Collections: Why Don’t We Use Chemical Weapons Anymore?

This week, we’re going to talk briefly about why ‘we’ – and by ‘we’ here, I mean the top-tier of modern militaries – have generally eschewed the systematic or widespread use of chemical weapons after the First World War. And before you begin writing your comment, please note that the mountain of caveats that statement requires are here, just a little bit further down. Bear with me.

Now, when I was in school – this was a topic I was taught about in high school – the narrative I got was fairly clear: we didn’t use chemical weapons because after World War I the nations of the world got together and decided that chemical weapons were just too horrible and banned them, and that this was a sign of something called ‘progress.’ In essence, the narrative I got was, we had become too moral for chemical weapons and so the ‘civilized’ nations (a term sometimes still used unironically in this context) got together and enforced a moral taboo against chemical (and biological) weapons. And, we were told (this was, I should note, the late 90s and early aughts, long before the Syrian Civil War) that this taboo had mostly held.

Which was important, because in this narrative as it was impressed upon that younger version of me, the ban on chemical weapons showed the path towards banning all sorts of other terrible weapons: landmines, cluster-munitions and of course most of all, nuclear weapons. All we would need to do is for the ‘civilized’ nations of the world to summon the moral courage to abandon such brutal weapons of war. Man, the end of history was nice while it lasted! But the example of the ‘successful’ ban on chemical and biological weapons was offered as proof that the dream of a world without nuclear weapons was possible, if only we showed the same will.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things. But what was my teacher’s excuse? I guess the end of history was a hell of a drug.

More recently, an offhand statement in the Fremen Mirage series prompted a discussion of the same issue both in the comments here and also off of this website in the broader social-media-space. And I saw a few different arguments offered. I want to draw out two, because I think they represent purified versions of many of the others and so are the most useful to examine.

  • The first rejects the moral judgment of the high-school answer: we don’t use chemical weapons, it argues, because we are decadent and lack the correct, morally right Fremen ruthlessness to use this effective weapon-system in order to win.
  • The second accepts the moral judgment of the high school answer, but rejects our claim to moral advancement. It runs we only don’t use chemical weapons because we haven’t had a big war; we only didn’t use them in WWII because of MAD (the term is an anachronism, but it is also the one usually used). We aren’t as moral as we think we are and if you put us in a big, conventional war, we would use them.

And I am going to argue here that all three of these answers (including my high school answer) actually miss the point, because they all assume something fundamental: that chemical weapons are effective weapons, and so the decision not to use them is fundamentally moral, rather than practical.

Quite frankly, we don’t use chemical weapons for the same reason we don’t use war-zeppelin-bombers: they don’t work, at least within our modern tactical systems.

And before we dive in, let me remind you that if you’d like to get email updates when there is new stuff on the blog, you can subscribe using the button here:

And, while we’re here, that if you want to support the blog, I have a Patreon for it, but you can also support the blog by spreading the word, since I rely entirely on word of mouth for readership!


The Exceptions

Let’s start by addressing one of the big caveats to the chemical weapons story, which is that they have never really gone away. Now, I want to leave aside, for the purpose of this essay, the use of lethal chemical agents in genocide, the use of non-lethal chemical agents entirely, as well as the use of things like defoliants that were not intended to cause casualties (even if they did). Those things are all important, but if we get into talking about them, we will never get anywhere. Instead, we’re focusing on the battlefield use of lethal chemical agents against either opposing combatants or civilian populations.

But even within that definition, chemical weapons haven’t gone away. The single biggest burst of chemical weapons usage since WWI was by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, especially during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), but also against civilian resistance within his own borders. The other large-scale use has been in the Syrian Civil War, by the Assad regime against both military and civilian targets (but mostly civilian targets). That said, there have been a number of other more limited or suspected uses of chemical weapons over the past few decades.

So it is not the case that chemical weapons have gone away completely. Some countries continue to use them when pressed – but only a handful. But you will note that the countries that have fallen back on these weapons have something in common: they don’t really have top-flight militaries. What is going on here?

The Modern System

Now we need to start by making a crucial distinction between two sorts of armies. I think most people understand this different intuitively, but often express it clumsily. Sometimes you will see it being expressed as ‘Western’ vs. ‘Non-Western’ armies, but many of the armies that operate in ‘Western’ fashion (the JSDF, China’s PLA, the ROKA, the IDF) aren’t ‘Western’ in either a geographic or cultural sense. And, to be honest, talking about ‘Western’ or ‘Non-Western’ armies propagates some bad strategic thinking that obscures more than it clarifies. ‘Western’ is already a fuzzy cultural category (we can have that conversation another day, but I’ll note that I do not think that ‘the West’ is entirely useless as a cultural category, so long as we acknowledge it is a ‘fuzzy set‘), but military systems often cross cultural categories. Assuming that the Western cultural set must come with a Western military package is a dangerous error in strategic judgment.

So instead of that, I am going to borrow an idea from Stephen Biddle’s Military Power (2004). Biddle identifies what he calls the ‘Modern System’ of combat (though I am going to treat it a bit more broadly than he does). In short, it’s a set of tactics and operational art that emerged out of the First World War and were refined in the European theaters (East and West) of the Second, to cope with the tremendous potency of industrialized firepower which had fundamentally reshaped war. Rather than relying on fixed positions for defense and dense shock-formations (‘shock’ here – think ‘bayonets, grenades and trench-knives’), the modern system relies on cover-and-concealment for survivability and maneuver in the offense (go around, not through your opponent’s overwhelming firepower). Adroit use of terrain on the tactical level is a key component of the system, which in turn requires both extensive training of junior officers and NCOs and devolving quite a bit of command agency down to them so that they can make local decisions (compare to, for instance, linear tactics which leave virtually no decision-making to the individual rifleman).

The modern system assumes that any real opponent can develop enough firepower to both obliterate any fixed defense (like a line of trenches) or to make direct approaches futile. So armies have to focus on concealment and cover to avoid overwhelming firepower (you can’t hit what you can’t see!); since concealment only works until you do something detectable (like firing), you need to be able move to new concealed positions rapidly. If you want to attack, you need to use your own firepower to fix the enemy and then maneuver against them, rather than punching straight up the middle (punching straight up the middle, I should note, as a tactic, was actually quite successful pre-1850 or so) or trying to simply annihilate the enemy with massed firepower (like the great barrages of WWI), because your enemy will also be using cover and concealment to limit the effectiveness of your firepower (on this, note Biddle, “Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare” Foreign Affairs 82.2 (2003); Biddle notes that even quantities of firepower that approach nuclear yields delivered via massive quantities of conventional explosives were insufficient to blast entrenched infantry out of position in WWI.)

That means that modern system forces are focused on cover and concealment in defense, but on mobility – often very rapid mobility – in attack. The doctrines that developed to operationalize variations on the modern system (Bewegungskrieg, Deep Battle, AirLand Battle, and so on) all relied (intentionally or not) on pushing the tempo of an attack beyond the ability of a defender to coordinate a defense, on the theory that this would produce tactical and even operational collapse. That theory, it turns out, works very well, but it comes with some costs (I should note here I am stretching the definition of Biddle’s ‘modern system’ a bit and also glossing over a lot of detail in maneuver warfare doctrines).

Via Wikipedia, the modern system being really expensive to implement. Now, to be clear, this isn’t just a question of ‘have tanks’ – a lot of countries have tanks that can’t implement this system, because the system is doctrine + training + hardware. But the hardware sure is pricey (so is the training!).
This is the US Third Armored division in 1991.

The thing is, embracing the Modern System is hard. Actually pulling this off requires a relatively high degree of training. It also requires delegating a lot of authority down to lower officers and NCOs. You need both because individual small units need to keep moving and maneuvering even when they may not have time to get direct orders from above, and they need the freedom to respond to local conditions and utilize local terrain, often down to the squad or fireteam level. In turn, that means it is really hard to do if your common soldiers are undertrained, simply illiterate, or if (as in an authoritarian regime) you can’t trust your officers with any kind of independence. Modern authoritarian ‘coup-proofing’ makes it practically impossible to actually implement the modern system effectively (which is part of why most tin-pot dictators produce such poor military performance; though note that not all authoritarian regimes need to coup-proof in this way).

It’s also expensive. Getting the mobility to pull this off on the operational level means mechanizing almost everything in your army, so that the infantry and artillery can keep up with the advance units and so that the logistics can keep up with them. Doing that requires a lot of command sophistication, but it also just requires a ton of hardware. Everything needs to be motorized, mechanized and portable, and then all of that needs to be tied into radio communications, GPS, and so on. And because you’re delegating authority down to smaller and smaller units, those units need all of that expensive communications, and so on. All of that hardware costs a fortune.

But – and this is the core of Biddle’s argument – when modern system armies encounter armies that have not implemented the modern system in conventional pitched battle, the result is generally a crushingly one-sided affair. That’s going to matter a lot for the analysis going forward: so far, it doesn’t seem possible to hold territory (meaning not fighting as guerillas, but actually engaging in positional warfare in the Maoist sense) with a non-modern system army against a modern system army. Non-modern system armies that try get pretty badly wrecked. The 1991 Iraq war is the traditional case study in just how badly wrecked: the coalition (using the modern system) took 292 KIA; 776 WIA compared to the Iraqi Army (without the modern system) suffering 25,000+ KIA and 75,000+ WIA. That stunning lopsidedness is going to matter a lot for the argument going forward.

Via Wikipedia, what happens when a non-modern system army attempts to fight a conventional battle against a modern-system army. Here, a number of destroyed Iraqi armored vehicles, including a T-72 tank (center of frame), in March, 1991. Heavy Iraqi losses occurred during the chaotic retreat out of Kuwait as the Iraqi frontline rapidly collapsed.

Doctrine and Weapons

It’s going to be incredibly cumbersome to keep having to say ‘Non-modern system’ armies, so I’m going to start calling them Static-System armies, since – as we’ll see – in modern warfare, they tend to be a fair bit more fixed and static than the modern system armies (note: I’m going to keep calling them ‘armies’ for simplicity, but the modern system combined land and air assets), preferring to dig in for sieges and trench warfare. So again: static system (old, cheap) vs. modern system (new, expensive). And remember: this is a difference in doctrine not equipment, in how an army expects to fight their battles and how they actually do – a difference in how, not in what. It is possible to have all of the tools of the modern system, and still not have the training or will to do the modern system (indeed, Iraq did just this in 1991 and got torn apart for it). You can buy tanks and planes, but you cannot buy the modern system, you must train it.

So why contrast these two systems? Because the value of chemical weapons varies wildly between these two systems. Put bluntly: the modern system has few, if any, uses for chemical weapons. Chemical weapons still work against a static-system, but the modern system is already more effective against a static-system in ways that, as we’ll discuss in a moment, chemical weapons cannot enhance. That restricts the usefulness of chemical weapons to static-systems fighting each other or as weapons of terror, which, as it turns out, accounts for the great majority of their use (and in turn means that chemical weapons see most of their use in battles of weak armies against other weak armies).


