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WWI propaganda lives in gas revulsion

Updated: October 16, 2013 6:21AM

What’s so bad about poison gas?

Bad enough that the United States could sit on its hands, uttering a few feeble protests, while 100,000 Syrians were killed through conventional means. But 1,300 civilians were murdered Aug. 21 in a poison gas attack, and that spurred us to action, or to near action.

Where’s this distinction coming from?

It’s a century-old revulsion. People associate poison gas with the horrors of World War I, but its use in warfare was already illegal according to international law — and already produced by most major powers anyway — in the late 19th century.

What World War I did was loosen qualms against using poison gas. The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the last gasp of military chivalry: there really was a spontaneous Christmas truce in Flanders in 1914, with soldiers meeting in No Man’s Land to shake hands, sing carols and exchange gifts. Using poison gas was seen as “cowardly.”

But by spring 1915, the wholesale trench warfare slaughter made such notions laughable. The First Battle of Ypres cost 100,000 lives. By the second clash outside the flattened Belgian city, qualms against gas were set aside. On April 22, 1915, the Germans released 168 tons of chlorine gas from 5,700 cylinders across a five-mile line into a wind blowing toward French Moroccan troops, who saw the green cloud coming, then were suffocating, vomiting blood, burying their faces in the dirt seeking relief.

Most of the French front line died or fled in panic, opening a four-mile gap in Allied defenses which the Germans, understandably reluctant to charge into their own gas — they had gas masks but didn’t trust them — and lacking reserves, did not take advantage of. Raw Canadian troops, outnumbered but improvising respirators from handkerchiefs soaked in urine, rushed to fill the breech and held their line, a feat of bravery that, at the time, was deemed glorious and predicted to be “the theme of song and story as long as the world endures” but, of course, wasn’t.

So why did poison gas seem so awful in a war that saw the first general use of machine guns and armored tanks and aerial bombing and flame throwers? Gas was silent. It could linger on battlefields for days. Heavier than air, it crept into basements and trenches, the very places where soldiers fled expecting a degree of safety. It killed men in “horrid and unendurably painful ways,” often blinding them. Gas masks didn’t always work. The Germans later introduced mustard gas, which didn’t suffocate, but burned, invisible, and soldiers could be exposed and not even know it for days (that’s why WWI soldiers always look so overdressed, in leggings and wraps; the practice was to cover every inch of exposed skin).

Plus, it hadn’t been used. “The novelty of poison gas,” wrote Michael S. Neiberg. “Its unnatural greenish and yellow colorations, and its use in contravention of international law all lent gas an air of barbarity and savagery that other weapons never had.”

To top it off, while all nations had it, gas had been first used effectively by the Germans, one of the “heinous devices created by these demons of depravity,” to quote W.C. King’s post-war book “Germany’s Crime Against Humanity.” The British called mustard gas “H.S.,” for “hun stuff.”

So poison gas was bad because our enemy used it — that’s what history remembers, a bit of lingering propaganda. Though the U.S. military, loath to lose any weapon, tried to rehabilitate poison gas after the war.

“War is abhorrent to the individual, yet he accepts blowing men to pieces with high explosive, mowing men down with machine guns, and even sinking a battleship in mid-ocean with its thousand or fifteen hundred men being carried to certain death,” Earl J. Atkisson, head of the U.S. 1st Gas Regiment, wrote in 1925. “However, to burn the skin of a man outrages all his civilized instincts.”

The bottom line is that any weapon that depends on the wind is of limited strategic use. Thus it is gas’ undependability, more than anything else, that places it in a special category of disapproval. If it worked better, we’d find it in our hearts to use it. Land mines are devastating against civilians, too, in a sense worse than gas, since they remain a threat for years after being deployed. The world is nearly united against land mines, but the U.S. feels it needs mines to hem in the North Koreans, so we refuse to join all land mine bans. Morality has its limits.

Gas is bad because all weapons of war are bad. That President Barack Obama would single it out in this fashion is more a quirk of history than any absolute ethical point. Odd that we would risk war over some century-old propaganda. Then again, it’s been done before.


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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