinch of salt, but even the IRA used to blow themselves up every now and again.

Bill Quango MP said...

Rwendland . Irony indeed. The US wasn't keen to sign up to geneva but in the 20s and 30s thy rent keen to sign up to anything that might cause them to become embroiled with anyone else.

Agent orange.. I think they claimed it was just a pesticide and not a chemical weapon , which is true only be a legal definition.

Slackerson & others. I'm not saying WE should anything. But if the UN was the body that people hoped the League of Nations would be, by would be doing something, validated by all the signatories of most of the countries on earth. We would be going along with that.
On the OrifficeIn issue of a UK , USA involvement in Syria, even limited action is too much. We should have no part.

Demetrius. You collected incendiary bombs? That's a dangerous hobby. In Russia and Ukraine today there is a big market in digging up the mass graves from the war to get to the buried weapons and medals and sch. Lots of unexplored devices in these graves, I gather.

BE. I should have been clearer. We have opted out of our collective responsibility, with the UN. It's not our one wants to get involved.
Italy got away with gassing the Ethiopian tribesmen in the 1930s because Britain and France wanted Italy as an ally to stop Germany .
China and Russia want Assad Syria for their own reasons. Without collective will their stems little point going alone.

The question of why did he League of Nations fail? Can mostly be applied to e UN today.

Levy. But it was Assad though. Probably not him. Probably some lonely somewhere waned o hit a tricky defence. It happens. Why did the Russians and Americans shoot down innocent airliners full of passengers? Because Someone screwed up.
I expect at wht happened here.

As to the other chemicals, they aren't included really only because they haven't been added. We weren't going to add them to the list.cant help on the stupid blogger checker.. But don't give up, always warmly welcome.

Bill Quango MP said...

Rwendland & anon.
I agree he case is weak. The protocol was for nation vs nation conflicts. And he Syrian event isn't clear who was to blame or who authorised an attack. In the scale of his civil war the casualties are tiny. Bad if its you, but more people have been bound burned and shot by death squads.

And anon, there is loads and loads about Hesse attacks suddenly on the Internet. I don't remember anything about them at all but apparently there was a half hearted condemnation at the UN.
Precedent set. Gas away.
And that really does undermine Obama's case or action.

However, I still maintain every breach of the protocol that is unanswered by the international community is just another step to remove the protocol altogether and letting counties have at it with nerve agents.
And another step along he road to the disbandment of the UN.

See CUs post below.

Sackerson said...

"Slackerson"? You think I should comment more frequently?

WhateverNameIUse said...

@Blue eyes - I read that article too.
Are we actually certain that chemical weapons were fired by Assad?
Could it not be that the rebels released them, accidentally or otherwise, as Blue Eyes has read.
The rebels have used captured chemical weapons already in this conflict. We _know_ this.

It could also be that an Assad artillery strike hit a rebel arms cache which contained chem weapons. In which case it was a tragic accident.

Speaking for myself, what I know is that there were pictures on my TV screen of people running, coughing and children crying. I dont know what chemicals were used (if any), I dont know who used them or who suffered.
I'm being asked to ratify a war based on a 30 second clip of distressed people looped over and over again.
In the final analysis I dont actually _know_ anything.

I dont trust that scumbag Putin, but if he's calling for proof, he must be pretty confident that it isnt there.
If thats the case, why the hell are we proposing war?

Once bitten, twice shy (well done Blair) ; I'll wait for the UN verdict, thanks.

Electro-Kevin said...

I'm not sure that the manner of my death will be any more pleasant than others available.

Death by machine gun seems a pretty brutal and gruesome end by all the uploads I've seen. Kids with their brains dashed out and handsome young men fully conscious yet with their jaws ripped off.

To draw a red line at gas is bollocks.

Bill Quango MP said...

Slackers on. Sorry . Pc desktop crash it looks like a goner.
This is ipad which has a really poor spellcheck auto correct system.

Wniu .. It doesn't really matter who used chums. The idea is they are banned from use in any conflict and the UN steps in and stops the war.
That should suit neither party. The rebels want rid of Assad, which would not happen. And Assad wants to remain in power, which he would, but with a lot of interference.

If only the USA and UK and France were to attack, that suits the rebels. So I am against that. Even though in Libya it turned out quite well. Not super great, but about 200,000 people were saved from Mummar's revenge.
Good enough.

And on Blair. Well, we predicted the Blair shadow before the vote was taken. No more "illegal " wars.

EK it's not the manner of the deaths, it's the number.
Flood Benghazi with cyanide and kill 500.,000 in an afternoon. Like nuclear war but better as you get he city back intact after a week.

That is the red line. Same as nuclear and Iran . The west doesn't want the Islamic fundamentalists to have nuke weapons because they might actually use them.

WhateverNameIUsedLastTime said...

@BQ - I'll have to disagree here, I'm afraid.
"It doesn't really matter who used chums." I'd say it matters if the rebels used chems and Assad gets bombed. Id say that matters very much.

"... kill 500.,000...Like nuclear war but better as you get he city back intact after a week."
Well you dont really get the city back if you kill the inhabitants, do you? You just get a load of bricks, conveniently shaped.
If you were to see the city _as_ the people then you'd have a self-imposed defeat on your hands, wouldnt you?

Nick Drew said...

@BQ - it's not the manner of the deaths, it's the number

that's right: similar to the outlawing of crossbows for use against Christians - because although no more deadly than the longbow, they could be utilised en masse by lightly-trained soldiers, vs the hige amount of training + practice required for longbows

which is also why the firearm gained currency, even when initially it was inferior to the longbow in accuracy and rate of fire: because the training required was so little

(BTW, having been CS-gassed, in training, I'd say a lethal dose would be a pretty unpleasant 'manner', & pace EK, most people would prefer to take their chances against a machine-gun)

dearieme said...

The most interesting feature of gas as a weapon was that it was the Germans who invented it but that in pretty short order the British were better at it. Them wuz the days, eh?

Elby the Beserk said...

BQ - I guess all those Cambodians and Vietnamese who were killed or damaged by Agent Orange were just ... vegetation.

Stinks, dunnit?

Easy Captcha!

rwendland said...

BQ, Re Agent orange and herbicides.

The U.S. did indeed claim the Protocol did not cover herbicides, but most of the rest of the world thought it did.

In the negotiation, the Polish delegate raised the issue of killing crops when discussing bacteriological means of warfare (herbicides hadn't been invented then), and it is fairly clear the Protocol was intended to outlaw crop-destruction. So there is a good argument that it at least covers crop destruction, if not weed control.

In Vietnam the U.S. argued it was just like weed control, so killing trees was OK. But they then went on to use herbicides against rice crops, contrary to the arguments they had earlier made.

Similar issue with tear-gas, which the U.S used to drive troops out of tunnels so they could be killed when they exited. Most countries thought the Protocol banned tear-gas in warfare, so got annoyed over this.

This is all discussed in depth in a wonderful 1969 Wisconsin Law Review paper - which is about the best compact history of the Protocol paper I've come across. Well worth a read.

Bill Quango MP said...

Thanks R..I will definitely read that

Sackerson said...


Your comments here are very interesting. Would you consider doing a piece for Broad Oak Magazine on this subject?

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