The first reason is that it is far easier to protect against chemical munitions than against an equivalent amount of high explosives, a point made by Matthew Meselson. Let’s unpack that, because I think folks generally have an unrealistic assessment of the power of a chemical weapon attack, imagining tiny amounts to be capable of producing mass casualties. Now chemical munition agents have a wide range of lethalities and concentrations, but lets use Sarin – one of the more lethal common agents, as an example. Sarin gas is an extremely lethal agent, evaporating rapidly into the air from a liquid form. It has an LD50 (the dose at which half of humans in contact will be killed) of less than 40mg per cubic meter (over 2 minutes of exposure) for a human. Dangerous stuff – as a nerve agent, one of the more lethal chemical munitions; for comparison it is something like 30 times more lethal than mustard gas.

But let’s put that in a real-world context. Five Japanese doomsday cultists used about five liters of sarin in a terror attack on a Tokyo Subway in 1995, deployed, in this case, in a contained area, packed full to the brim with people – a potential worst-case (from our point of view; ‘best’ case from the attackers point of view) situation. But the attack killed only 12 people and injured about a thousand. Those are tragic, horrible numbers to be sure – but statistically insignificant in a battlefield situation. And no army could count on ever being given the kind of high-vulnerability environment like a subway station in an actual war.

In order to produce mass casualties in battlefield conditions, a chemical attacker has to deploy tons – and I mean that word literally – of this stuff. Chemical weapons barrages in the first World War involved thousands and tens of thousands of shells – and still didn’t produce a high fatality rate (though the deaths that did occur were terrible). But once you are talking about producing tens of thousands of tons of this stuff and distributing it to front-line combat units in the event of a war, you have introduces all sorts of other problems. One of the biggest is shelf-life: most nerve gasses (which tend to have very high lethality) are not only very expensive to produce in quantity, they have very short shelf-lives. The other option is mustard gas – cheaper, with a long shelf-life, but required in vast quantities (during WWII, when just about every power stockpiled the stuff, the stockpiles were typically in the many tens of thousands of tons range, to give a sense of how much it was thought would be required – and then think about delivering those munitions).

Via Wikipedia, a chlorine gas attack during WWI. Note how much of it is required to blanket the area. Against targets equipped with gas masks, chlorine gas is much less effective and was mostly replaced with the more lethal mustard gas, which could also blister the skin.

But then comes the other ‘problem’: protection. If you want to protect something against high explosives, your only option is armor and lots of it. Heavy, expensive armor. But if you want to protect a soldier against gas? Well, an state-of-the-art M50 gas mask costs about $270 with a set of filters. A complete NBC (Nuclear-Biological-Chemical) suit – for contact-chemicals that the mask doesn’t full protect against – costs a bit less than that (I’ve seen around $200 – and something tells me that researching this has put me on every watchlist). The soldier’s rifle probably costs around $700, for comparison. And remember: these modern system armies have all sorts of hideously expensive hardware. A unit price of c. $500-600 per soldier is cheap. And it makes your entire, very expensive multi-thousand ton arsenal of chemical munitions almost useless at a stroke.

Via Wikipedia, a pair of Canadian soldiers in NBC suits during an exercise in 1987. They’re preparing to use a Blowpipe anti-air missile to apologize some aircraft straight out of the sky.

And that’s Meselson’s point: compared to the protection available, chemical weapons don’t have the punch of traditional high explosives. Rich nations can even afford – if they expect chemical attack – to equip their entire civilian populace with these devices. And in fact, during WWII, the British did exactly that, distributing gas masks generally among the civilian populace, fearing German chemical attacks against their cities. But there’s no mask – or indeed, any sort of man-portable armor of any kind – which can stop a 1-ton high explosive bomb. So the question becomes: what is more effective for cost, a ton of mustard gas, or a ton of high explosives (speaking from artillery casualty figures in WWI, the answer is very clearly, ‘a ton of high explosives’)?

Via Wikipedia, Air Raid Warden in kit during WWII, including gas mask. This one is from Brisbane, Australia (1942).

But that’s not the only problem – the other problem is doctrine. Remember that the modern system is all about fast movement. I don’t want to get too deep into maneuver-warfare doctrine (one of these days!) but in most of its modern forms (e.g. AirLand Battle, Deep Battle, etc) it aims to avoid the stalemate of static warfare by accelerating the tempo of the battle beyond the defender’s ability to cope with, eventually (it is hoped) leading the front to decompose as command and control breaks down.

And chemical weapons are just not great for this. Active use of chemical weapons – even by your own side – poses all sorts of issues to an army that is trying to move fast and break things. This problem actually emerged back in WWI: even if your chemical attack breaks the enemy front lines, the residue of the attack is now an obstruction for you. (Compare the War on the Rocks podcast on landmines which deals with artillery-delivered-landmines on the same terms – sure I’ve prohibited the enemy, but now I have fewer maneuver options, and remember: I want go fast and break things). A modern system army, even if it is on the defensive operationally, is going to want to make a lot of tactical offensives (counterattacks, spoiling attacks). Turning the battle into a slow-moving mush of long-lasting chemical munitions (like mustard gas!) is counterproductive.

But that leaves the fast-dispersing nerve agents, like sarin. Which are very expensive, hard to store, hard to provision in quantity and – oh yes – still less effective than high explosives when facing another expensive, modern system army, which is likely to be very well protected against such munitions (for instance, most modern armored vehicles are designed to be functionally immune to chemical munitions assuming they are buttoned up).

This impression is borne out by the history of chemical weapons; for top-tier armies, just over a century of being a solution in search of a problem . The stalemate of WWI produced a frantic search for solutions – far from being stupidly complacent (as is often the pop-history version of WWI), many commanders were desperately searching for something, anything to break the bloody stalemate and restore mobility. We tend to remember the successful innovations – armor, infiltration tactics, airpower – because they shape subsequent warfare. But at the time, there were a host of efforts: highly planned bite-and-hold assaults, drawn out brutal et continu efforts, dirigibles, mining and sapping, ultra-massive artillery barrages (trying a wide variety of shell-types and weights). And, of course, gas. Gas sits in the second category: one more innovation which failed to break the trench stalemate. In the end, even in WWI, it wasn’t any more effective than an equivalent amount of high explosives (as the relative casualty figures attest). Tanks and infiltration tactics – that is to say, the modern systemsucceeded where gas failed,in breaking the trench stalemate, with its superiority at the role demonstrated vividly in WWII.

During WWII, everyone seems to have expected the use of chemical weapons, but never actually found a situation where doing so was advantageous. This is often phrased in terms of fears of escalation (this usually comes packaged with the idea of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), but that’s an anachronism – while Bernard Brodie is sniffing around the ideas of what would become MAD as early as ’46, MAD itself only emerges after ’62). Retaliation was certainly a concern, but I think it is hard to argue that the combatants in WWII hadn’t already been pushed to the limits of their escalation capability, in a war where the first terror bombing happened on the first day. German death-squads were in the initial invasion-waves in both Poland, as were Soviet death squads in their invasion of Poland in concert with the Germans and also later in the war. WWII was an existential war, all of the states involved knew it by 1941 (if not earlier), and they all escalated to the peak of their ability from the start; I find it hard to believe that, had they thought it was really a war winner, any of the powers in the war would have refrained from using chemical weapons. The British feared escalation to a degree (but also thought that chemical weapons use would squander valuable support in occupied France), but I struggle to imagine that, with the Nazis at the very gates of Moscow, Stalin was moved either by escalation concerns or the moral compass he so clearly lacked at every other moment of his life.

Both Cold War superpowers stockpiled chemical weapons, but seem to have retained considerable ambivalence about their use. In the United States, chemical weapons seem to have been primarily viewed not as part of tactical doctrine, but as a smaller step on a nuclear deterrence ladder (the idea being that the ability to retaliate in smaller but still dramatic steps to deter more dramatic escalations; the idea of an ‘escalation ladder’ belongs to Herman Kahn); chemical weapons weren’t a tactical option but baby-steps on the road to tactical and then strategic nuclear devices (as an aside, I find the idea that ‘tactical’ WMDs – nuclear or chemical – could somehow be used without triggering escalation to strategic use deeply misguided). At the same time, there was quite a bit of active research for a weapon-system that had an uncertain place in the doctrine – an effort to find a use for a weapon-system the United States already had, which never quite seems to have succeeded. The ambivalence seems to have been resolved decisively in 1969 when Nixon simply took chemical weapons off of the table with an open ‘no first use’ policy.

Looking at Soviet doctrine is harder (both because I don’t read Russian and also, quite frankly because the current epidemic makes it hard for me to get German and English language resources on the topic) The USSR was more strongly interested in chemical weapons throughout the Cold War than the United States (note that while the linked article presents US intelligence on Soviet doctrine as uncomplicated, the actual intelligence was ambivalent – with the CIA and Army intelligence generally downgrading expectations of chemical use by the USSR, especially by the 1980s). The USSR does seem to have doctrine imagine their use at the tactical and operational level (specifically as stop-gap measures for when tactical nuclear weapons weren’t available – you’d use chemical weapons on targets when you ran out of tactical nuclear weapons), but then, that had been true in WWII but when push came to shove, the chemical munitions weren’t used. The Soviets appear to have used chemical weapons as a terror weapon in Afghanistan, but that was hardly a use against a peer modern system force. But it seems that, as the Cold War wound down, planners in the USSR came around to the same basic idea as American thinkers, with the role of chemical weapons – even as more and more effective chemicals were developed – being progressively downgraded before the program was abandoned altogether.

This certainly wasn’t because the USSR of the 1980s thought that a confrontation with NATO was less likely – the Able Archer exercise in 1983 could be argued to represent the absolute peak of Cold War tensions, rivaled only by the Cuban Missile Crisis. So this steady move away from chemical warfare wasn’t out of pacifism or utopianism; it stands to reason that it was instead motivated by a calculation as to the (limited) effectiveness of such weapons.

And I think it is worth noting that this sort of cycle – an effort to find a use for an existing weapon – is fairly common in modern military development. You can see similar efforts in the development of tactical nuclear weapons: developmental dead-ends like Davy Crockett or nuclear artillery. But the conclusion that was reached was not ‘chemical weapons are morally terrible’ but rather ‘chemical weapons offer no real advantage.’ In essence, the two big powers of the Cold War (and, as a side note, also the lesser components of the Warsaw Pact and NATO) spent the whole Cold War looking for an effective way to use chemical weapons against each other, and seem to have – by the end – concluded on the balance that there wasn’t one. Either conventional weapons get the job done, or you escalate to nuclear systems.

(Israel, as an aside, seems to have gone through this process in microcosm. Threatened by neighbors with active chemical weapons programs, the Israelis seem to have developed their own, but have never found a battlefield use for them, despite having been in no less than three conventional, existential wars (meaning the very existence of the state was threatened – the sort of war where moral qualms mean relatively little) since 1948.)

And I want to stress this point: it isn’t that chemical munitions do nothing, but rather they are less effective than an equivalent amount of conventional, high explosive munitions (or, at levels of extreme escalation, tactical and strategic nuclear weapons). This isn’t a value question, but a value-against-replacement question – why maintain, issue, store, and shoot expensive chemical munitions if cheap, easier to store, easier to manufacture high explosive munitions are both more obtainable and also better? When you add the geopolitical and morale impact on top of that – you sacrifice diplomatic capital using such weapons and potentially demoralize your own soldiers, who don’t want to see themselves as delivering inhumane weapons – it’s pretty clear why would wouldn’t bother. Nevertheless, the moral calculus isn’t the dominant factor: battlefield efficacy – or the relative lack thereof – is.

Ok, – you say – so throwing chemical weapons at a fancy modern-system army is going to be less effective than just using high explosives. But what if we introduce static-system armies?

System Static

The situation changes significantly when older-style static-system armies fight each other.

Let’s start by remembering that the static system isn’t some coequal way of doing modern ground warfare, so much as the inevitable fallback when, for some reason, you can’t do modern-system warfare. There are, in practice, really just about three reasons why that might be: first, the army might not have access to the fancy, expensive equipment to supply the mobility the modern system demands; second, the army might not have the training to execute the modern system; third, the front-line officers in the army might not have the command independence to execute the modern system (if this last one seems nonsensical – many authoritarian regimes are hesitant to give junior officers a lot of independence, since junior officers tend to be festering-grounds for coups in such systems).

And those factors feed directly into vulnerability to chemical munitions. While modern system armies are so damned expensive that effective chemical protection is a rounding error on the budget, for armies struggling to get enough rifles and bullets to provide even basic firepower, chemical protection (or modern body armor, for that matter) is an unaffordable luxury. Likewise, armies with weak organization, training and discipline will find chemical preparedness – which involves a lot of training on how to get those gas masks and NBC suits on fast – very difficult; actually getting all of the fidgety equipment to the right spots will also prove hard (but is second-nature to a modern system military which has nothing but fidgety equipment).

And, so, where do we still see chemical weapons used? In static-system vs. static-system warfare. Thus, in Syria – where the Syrian Civil War has been waged as a series of starve-or-surrender urban sieges, a hallmark of static vs. static fighting – you see significant use of chemical weapons, especially as a terror tactic against besieged civilians. The limited manpower and capabilities of regime forces have caused the war to deteriorate into a series of sieges, sometimes stretching out years (fighting in Aleppo lasted for four years, for instance; the final siege itself ran from February 2014 to its conclusion in December 2016). Anti-regime forces are often poorly equipped (often completely unable, for instance, to engage regime air-assets) and the civilian populace was completely unprotected against chemical munitions, making them far more vulnerable targets.

But a major factor here is actually weakness, in the Syrian regime forces. Assad simply didn’t have a lot of modern air-to-ground munitions; chemical munitions weren’t being compared for cost- and mission-effectiveness against such modern weapons, but against barrels loaded with explosives, nails and scrap – weapons which would have been primitive by the standards of the 1940s, much less now. And – let’s be honest here – his ground forces lack manpower, but also perform quite poorly. Remember: the question for the effectiveness of chemical weapons is value-over-replacement – while the vulnerability of anti-regime forces increased the value, we also must note that Assad’s heavily weakened, static system forces also substantially reduced the value of the replacement. In a fight between what are, in the last analysis, two weak forces, the calculation on the effectiveness of chemical weapons changes.

(I want to pause here. I am being a bit bloodless talking about this, because I want my point to be clear. But just so we understand each other: using barrel bombs against civilians is monstrous. Using poison gas at all is monstrous. Assad is a monster. Also, I don’t want to make it out that the international response doesn’t matter – one assumes that Assad gambled that while using chemical weapons would prompt international outrage, it wouldn’t isolate him diplomatically anymore than he already was (a gamble that, unfortunately, seems to have paid off). A state in the same position but more reliant on international support which might be jeopardized by such a breach of international norms might make a very different calculation).

Likewise in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), when Iraqi efforts to execute a maneuver war fell apart, the Iraqi army broke out the gas to try to stop Iranian human-wave assaults and later to open up areas to attack. Once again, the use of chemical weapons here was a consequence of weakness. The Iranian military was woefully underprepared for hostilities, with Iranian units reportedly sometimes not even having enough rifles for all of the soldiers (much less artillery, anti-tank or anti-helicopter support – to try to fight without that in a modern conventional battle is to go to the fight naked), a significant number of whom were children. And while Iraq could buy modern weapons, they could not buy modern military competence (a point Biddle makes in the above-cited book quite well). That the Iraqi army was not up to the task of waging modern war was made stunningly apparent in 1991.

Via Wikipedia, an Iranian soldier wearing a gas mask during the Iran-Iraq War.

(While those two are the largest incidents of chemical warfare on the battlefield after WWI, they’re not the only ones – poison gas was used in the North Yemen Civil War (1962-1970), probably by Cuban troops during the Cuban intervention in Angola, and possibly by Soviet forces in Afghanistan as a terror weapon against civilians. These weapons never really went away, they just dropped out of use by most modern system armies.)

But if chemical weapons can still be effective against static system armies, why don’t modern system armies (generally) use chemical weapons against them? Because they don’t need to. Experience has tended to show that static system armies are already so vulnerable to the conventional capability of top-flight modern system armies that chemical munitions offer no benefits beyond what precision-guided munitions (PGMs), rapid maneuver (something the Iraqi army showed a profound inability to cope with in both 1991 and 2003), and the tactics (down to the small unit) of the modern system do. Modern system armies don’t need to use gas to stall out human wave attacks, because they can simply deliver overwhelming conventional firepower. Likewise, they don’t need gas as a terror weapon to win long sieges – contrast the Second Battle of Fallujah (admittedly, a smaller urban center) with the long urban sieges of the Syrian Civil War; American, Iraqi and British forces cleared Fallujah in less than two months, while inflicting casualties at a rate of 10-to-1 on a defending force (of course, inflicting casualties alone doesn’t win wars, but then chemical weapons can’t secure gains, win hearts and minds, etc. either).


Throughout all of this, the contrast between the effort to ban chemical munitions and similar efforts to ban other ‘morally objectionable’ weapon-systems is instructive. Take cluster munitions, which are opposed generally because the bomblets they release can remain in the ground, unexploded for long periods and thus injure or kill civilians years after the end of a conflict. The Convention on Cluster Munitions is a limited effort to ban these weapons, but 12 years on from its implementation, most of the world’s largest militaries remain aloof (It’s actually worse than the wikipedia map makes it look – keep in mind that all of the ratifying countries that are in NATO or otherwise have a US-backed security guarantee can simply count on American cluster-munitions to fill battlefield roles in the event of a conflict, which is a great way to be able to do some moral grandstanding while still not actually standing on any actual principles, per se).

Via Wikipedia, a map of the countries in the CCM, banning cluster munitions.

The effort to ban landmines (the Ottawa Treaty) is slightly better, but it has the same key gaps: the United States, Russia, China, India, Iran, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, North and South Korea and so on (Turkey, interestingly is in Ottawa, but not the CCM; I wonder why). For countries whose conventional military capabilities are, in the age of the Pax Americana, largely ornamental (or, again, are part of a larger military alliance which can cover for their capabilities), signing these treaties is easy. But the moment you look at states that expect to actually fight someone in a conventional war in the near future, signature rates collapse.

And, Via Wikipedia, a map of all of the countries in the Ottawa Treaty, banning many types of landmines. Note that it does not cover anti-tank mines, remote-controlled mines, or even anti-personnel anti-handling devices on your anti-tank mine (so an anti-tank mine that is designed to blow up a person trying to pick it up is still not banned). It is, as such, a pretty limited treaty. And yet – look at all those grey non-signatories.

And, of course you have the nuclear weapons states – the USA, France, Britain, Russia, India, Pakistan, China, North Korea and Israel (sorry Israelis, this blog is a no-ambiguity zone). You may notice some overlap between these groups, with the exception of the two smaller NATO-nuclear powers (Britain and France).

But those same countries that won’t sign paper on these issues not only aren’t using chemical weapons on the battlefield (and many of them are involved in at least one active conflict or have been in just the lack decade, so it’s not for lack of opportunity), they are actively dismantling production and storage. The USA has destroyed about 90% of its stockpile and is moving towards complete removal (expected by 2023). Russia claims to have completed its destruction, and although it still sometimes uses chemical agents in espionage activities, there’s no sign of anything like preparedness for battlefield use. That includes dismantling or converting production facilities. Now – are some of these countries probably holding back small, hidden stockpiles? Sure. But that’s not enough for battlefield use. And I really want to stress that – these are militaries who will not make even token commitments to getting rid of other ‘immoral’ weapons, but will actively remove their ability to rapidly deploy these weapons in the future.

If the day comes when one of these countries suddenly is in a war and realizes they need chemical weapons, they won’t be available. Production would have to start fresh (look into the 1915 ‘shell crisis‘ to get a sense of what a disaster it is in industrial warfare to only realize you need large amounts of munitions after hostilities have begun). They are dismantling these systems because they do not expect they will ever have a use for these weapons.

Not because chemical weapons are immoral. Because they are ineffective, whereas landmines, cluster munitions and nuclear weapons are assumed to have future uses. Morality was never at issue, effectiveness was.

That has some big consequences, most of which are actually unpleasant. It means that efforts to ban ‘immoral’ weapons that are effective will likely never succeed. The model that activists thought they were building on is a foundation of sand – the only way you ban weapons is after they are basically useless anyway (to cut that point finer: you get to ban weapons after they stop being useful to the great powers, who may then enforce the ban on smaller states). The idea that we might summon up enough moral indignation to set these weapons aside seems unfounded. We are not nearly so moral as my high school teachers imagined, nor are we so cowardly as a ‘Fremen apologist’ might think. We’ve simply made an amoral calculation about effectiveness.

It also means that, should some development make chemical weapons effective compared to conventional high explosives or nuclear weapons – some agent that can defeat NBC protection, for instance – then chemical warfare will come screaming back. Now, the reassuring thing is that it looks like none of the premier military research systems in the world think that is likely (or they’d be investing more money into getting there first – look at the tremendous resources thrown into getting railguns, lasers, nuclear-powered missiles and the like on to the battlefield, even when it is not clear that they will be effective). But these terrible weapons haven’t been put to bed forever, only for as long as they remain relatively ineffective.

As someone who thinks humans must learn to peace as well as we have learned to war if we wish to survive in the long run, it is a humbling and concerning thought that we have not come so far as we might like.

136 thoughts on “Collections: Why Don’t We Use Chemical Weapons Anymore?

  1. So why did WW2 Germany not use chemical weapons in the Battle of Britain? Is it that they could not effectively deliver chemical weapons via rocket or plane? Since the Battle of Britain seems to have been largely an effort to terrorize civilians, this is where I would most have expected chemical weapons to be used.

    1. That seemed pretty evidently answered by the article to me:

      Per tonnage conventional explosives are more effective. When your conventional explosive alternative is barrel bombs and you’re facing an undefended civilian population, chemical weapons can win a cost-benefit analysis.

      But when you’re a fully functional industrial war machine that’s been ramping up in preparation for war for years, facing off against another industrial war machine which has the resources to equip and drill its population for chemical weapon defense, the cost-benefit just doesn’t look as good. Especially when infrastructure damage is desired, not a drawback, conventional explosives pack more bang for their buck.

  2. Danny Orbach wrote about the morality vs. effectiveness difference, I think last year, in the context of piracy. The blog post is in Hebrew and the language does not machine-translate well, so I can’t really link, but, the point he makes is that the Paris Declaration banned privateering because by the mid-19th century, Britain no longer saw use for it and did see great threat to its shipping from other powers issuing letters of marque. To a modern-in-the-mid-19c-sense navy, privateers were a liability – the navy could produce enough ships under its own command structure, and privateers tended to become nuisances and pirates when the war ended. So Britain got privateering banned and in exchange gave other powers things that they wanted, like giving Prussia a rule saying a neutral flag protects ships that trade civilian supplies with the enemy.

    This ties in to my usual hobbyhorse on my own blog, not about war but about public transportation, regarding state capacity. In the mid-19c, high-capacity states did not need privateers; low-capacity ones like the US did, and the US refused to sign the Paris Declaration, but then ended up implementing it anyway in the Civil War where it turned out it was the stronger side (while the Confederates issued letters of marque). Today, high-capacity states can maintain militaries with mission command, operational independence, etc., because independent officers are not a threat to their regimes, whether democratic (Israel, NATO, Japan, etc.) or authoritarian (PRC, Russia). Low-capacity states cannot.

    A lot of the things we consider grave human rights violations are adaptations to low state capacity. You don’t know how to interrogate suspects? Torture them, they might say something useful, and even if not, you can arrest whoever they nab and get emotional closure. You don’t know how to suppress a rebellion? Shoot people who look the cops the wrong way. You don’t have the capacity to mass-test your city in an epidemic? Beat up some Asians, it won’t help but you’ll feel better in a crisis that’s making Western countries look bad.

    1. Huh. That thought has a ring of truth to it, but I’d be interested to hear how you think it applies to the US’s use of interrogative torture in the Middle East. I would think the US has the state capacity to be able to manage effective interrogations and informant networks, after all, even if it doesn’t necessarily exercise it.

      1. The ineficacy of torture is well known to the US intelligence community. The purpose of torture at Guantanamo bay was never about intelligence gathering (internal documents show that no terrorist plots were ever stopped using info from Guantanamo bay). The purpose of the torture was, in part, that certain people in the US wanted to believe it worked and wanted to hurt “enemies” as well as a psychological attack on other enemies (look, we are willing to do torture to people we dont like just for fun!). Torture was always about hurting people, the United states just happens to be more tribalistic than most developed nations and is willing to apply unnecessary violence even when its counterproductive just to get that sweet sense of catharsis. Other countries with lesser capabilities dosnt bother because they were more interested in victory than vengeance.

        1. I don’t know about that. France used torture against FLN agents in the Algerian War in the 1960s. And, arguably, the UK used very unsavory methods of psychological torture against IRA prisioners until the 1980s. Some in the military think that these kinds of method work in counter insurgency, and terrorist threat is kind of an insurgency. Are they effective? Probably not that much (see how these conflicts ended), but it’s probably how part of the military apparatus thinks counterinsurgency should be fought, even by developed states with modern armies.

          1. There is at least a counter-example with the Battle of Algiers, where torture was used by the French army, but the French army still managed to remove the FLN from Algiers (then the questions would be whether it did help or not). And let’s not forget that the FLN did use torture in the war too.
            And more globally, from what I remember, at least on the field, the French army was successful against the FLN on the field, even if France having a Algeria colony wasn’t tenable, so independence was inevitable in the short or long term. Or maybe I read the wrong book and it’s just historical revisionism.

      2. “The purpose of torture at Guantanamo bay was never about intelligence gathering”

        Of course it was

        1. If it was really about intelligence gathering, they would have used the techniques that worked in WW2 PoW camps: put them into comfy rooms with each other and secretly record everything*. They also found that they got more information and more reliable information by treating PoWs well.

          They may have claimed it was about intelligence gathering, but it just ended up being a jobs program for sadists.

          * There are tens of thousands of pages of transcripts from secret recordings of conversations between German prisoners. These gave all sorts of useful information.

      3. The use of interrogative torture was driven by military/intelligence contractors. Basically, the US gov. at the time believed as a matter of ideology that the private sector taking over core government operations as a moral good. (This time period also experienced a dramatic increase in things like private civilian prisons and detention.)

        The contractors lacked the state capacity, and desired to justify their existence: i.e. which capabilities did the contractor posses that the contracting government agent didn’t?

        Thus… torture.

  3. Very interesting article, especially on the doctrine (modern vs static), thank you!

    (and good luck with the isolation, having been on the receiving end of remote teaching for a module, I know how hard it is)

  4. The one that still feels like an odd exception to me is WW2 strategic bombing. Hitler clearly didn’t care much about the moral high ground and international good opinion, and he was literally trying to kill civilians in job lots. Why didn’t the Luftwaffe throw 10% gas bombs into London during the Blitz or the V1/V2 attacks? I know they don’t break stuff the way HE and incendiaries do, but they’d slow response efforts, split the defensive hardening efforts, and probably kill a decent number of people in the occasions where they got used.

    For modern warfare, particularly against other military forces, I agree. But for civilian terror bombing in 1940?

    1. The post mentioned that Britain handed out gas masks to civilians just in case the Germans did this. That means the effectiveness of gas would be greatly decreased.

    2. The key to the strategic bombing was that all things being equal… poison gas is an ineffective weapon.

      The Tokyo subway bombers would have done more damage had they grabbed smoke bombs from a fireworks stand and yelled “Fire!”.

      Conversely, if your aircraft can deliver 15,000 lbs of explosive, napalm, or mustard gas… you’re going to choose explosive or napalm. They’re just better weapons pound for pound.

  5. Believe it or not, the same points about chemical weapons’ relative battlefield ineffectiveness were made in a pop-culture work about 25 years ago. Tom Clancy’s 1986 Cold-War-gone-hot novel ‘Red Storm Rising’ had an entire chapter where the Soviet protagonists discuss the pros and cons of using chemical weapons. They concluded that the cons far outweighed the pros: their Eastern European satellites would be hit almost as badly, soldiers could struggle into NBC suits and lock down their vehicles within 30 minutes of first use, and the associated combat penalties of having to fight suited and buttoned-up would be applied equally across the lines, neutralizing the battlefield effects. It also goes into grim effects of massed use of persistent chemicals on the land that the USSR would have to occupy and administer.

    Now, Clancy’s not remotely a scholarly source (although he did make for fun reading in high school, and wargamers everywhere owe him a debt for popularizing the ‘Dance of the Vampires’ missile defense scenario), but he was very, very popular. I’ve always thought that, since his works were a decent reflection of the popular zeitgeist (and a big contributor to it), so too would be that infodump chapter on the military downsides of chemical warfare.

  6. I think one consideration regarding the European Axis not deploying chemical weapons in WWII was how decidedly “static system” most of their army really was. Unlike the fully mechanized Commonwealth and United States forces deployed in Europe, and excluding a handful of lavishly equipped Panzer and mechanized divisions, the vast majority of German divisions were foot-mobile infantry reliant on horse-drawn wagons for their logistic needs. The rest of the Axis, including Italian, Romanian, Hungarian.. forces were even worse off in regard to mechanization.

    Had the Axis used gas in any battlefield or strategic capacity, (against far faster and better provisioned Allied formations) they’d invite mass retaliation against their own formations in the field, and their leg infantry would bear the brunt of the counterstrike. Add the fact that they never managed to make, let alone distribute an adequate gas mask for all the hundreds of thousands of horses their logistics were reliant on, and you can see why even monsters like the NSDAP leadership made the cost-benefit calculation that using gas would hurt them more than it would help their tactical situation.

  7. I heard a similar story about flamethrowers. They’re just not an effective weapon overall.

    The Second Council of the Lateran 1139 (Pope Innocent II) and later pope Urban II have tried to ban the use of archery (bows and crossbows) against christians. But the ban was widely ignored.

    Does the rule work the other way?? If a weapon is banned, does it mean it’s ineffective? Was slavery banned in US because it ceased to be effective? Torture is quite widely banned, and there are claims it’s just ineffective, because the torturee will just make stuff up to make the pain stop and the torturer doesn’t know the difference. And there’s no sure way to know if the prisoner actually knows something.

    1. In the US, slavery was still pretty profitable in the 1860s, AIUI. And of course, the US ended up fighting a huge civil war over the issue (sorry, Lost Causers, but when the South claimed they were fighting for “states’ rights”, the only right they cared about was slavery), which suggests that morality was an important component (if slavery’s just a useless and obsolete institution anyway, why not just let it whither away instead of spending millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives trying to stop it?).

      In the British Empire, meanwhile, slave-run plantations in the Caribbean were still huge money-makers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the abolitionist movement got going. And when the government banned slavery in the Empire in the 1830s, it ended up taking a huge financial hit (because they enforced abolitionism basically by compulsorily buying every slave and then setting them free).

      1. You know, I read a book “Black Mother” by Basil Davidson and he claimed colonialism only really took off in Africa once the slave demand dropped. Which was affected by things like more effective agriculture practices and INDUSTRIALIZATION, which reduced demand for unskilled labor. I don’t remember the exact details, but it as an eye-opening book for me and I plan to revisit it. So I would like to think it was mostly about morality, but color me skeptical. For wars, excuses are made all the time. My high school historian had a habit of telling us what happened and asking us why it did. She was particularly fond of it when it came to rulers’ motives, and popes were no different. I think the official reason for the American Civil War is just a founding myth, a narrative. By the way, few European countries agree which year the WW2 started…

        1. The key to the end of slavery… is that low skilled industrial wage laborers saw slavery as an economic threat to their meager position in society. So, a small hardened corp. of ideological/moral abolitionists drove a discussion that for the majority of society was really about the wage competition between free v. non-free labor systems. See American Free Soil Movement.

          1. The key to the end of slavery… is that low skilled industrial wage laborers saw slavery as an economic threat to their meager position in society.

            Slaves were mostly used in agricultural work, not industrial work, so they weren’t in competition with free industrial workers.

      2. Re: the take-off of colonialism in Africa, I think that the wider availability of quinine and improved transport and communications probably played a more important role. Re: industrialisation, slaves were generally employed in different industries (agricultural vs. manufacturing) and different parts of the world (northern vs. southern USA, West Indies vs. Great Britain). In other words, slave labour wasn’t in competition with free industrial labour, so there’s no reason why reduced demand for the latter should lead to a decline in the former.

        By the way, few European countries agree which year the WW2 started…

        I’m afraid you’ll have to explain your meaning here, because I’m not sure what you’re getting at. (Also, I don’t think the quoted statement is true.)

      3. Most nations paid off the slave-owners. I’ve heard that every one did, except Haiti — which ended up paying an indemnity to France — and the US — which could point to the laws and customs of war for the vast majority of them.

      4. @theoriginalmrx

        >By the way, few European countries agree which year the WW2 started…

        Russia – Great Patriotic War, 1941 – 1945. There was no Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and no cooperation with Hitler.
        Czech Republic – they would say 1938, when Poland annexed a part of Czechoslovakia (Zaolzie).

        Okay, maybe I exaggerated the differences, but my point was that many nations write a version of history that suits them. EU won’t produce a common version anytime soon.

        1. Just a quick note: I appreciate you are aware of such details from our history like Polish-Czechoslovakian conflict, but nobody here in Czech Republic would tell you WW2 started in 1938 because of Zaolzie. Czechoslovakia was half-occupied by Germany in 1938 (Poland just used this occasion to get something, too) and practically ceased to exist – Polish occupation of Zalozie is very minor part of what happened to Czechoslovakia in 1938. And still, we agree that WW2 started in 1939 with Germany attacking Poland, not with occupation of Czechoslovakia – because there simply was no war between Czechoslovakia and Germany (or Poland) in 1938. You are, however, right in the case of Russia – but it is the single European country which really dates WW2 differently, from apparent reasons. All other agree WW2 lasted 1939-1945. Although, naturally, there are countries for which THEIR part of WW2 started later (generally Balkan countries, Norway…)

      5. Funny, Czech Wikipedia says World War II started 1 September, 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. Just like almost everyone else in Europe (and the rest of the world).

      6. So… there’s definitely both a material and moral issue to the question of the South’s “peculiar institution.”

        On the one hand, the world of 1861 was moving away from a time when landed gentry with plantations were a viable economic strategy. Telegraphs, railroads, factories, and banking was the way forward; neo-feudalism was well past its day. You could make the argument that slavery was becoming very unpopular because it wasn’t viable. But I do think that does a great deal of disservice to the abolitionists who’d spent a very long time banning slavery in most of the continental US on moral grounds. There were economic arguments against slavery, and there were moral arguments against slavery.

        But what really drove things to the point of war was: slavery, as you said, was extremely profitable. Even while the world was industrializing, the pseudo-aristocracy of the plantar south was making themselves rich as a nineteenth-century banana republic, making and selling vast quantities of raw material (mostly cotton) to the industrialized world. At least as important, slaves were, as a whole, the most valuable commodity in 1861 America; worth more, collectively, than the nation’s railroads or factories.

        So the question of “would slavery have gone away” doesn’t really get the whole picture. In 1860, you have pressures of modernization and political pressures of abolition working against slavery. And in response, you have the richest interests of the United States working very, very hard to protect it. Slavery wasn’t just a passive economic process that was going to stop when it was no longer the optimal solution. You had the Dred Scott case, Kansas-Nebraska act, the Bleeding Kansas fighting; the plantar aristocracy was actively and aggressively working to protect slavery where it was instituted and expand it into places where it wasn’t, both for ideological reasons and to maintain the economic status of the single biggest economic bloc in the nation.

        So as to “why not just let it whither away instead of spending millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives trying to stop it?”–the United States Civil War was not fought to end slavery. It was a war waged to PRESERVE slavery, unsuccessfully. When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, there was no chance that he would have the authority to free the slaves in the southern states, but it was a very vivid loss of the slave south’s power to protect and expand the institution, and without the government dedicated to protecting and expanding the practice, they saw the writing at the wall that it was over. So the wannabe chevaliers of the southern aristocracy decided to go to war with their neighbors rather than accept that the Peculiar Institution’s days were numbered.

        1. There was a thesis in the South that if slavery didn’t expand, that it would face political extinction in the US.

          Part of the “Bleeding Kansas” episode was that Southerners believed, probably correctly, that slavery would become economically unviable if Missouri were surrounded by states that wouldn’t return runaways.

          By 1850 the South had permanently lost control of the US. House, and when it became apparent through the admittance of California, and the possible admittance of Kansas and Nebraska, that probably wouldn’t expand further West… the Southerners knew they could fight for slavery or they could lose it. There would be no middle ground.

    2. With flamethrowers, I thought it wasn’t so much that they were ineffective, but rather have been superseded by other weapon systems. Flamethrowers do seem to have been highly effective at their primary job of neutralising enemy bunkers/fixed positions/fortifications. But they did have their drawbacks, usually short range and vulnerability of the operators (being the flamethrower guy/tank paints a pretty big target on your head). In modern times thermobaric weapons can fulfil the same niche, but more effectively and with less drawbacks than flamethrowers. So flamethrowers are no longer needed.

    3. The whole point of torture is that you put someone in a position where they’ll do what’s easiest. It’s always easier to tell what you actually know than to make up a lie, let alone keeping a lie straight across multiple rounds of torture.

      The big weakness of torture is in asking yes-no questions, because people will just say yes. That’s why torture is a bad idea in police interrogations. In military or intelligence-gathering contexts it works all right, certainly no less reliably than most other methods—but we have other methods at least as effective without the moral(e) and publicity issues, so it’s better not to use torture.

      1. Having read accounts by people who’ve been tortured the regard for future consequences required to think that you will be unable to keep a story straight across multiple rounds of torture is entirely beyond someone being tortured. Also lies are often simpler and therefore easier than the truth, especially in cases where the torturers want to find out more than the torture actually knows.
        The primary purposes of torture are humiliation, deterrence, and production of false confessions.

      2. Yes but another thing that’s beyond someone being tortured is coming up with a plausible lie. The point is not that people never lie when they’re being tortured; the point is that the risk of being deceived by someone being tortured, who’ll supposedly say anything to make it stop, is not really all that severe. Just torture them some more, every time they lie.

        The point of torture in a military context (where confessions are meaningless except occasionally for propaganda purposes) is to extract information. The rest is armchair psychoanalysis and propaganda. Don’t buy the sentimentality that it “doesn’t work”; it works about as well as any other interrogation method. If it doesn’t work, why do we waste the time and stress of training our intelligence agents to resist it?

        But since the others work as well (a few work better, though most of the really good ones require a lot of training) and don’t have the moral issues, there is a good reason not to use it.

        1. I think that you are making an assumption that the torturer is interested in the truth. That does not appear to be the case with the US, and police getting false confessions is probably deliberate.

          1. Depends on the torturer. A downed American airman told the Japanese a whole pack of lies about the A-bomb,starting with knowing something, and they classified him as a valuable, not to be killed, prisoner.

      3. I’m wary of appeal to the sentimentality of the opposing argument. They are hard to rebut and easy to make irrespective of merit. I’ll admit that my reading on the subject is slanted towards human rights lawyers and people who’ve been tortured.
        The procedure of torturing the subject again if they lie until you reach the truth seems to me somewhat like shaking a magic 8-ball until you get the true answer: you might have got the true answer, but the process by which you achieved it doesn’t give you any way of distinguishing the true answer from the false. (Just to be explicit: people being tortured do not and are not able to rationally weigh their options and decide whether or not they’ll tell the truth or make up a lie.) If you’re genuinely interrogating for information then you are ipso facto in a position in which you can’t distinguish between the false and the true. The danger is particularly acute in the cases where the interrogator believes the torturee knows more than the torturee in fact knows. Even if one supposes that torture never produces falsehoods about what the torturee actually knows (*), it doesn’t allow one to distinguish between that and elaborations beyond the truth as the torturee knows it. The situation of military interrogation under torture is just one in which the torturer is not going to take, I don’t know any more, as a reliable answer.

        It is true that, according human rights lawyers who deal with people in US custody, some of the stories obtained under torture and accepted by interrogators are patently at odds with independently verifiable facts. That might suggest that a suitably motivated torturer would have spotted that the story is incoherent. However, it also suggests that there is something in the situation of torture that leads torturers to be overly credulous. One of those is the myth that torture reliably works. Another is that it’s difficult for the torturer not to introduce their own expectations of what is credible or interesting into the process and therefore not to be biased towards the outcome. Another is that political capital invested in torture has to be seen to produce results.
        As for why agents are trained to resist torture: I don’t know. It just tells us that factions in the intelligence community are invested in the idea that torture works, but not whether they’re right or wrong. That said, as one of the things torture successfully does is deter dissent, teaching one’s agent not to be deterred by the prospect will be genuinely useful.

        (*) Unlikely. We know that human memory even when calm, unstressed, and otherwise in ideal positions for recall, is often inaccurate. Torture is not an ideal position for recall.

        1. Take the captured American airman whom the Japanese tortured to get information about the atomic bomb. He told them the US had dozens and that Toyko and Kyoto were on the target list. Did they torture him until he told the truth? No, they reclassified him as a high value prisoner (thus saving his life) and used the information when considering surrender.

      4. I can’t name any interrogation method that works at all, if you don’t check your information against outside sources in between sessions. I don’t think that can be meaningfully said to be a unique weakness of torture. It’s a weakness of human interrogations—that’s an argument to do more surveillance and other kinds of “direct” spying, rather than interrogation by any methods whatsoever, not an argument against torture. The argument against torture is that it’s wrong, and there are methods that work just as well, if for some godforsaken reason you absolutely have to interrogate human beings.

        1. This is at odds with the basic evidence we know from myriad post-torture evaluations. The effect of torture is that the tortured person tells the torturer what the tortured person thinks the torturer wants to hear. That’s it. It’s Frankfurtian bullshit, where truth is beside the point. We have a long history of evidence around torture, and basically zero evidence that it works even though the authoritarian, violent mindset intuits it should.

      5. That’s not actually true. The extreme stress of torture can very easily destroy recall. Torture victims often find that they couldn’t tell their interrogators accurate information, even if they wanted to.

        Also as someone who grew up in abusive situation which involved repeated, systemic rounds of aggressive and violent questioning about perceived and invented wrongdoings, I can absolutely assure you that I could and did lie whenever I thought it would help me. Which was basically every single time I thought the question wasn’t a trap to check for lying.

  8. This article makes me wonder what would be the best course of action for a static-system army which has to fight a modern-system army (other than “surrender”, of course).

    1. Plan to shift to asymmetrical warfare from the beginning and hope your country provides the terrain – either human or physical – to facilitate that shift. Alternately, galvanize an international response (or at least a nuclear patron) which can freeze the conflict before you get overrun. The latter, of course, requires you to not be a lone rogue state. Option 3: develop nuclear weapons to prohibit conventional military operations.

      Assuming the goal is regime-survival, I’d say you want to try II (nuclear patron), then III (nuclear program) and only resort to I (guerilla warfare) if the other two fail. But if the plan comes down to throwing down, unsupported, with NATO, or the Russian army, or the PLA in open, conventional warfare, unrestricted by outside forces – you’ve probably already lost.

        1. Looping back on this – you don’t need to be Afghanistan to plan for guerrilla warfare. The Estonian Defense League (a small paramilitary force), for example, is fairly open about training for stay-behind guerrilla warfare in case of a war with Russia; the Swedish Home Guard and Finnish Territorial Defense, reading between the lines, also seem to be trained for that eventuality.

    2. Maybe look at what China is doing to contest US domination in Asia. They’re building artificial islands and I heard they have the most sophisticated missile technology in the world. Look up A2AD. China is trying to shape the area of potential conflict in such a way American warships and aircraft carriers must stay away. The incident where a Chinese submarine resurfaces within a stone’s throw away from an US warship was a demonstration of power. They also shot down their own satellite to show they can (US armies are known to rely on them). Russia is doing similar things in Crimea and the Kaliningrad exclave, they’re stuffing these areas with launchers and radars. US military is more based on mobility than those of Russia and China, which focus on land forces.

      1. I would not classify either the PRC’s PLA or the Russian army as static-system forces. Also, naval operations and naval strategic (theater-to-theater) mobility exists outside of the static/modern system divide. Naval warfare is its own beast, with its own rule, with the theory-divide being between the Jeune Ecole (associated with France in the 1800s, Germany in the early 1900s and Iran/Russia/China today – although China is, I think, hoping over the next several decades to pivot to a Mahanian framework) and Mahan on the other (American/British; Mahan was an American naval officer writing about British naval history).

        …maybe I should do a post detailing the distinction?

        1. Technology is so far beyond in naval warfare that any discussion of formal doctrine is basically a discussion of non-peer competition.

          All future naval warfare between peer competitors will be subsurface missile and torpedo warfare.

          The future of Naval state v. state engagement is the USS Florida – a converted boomer firing 120 surface to surface missiles.

      2. @Bret Devereaux

        I think you were going to post about the subject anyway, sooner or later. I’ll wait.

        What I’m personally interested about is how the idea of ‘maneuver as attack’ came to be, and how it developed over the ages. Cover and convealment is obvious – once rifles get powerful enough extra bodies in the field don’t offer an advantage. What term should I put in a search engine?

        Did it start with Alexander and Romans? I know Romans were inspired by him. Macedonian phalanx had sacrifices for increased mobility, and wikipedia says it was mostly used to hold enemy in place while heavy cavalry smashed him. When I was in school, it always puzzled me how Roman legions beat Greek phalanx so easily. It’s natural to think well-trained heavy infantry is great and the problem is just getting more of it. I mean, Spartans! But teachers tend to gloss over why and how Roman legions won, especially the division to smaller units and how exactly having more mobility helps in battle.

        Were Roman legions more maneuverable than feudal medieval armies? Was there a ‘regression’ ? That would explain why Mongol invasion was such a shock.

      3. Did it start with Alexander and Romans? I know Romans were inspired by him. Macedonian phalanx had sacrifices for increased mobility, and wikipedia says it was mostly used to hold enemy in place while heavy cavalry smashed him. When I was in school, it always puzzled me how Roman legions beat Greek phalanx so easily. It’s natural to think well-trained heavy infantry is great and the problem is just getting more of it. I mean, Spartans! But teachers tend to gloss over why and how Roman legions won, especially the division to smaller units and how exactly having more mobility helps in battle.

        Division into smaller units, together with a greater room for initiative for junior and mid-level officers, certainly seems to have helped at Cynoscephalae, where a Roman tribune was able to peel off troops from the victorious Roman right wing and attack Philip’s centre from behind. I think another factor, which often gets overlooked, is the Roman army’s use of reserves. Greek and Hellenistic phalanxes generally fought in a single line, meaning that if you managed to break through, that was basically it. With the Romans, on the other hand, even if you defeated the hastati you’d still have the principes and triarii to deal with, making the Roman army much more resilient to setbacks.

    3. “what would be the best course of action for a static-system army which has to fight a modern-system army”

      I don’t think it’s quite hopeless, as long as the less modern army is willing to modernize to some degree. Not all modern methods are equally difficult to implement.

      An army might focus on a subset (eg defensive tactics and operations) and on implementing “the low-hanging fruit” and it might do reasonably well in at least delaying a modern attacker. Especially since delaying is the essence of modern defense (counterattacks may fail, maybe even fail to take place, but an attacker will certainly be slowed by a deep, concealed defense).

      The “poor man’s modern army” might be capable of modern offensive operations, they might eventually lose to a competent modern attacker, but the victory will be costly enough, in lives and time, that the attacker might seek alternative ways to achieve his goals.

      1. Note: ‘modern’ here is a descriptor of a system, not a suggestion of degrees. This isn’t a question of ‘more modern’ and ‘less modern’ (the way we might talk about iterative car design or computers). ‘Modern’ is just the name of the system, which one either has, or has not. We could call it the ‘Biddle-system’ and be just as accurate (and it’d make clear that there is no ‘less-Biddle’ system; that’s why I used the term ‘static-system’ rather than a chronological signifier).

        The fundamental problem is that *all* parts of the modern system require fast reaction times, quick information exchange, extensive delegation of authority, close interrelations between air, artillery and ground assets and rapid movement (and when it comes to capabilities, that’s essentially saying the *same*thing* five times, just focusing on different outcome of what is, in effect, the same core capability). You need all of those things or nothing in the modern system works right.

        If you want to see this is action, look at the Saudi air-campaign over Yemen. Like many of the Gulf States, the Saudis spent a tremendous amount of time and energy on their air forces (far more than they should have, compared to ground forces – but it’s a royal prestige thing; jets are the new elephants), but were incapable of carrying out a modern, precision-based air-campaign. They *tried*, but ended up falling back on pretty indiscriminate bombing. The Saudis will tell you this is because the Houthis were hiding weapons, but much of the commentary has suggested quite strongly that the real issue was that the Saudis just hadn’t mastered the intelligence-gathering and target-communication parts of the package. No amount of fancy tech makes your bomb any smarter than your intel officer or the pilot. Inflexible, top-down leadership further slowed down action-cycles, which matters a lot when you are trying to put PGMs on moving targets.

        The failure of Arab militaries bears testimony to the fact that you cannot ‘buy’ the modern system. It has to be built up, starting with training at the foundations – NCOs, junior officers, even just regular soldiers. As a result, it tends to either be baked through thoroughly, or not implemented at all. Piecemeal implementation doesn’t really work.

      2. In my reading, Biddle’s “modern system” refers to the ensemble of tactical and operational methods and procedures which land armies use to achieve survivability against modern weaponry. Most require large-scale retraining and reorganization, but some are more material-focused.

        Deepening a defensive line, using small, concealed defensive positions instead of trenches, ensuring defending units have safe avenues of retreat when attacked – these require a lot of digging and a few skilled field commanders, but not retraining the whole army.

        However, the other part of modern defense, counterattack, would be a gamble and would probably take its toll on insufficiently trained counterattack forces.

        Of course, I don’t mean that this will beat a competent enemy, but it can delay and inflict casualties. Essentially, what Germany did in World War 1 on the Western front, before 1918. Of course, the Germans actually defended successfully, whereas against a modern attacker it would eventually fail. But not instantly, and not without cost.

    4. Something akin to the MIllenium Challenge, I think.

      A US general, tasked with playing the role of Iraq/Iran in a simulated war against the US, fought smart by fighting stupid. He relied on motorcycles and WW2-style light shows to relay messages, he used tiny boats that would escape radar detection to overwhelm titanic battleships and carriers, and so on.

      A similar example would be the Soviet Night Witches, whose bombers were converted from crop dusters. These planes flew so low that they escaped detection by state-of-the-art German radar, and their pitiful engines made little noise so they were perfect for stealth.

      If your technology is far worse than your enemy’s, don’t rely on your technology. Rely on the advantages you do have: your superior knowledge of the home terrain and your enemy’s expectation that you’ll fight them with a worse version of their arsenal.

  9. From what information I can find (mostly on Simon Jones’ website,, I don’t know that chemical weapons would have been as effective in the London Blitz as HE/Incendiary bombs were. As noted in the article above, the British had distributed gas masks widely to civilians, which would have limited the effectiveness of lung irritants like chlorine and phosgene. In order to inflict large numbers of civilian casualties, the Luftwaffe would have needed an agent that was either persistent, or was effective through skin contact, or both. Mustard gas fits that description, but while it produces some pretty horrible injuries, it is not very lethal. The first combat use of mustard gas used 125 tons of shells and produced about 2100 casualties, but only 95 fatalities. And that was against troops who were pretty tightly concentrated and had gas masks, but no skin protection or experience with mustard gas (because it was the first persistent agent used, a lot of troops took off their masks too quickly). So to a first approximation, this I think could be used to estimate civilian casualties in a mustard gas attack. If so, that works out to about 1 killed and 16 wounded per ton of munitions. In the blitz overall, the Luftwaffe dropped about 30,000 tons of bombs on British cities (about two-thirds on London) and caused around 25,000 killed and 28,000 wounded. So mustard gas could have caused more casualties, but not more deaths, and it would not have done any physical damage to the city (as it was, around 60% of London’s center was destroyed, including 2 million houses). Source: Wikipedia. Tentative conclusion: chemical weapons would have been effective at maiming but not killing large numbers of civilians, but would have been no more lethal than HE/Incendiary.

    Some questions that would need to be answered to get a better estimate:
    1. What was the German strategic objective? Was it to scare people? Break the British will to fight? Reduce output of factories? If you’re trying to reduce munitions production, the best way to do that is probably to destroy the factory with HE/Incendiaries.
    2. What countermeasures could the British have taken to protect civilians against mustard gas and how effective would those have been?
    3. If the Luftwaffe had scattered mustard gas in with conventional bombs, how would that have affected damage control efforts like firefighting?
    4. Given that the RAF probably would have responded in kind, what effects would chemical attacks on German cities have on the German home front?
    5. Did the Germans even have enough mustard gas to carry out large-scale attacks?
    6. Germany did produce at least 10,000 tons of Tabun nerve gas and produced artillery shells to carry it. This was never used, so I don’t know how to get a casualty estimate for it, but it is significantly more lethal than mustard gas. What if they had used this?

    1. I think the conclusion of Brett’s post above is probably why the Germans didn’t use mustard in the Battle of Britain. Later on in the war, it would have been suicide to use mustard against the Allies, given that they had more resources and air superiority.

      As for Tabun, the Germans established a plant for production of Tabun in ’39, but it didn’t start production until 1942. (The engineering required for mass production of the nerve agent without killing everyone at the factory was very difficult) As a result, it wasn’t available for the Battle of Britain. By the time the Nazis had a large stockpile, they were losing/had lost air superiority, so the result of a Tabun attack would have been a massive 8th Air Force or RAF raid with mustard gas. Even though the Nazis had a better chemical agent, the Allies had much better means of dispersing a chemical agent, so again, it would be suicide.

      I’ve also heard reports that German high command was afraid the Allies had discovered their own nerve agents, in which case the Allies could have responded in kind.

      Personally, I wonder if the Nazis considered using chemical agents against the USSR on the Eastern Front to break some of the deadlocks. Probably the same considerations came into play.

      1. I had a wiki binge watching on Tabun at the beginning of the year following it being relevant in British forensic pathology drama Silent Witness. As I recall Goering at Nuremberg was specifically asked why the Nazis didn’t use it and the answer was “Die Pferde”, “the horses”. As someone alluded to above, the German army and more so the minor Axis powers was horse powered and so using chemical weapons would have invited a crippling response which would have crippled logistics. Right up your street I’d have thought Bret!

    2. A much-delayed note on question 1:

      German strategic objectives in the Blitz were shifting and muddled. At some points it was intended to suppress the RAF’s ability to contest a German crossing of the Channel; at other points it was used as a terror weapon. There was never an equivalent to the Allied air forces’ focus on efficient destruction of industry and transportation.

      This wasn’t just about bad strategic thinking (though there was also that); in contrast to the US and Britain, they hadn’t made the extensive pre-war development work required for strategic bombing, focusing instead on tactical support. The Soviet Union also lacked strategic bombing capabilities, leaving that part of the war to the Western Allies; unlike Germany, though they tended not to waste planes and pilots by trying to press them into a terror-bombing role.

  10. Fascinating article. I have always been interested in how utterly ineffective chemical and biological weapons have been in the past despite seeming scary on paper. Military history has often been a story of prevailing powers trying to win the last war and losing. Do you have any thoughts on what might come after the modern oil and communications dependent, high mobility warfare you outline? My guess would be that semi-autonomous drone technology is the next factor waiting to prove its effectiveness. These tiny flying devices seem pretty inconsequential until you realise the potential to couple them with biological and chemical payloads. This solves the issue of delivery and selectivity that simply spraying tons of toxic chemicals over the landscape suffers from. Kind of like the difference between a snake trying to produce liters of toxin to spread everywhere hoping something eats it, versus a sharp set of fangs and a keen set of reflexes. It also solves the problem of drones being too small and weak to carry conventional ballistic payloads. The fresh horrors of industrialised war burst onto the world after the belle epoque, with many countries expecting an old timey horse and musket kind of war and getting a death machine instead. I wonder if history will repeat here and the long pax americana will end and reveal even worse horrors of computerised and biotechnological warfare ahead.

    1. @Shane

      In the far future, I think warfare may be strongly affected by genetic engineering. Venomous spiders and various deadly animals tend to stay away from large targets because it gives them no evolutionary benefit to be hyper aggressive. But if you could engineer birds to carry venom and attack soldiers, that would be terrible. Many animals have amazing senses, mobility and evasion techniques. They can reproduce and sustain themselves feeding on abundant biological matter. Weaponized animals would be terrifying.

      Although I’m not sure what the advantages would be compared to present day biological weapons. Probably more complex behavior and tactics. Maybe ability to easily reprogram (train) them.

      1. You’re attempting to hack an incredibly complex and badly engineered system in order to tweak it to your specifications when you know there are millions of things in it that can manifested unexpected bugs?

        I — doubt it.

      2. @Mary

        In commercial world it happens all the time – people are ordered to work with spaghetti code no one understands anymore, and unit tests (a safety net) are not so common outside of medical and financial sectors. All it takes is one person who doesn’t understand the complexities involved order around people who do. Who stood up to Mao Zedong when he said to kill all sparrows? Also, neural networks are used commercially, and while these things are much, much simpler they too are black boxes even their creators don’t fully understand. If all your tank photographs were made on a sunny day, your network may be trained to recognize sunny days and not tanks.

        We already have GMO and He Jiankui affair (human genome-edited babies in 2018). Rabbits and camels in Australia and dingo imported to deal with rabbits.

        Now if your main point is that biological weapons are too hard to control, yes that’s true today. Anthrax doesn’t cause secondary infections so control is easy.

        I agree this is playing with fire, but I think sooner or later someone is going to think they understand it enough to try, and then others will try to catch up. Imagine how devastating covid-19 could be if you could limit it to certain areas.

        1. I’ve worked with that code. Biology makes it look elegant.

          But the claim was not that people would try it it, but that it would “strongly affect” warfare. It is not enough to try it. It must SUCCEED.

      3. @Mary
        You make good points, but sometimes I have trouble understanding what you’re trying to say.

        I think the difference here is I started with the question “How could military possibly improve beyond cover/movement/explosives”. You seem to be more focused on “What’s the most likely next step military is going to take.” That is, I’m looking more into (far) future, with less concern about what’s easy to accomplish.

        I also thought a little about other ideas military is researching, from the science fiction rather than doctrine angle. Gauss guns are interesting, because they have potential to provide superfast projectiles, and possibly completely silent sniper rifles. But I doubt it would have a big enough impact to cause a paradigm shift, which is what I was after. Drones currently need to be controlled, but even if they were autonomous they have some flaws. They’re quite conspicuous because they keep moving. They’re exposed. An airborne platform is an unstable shooting platform. And if we’re going the “autonomous fighting agent” route, weaponized animals sound like a more efficient solution. Nature has perfected these. With animals, you have to develop ways to direct them. With drones, you have to research many things animals already do, which is intelligence, vision, repair/refuelling, production…

        But speaking of drones, I would be more afraid of drones that don’t move, or move on ground, or float (like small blimps). More accurate, quiet and harder to spot.

  11. Although, one of my professors who is a specialist in 20th century warfare always liked to say that for all the talk about Sturmtruppen and mobile warfare WW I was won by methodical planned offensives, and then WW II was won by methodical planned offensives, and that a lot of plans to replace armour and numbers with firepower, communications, and mobility died in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it remains to be seen what would happen if two expensive 21st century armies fought each other, they can’t replace their high-tech kit and highly trained personnel very fast.

    1. For all the inherent coolness of WW1 stormtroopers, the Germans landed on the less useful system. With stormtroopers, they could maintain an offensive until they ran out of stormtroopers, while the combined operations of the Western Allies were effective and sustainable. For once, the Germans were actually out-tacticked at the end of WW1.

  12. It wasn’t touched upon in your article Bret, but I guess biological weapons have similar practical drawbacks to chemical weapons.

    The British-run Operation Vegetarian – pushed forward by Churchill in the second half of the war – involved a plan to drop anthrax-laced cakes across rural Germany, spreading the disease to cattle and, then, to the human population. It was tested on the remote Gruinard Island off the Scottish coast but deemed to be too impractical, mainly being hard to control. The program was halted by the end of the war and never used.

    As an aside, in case you weren’t convinced yet that even western democracies can also be callous, the island was only decontaminated by the government in 1990 after repeated publicity stunts by locals – which included sending the still-contaminated topsoil in a bag to the ruling Conservative Party’s conference.

  13. Upfront admission: I’m distressed to think that moral considerations are ineffective and that efforts to ban immoral weapons won’t succeed unless said weapons also happen to be ineffective.

    Past collections here have noted that battles are not won by killing all the opposition, but by breaking their cohesion. It seems to me that wars rarely end with unconditional surrender, but instead a negotiation when the cost of continuing to fight outweighs any more likely gains.

    Does the use of “immoral” weapons, here chemical, make it more likely that enemies will continue to fight instead of negotiate?

    Wars also require the armed force to be supported by the general population. For industrial warfare logistics and manufacturing is particularly important, but social support also matters. Civilians don’t have to be actively dissenting to affect the outcome, a lack of enthusiasm and initiative won’t be good.

    Does the use of “immoral” weapons make it more likely that elements of your own population will stop supporting the war?

    (Not denying at all that effectiveness or lack thereof also counts, or that I wouldn’t use the ineffectiveness argument in a discussion about chemical weapons.)

    1. @scifihughf:

      I think your intuition is right. If people must fight to death, they are happier when they think they’re the good guys. I think that’s part of the reason armies have priests with them. The other part is that catholic church corporation has invented an incredible information gathering technique, similar to facebook in the sense that people voluntarily give up their information. I’m talking about confession. Confession for people sentenced to death are especially stupid because you end up executing people who received absolution for their sins.

      But don’t forget the whole rogue state thing. No one likes sanctions.

      The use of “immoral” weapons may lead to an escalation. Someone may feel justified to use biological weapons, a dirty bomb, suicide bombers, terrorism, nuclear attacks.

      1. An “information gathering technique” whose gatherers never share the information isn’t much good. Or you can give one example of the Catholic Church using information gained in confession, the way we can give examples of governments using information they obtained by other means.

        Perhaps if you understood the 101-level, introductory-course basics of Catholicism, you would know that the execution of people who receive absolution…is their penance. (Were you under the impression that the point of execution was to ensure that the convict is damned?)

      2. You do realize that as information gathering technique go, one that forbids the person who gets the information from ever telling anyone or acting on the knowledge is probably the worst?

    2. That’s making the fairly large assumption that the populace are more moral than whoever is running a war. Sometimes they are, but sometimes leaders and populace are united in their morality, or lack thereof. And sometimes the leaders are more moral—it may be, for instance, that the populace object to the non-use of immoral weapons, while their military leaders know both moral and pragmatic arguments against them. It presumably wasn’t Pentagon officials sharing the memes that sparked the Fremen mirage series, after all. (Though all too many military professionals who ought to know better certainly have fallen for that and other myths.)

      Just in general, “take power away from X and give it to Y” is never a panacea, in politics. Y will just abuse the power once it has it. The solution is systems like the checks-and-balances and separation of powers you learned about in civics class, which limit the power that any factor in a society can wield.

    3. What I’m trying to say is that I think the loss of international sympathy is what bothers people more than possible loss of their population goodwill. People are *incredibly* good at rationalizing their actions. Doing what they want and producing a justification. International reputation loss can mean not only sanctions, but also allies hesitate to take action.

      This happened to Poland just before WW2. Poland thought it was a great idea to annex Zaolzie, a disputed territory between Czechoslovakia and Poland. Wikipedia:

      “The Germans were delighted with this outcome, and were happy to give up the sacrifice of a small provincial rail centre to Poland in exchange for the ensuing propaganda benefits. It spread the blame of the partition of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, made Poland a participant in the process and confused political expectations. Poland was accused of being an accomplice of Nazi Germany – a charge that Warsaw was hard-put to deny.”

  14. I don’t think the moral reaction is quite as insignificant as you argue – it does drive, for instance, much of the international and even local reaction. This can be contained (for example a great deal of effort went into justifying Iraq’s use of chemical warfare, primarily by painting Iran as worse in various ways), but the need for this highlights the moral salience of the issue.

    The more clever opponents of the modern system of combat have realised that its vulnerabilities are its expense and long lead times, with consequent smallish numbers and lack of depth in mobilisation. So it can be worn down by denial of political victory coupled with constant small-scale attack (see Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iraqi resistance, Vietnam, Iran’s IRGC, the original IRA…). This is not an easy path nor a costless one, but it’s perfectly do-able if you have the political support and a strong organisational structure.

    One common response to this is to use terror (Black & Tans, free-fire zones, bombing, drone assassinations…). Italian use of mustard gas in Ethiopia and Iraqi use against Kurds (Halabja) fall into this category, as does Syrian government use. This is an area where chemical warfare makes military sense – you do not plan to occupy the terrain yourself and are largely immune to retaliation. The morally-driven diplomatic and public relations consequences are probably the only things holding the line.

    1. Ah, that’s why this seemed familiar. Our host is describing fourth generation warfare versus third generation warfare, and you’re talking about fifth. At least, as I understand the terms.

      This is the comment that generated the eureka because most of the discussion I’ve seen is more on the topic of ‘how do you deal with fifth generation warfare?’ than ‘why fourth gen militaries don’t have any use for chemical weapons.’

      1. I find the ‘generations’ of warfare model not very helpful. It implies an evolutionary move where there is none and presents terrorism and insurgency (‘fifth’ and fourth generation respectively) as new, when they are, in fact, the oldest forms of warfare. It also suggests that they are the stronger, better forms when they actually typically fail – most insurgencies facing either static-system (‘second generation’) or modern-system (‘third generation’) armies fail. Most terrorist movements fail to achieve their objectives – many without even ever rising to the level of threat that would require more than a law-enforcement response.

        So I don’t use that model. I just don’t think it is very helpful and it strikes me as having all of the hallmarks of something produced by writers whose knowledge extends no further back than the founding of the United States and so lack the perspective of examining any period before what Andrade terms the ‘Great Divergence’ (what Parker would term the end-phase of the Military Revolution). Quite frankly, American military history (that is, the milhist of the United States) is not long enough to use as the base for ‘general’ theories of military developments.

      2. @Bret Devereaux: I don’t think even only knowing US history, justifies the idea that terrorism or insurgency are the best. The Comanche used terrorism and the Apache and Sioux used insurgency, and look where that got them.

        1. On the other hand, the KKK and similar organizations used terrorism and were able to enforce segregation, voter suppression, and white supremacy for many years.

          Terror is also used as an adjunct to many armies, especially invading occupation forces. Sticking to the 19th and 20th Century, the nazis are the most mentioned for this, but similar techniques were used by the Japanese in China, the Germans in WW1, the Ottomans against the Armenians, the imperialist powers in Africa, the US against First Peoples, reactionary governments against progressives, white supremacist terrorists in the US post-Reconstruction, and, doubtless, many more.

          1. You forgot in your last paragraph the regimes in all communist countries and South American military dictatures too.

          2. Despite their rhetoric, I tend to view bolsheviks as just another variety of reactionary government, collecting power into the hands of a tightly limited elite. They just espoused different rhetoric.

  15. On reflection, the assertion that “most insurgencies [facing static or modern system armies]…fail” can mislead as to their effectiveness. A century ago three-quarters of the world or more was ruled by a handful of powers, and the rest firmly under their thumbs. Now it is not. This did not happen without organised political opposition, usually with a military wing. The military effort was often weak, and sometimes more threat than direct action (the Indian National Army was not a threat to British rule, but the opinions of the Indian Army were – and were known to the British government). The combination of political organisation and military threat has been enormously powerful.

  16. There are a lot of static positions even in a mobile war between modern armies – supply dumps, logistics centers, airfields, possibly headquarters. Hitting them with chemical weapons won’t inflict a lot of casualties, but it does force everyone to work in masks, which is inefficient and not fun at all. That is all you’re looking to achieve, really. You’re not measuring what number of kills you’re achieving compared to HE, you measure the hassle even moderate use creates.

    Of course, with the current taboo against chemical weapons, the window of their use is slim – it needs to be a war that is both important or existential enough that you’re willing to take the international relations hit, but also one where you will have a decent (but not already overwhelming) chance at winning. A mostly conventional World War III in Europe was such a case – it could reasonably go either way. Current Russia probably doesn’t have any such scenario (maybe a total Sino-Russian war, but what does that scenario even look like?). The U.S. probably doesn’t have any either.

    At the very least, it seems that a lot of armies assumed that this would be the war they would be fighting in the 80’s and 90’s – during my military service, it was taken as a given that units like signals. logistics and ground service crews would have to work under sustained chemical attack (obviously the Soviets could have smashed Sweden militarily even back then when we had a decent army, but in a total war situation with multiple opponents, it’s not just about winning, but about committing as little as necessary to a theater). The U.S. assumed early use of chemical weapons from the Soviet Union in its war projections. It’s very hard to see why you would expect your enemy to use a weapon system that plain doesn’t work.

    1. So, here’s my question: if you can locate, target and strike a supply dump, airfield or logistics center – why would you then strike it with chemical weapons, rather than HE PGMs? Chemical munitions make them inefficient, but PGMs will make the same places gone.

      Honestly, from my own look into it, it seems like you are presenting the U.S. intelligence assessments as much more confident and uniform than they were. As I note – and I had links in the above piece to back it up – US intel was not unanimous in supposing wide-spread chemical weapons use. That may not have been obvious on the line – since when does the military tell the guys on the line the whole story? Doctrine often tells unit commanders to take as a given things which are considered only probable or plausible in the actual intelligence assessments.

      But putting that aside, might it not be that any lingering Soviet attachment to chemical munitions was a response to severe shortcomings in their ability to deliver precision munitions?

  17. Sorry for nitpicking a minor detail.

    “German death-squads were in the initial invasion-waves in both Poland and the USSR and the USSR responded in kind.”

    USSR atrocities in Poland were not a response, they started it in cooperation with Germans.

    Maybe something

    “German death-squads and USSR atrocities were present from the beginning of the war.”

    would be better?

      1. Thank you very much for improving the article text! I am very sensitive (maybe oversensitive) in this kind of detail for probably obvious reasons.

        1. It’s important to be accurate! It’s a good change – I have little patience myself for the degree to which Soviet war-crimes are often ignored in American coverage of WWII. It’s too often forgotten that Stalin started the war as Hitler’s ally.

  18. “The modern system is all about fast movement”. Actually, the same applied to various ancient armies – the stalemate between the Roman (Byzantine) and the Parthian Empires in the sixth century was due to both of them having equally fast-moving armies. Neither could get on top of the other, and they were too proud (or too stupid) to back down, so they left themselves weak and open to the irruption from the Arabian desert.

    And chemical weapons having a self-blocking effect – I’d say the same thing applies to the anti-satellite weaponry that certain in the US seem addicted to. If everybody enters firing, earth orbit/s gets crammed with space debris, and you shoot down your own replacement satellites via what is a very expensive Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson device. IQ seems to be in short supply amongst certain militaries – it seems an inalienable characteristic of imperial decline. (Something like that was the major reason I was against SDI/Star Wars in the 80s – you put weapons with a fair amount of autonomy in orbit, and they degrade, and your “defense” winds up shooting down your own satellite launches. The real Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson device was the Gamma-ray Laser, fired by a nuclear device. As far as I know, commercial aircraft aren’t radiation-hardened to a military standard, and EMP stood a fair chance of switching off their electronics. The Third Ronnie could’ve killed more passengers in a single GRASER test firing than any number of terrorists could’ve killed over the preceding sixty years.)

    1. So, in as much as the command of armies is, axiomatically, the management of force, time and space, mobility has always been a factor in warfare. Even static-system armies are not entirely static.

      Nevertheless, I think Biddle is correct to identify something as distinctly different in the way that mobility is used coming out of the first world war. A pre-modern army might move quickly in the hopes of achieving surprise by out-running the word of its report. It might move quickly to try to pre-empt another army. But men marching on foot have no hope of moving so fast that they overwhelm the cognitive capacity of an opponent receiving accurate reports of their disposition to keep track of them. The army is *so much* slower than the decision-loop (ye olde OODA loop: ).

      That kind of mobility is very different from the idea of pressing the operational tempo which is central to modern maneuver warfare doctrines. The latter aim not just to ‘move fast’ in the sense of out-maneuvering an opponent, but rather to move so quickly that the *information* environment becomes hopelessly confused, leaving an opponent in a situation where – even with instantaneous communications (radio, telephone, etc) – they are continuously responding to information which is already out of date by the time it has been processed and analyzed (the OD part of the OODA loop).

      1. Yes, I can see that. The trick is making the fog of war stick to one side more closely than to the other.

        Which raises the question – in the Vietnam War, the US had CC superiority and logistics and deployment superiority, yet they consistently failed to defeat first the Viet Cong – the Viet Cong overextended themselves in the Tet Offensive and failed, rather than the US Army defeating them. And then they failed to defeat the NVA.

        I’ve come across the usual excuses offered but they don’t seem to ring true. The only thing that does seem to ring true is the undeniable reality that nobody in the US Army etc, knew just what they were doing in Vietnam. Which implies that a ragtag force of people absolutely dedicated to their task can see off a much larger and better equipped force with no clear idea of just what they think they are doing.

        Which is another aspect of the fog of war.

  19. Not to be “that guy,” but FWIW there are fairly serious questions about the authenticity of at least some of the claimed Syrian government chemical attacks, particularly the 2018 Douma attack that was used to justify Trump’s round of cruise missile strikes. That attack in particular never seemed to make much sense from a purely military perspective… using chemical weapons on a besieged redoubt of an inferior force, just as it’s about to be overrun anyway, in precisely the way that you’ve already been warned will provoke retaliatory strikes by a superior power? On the other hand, it would seem to make such perfect sense from the perspective of the besieged nearly-defeated rebel group to stage such an attack, a desperate attempt to “call in the cavalry” as it were, that even if you’re extremely hostile to the suggestion that any chemical attacks in the Syrian civil war may have been staged at all, it’d still make sense for you to bring up the possibility of such false-flag tactics if only in order to dismiss the idea forcefully.

    Actually I think the most notable pattern with your two instances of large-scale modern chemical weapons use, aside from anything to do with the immediate miliary situation itself, is that both cases have been seized on after the fact as part of the propaganda push by a modern-system military superpower to justify an unprovoked attack against a less advanced enemy. (Remember in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, when the director of the OPCW was so unwilling to play ball with the Bush administration’s WMD propaganda that John Bolton had to literally threaten his family to bully him into resigning?) Which again, also fits extremely well with your broader point that the importance of chemical weapons for modern-system powers is largely on the level of smug ideological self-flattery, not anything to do with the battlefield itself.

  20. Tear gas is chemical warfare.

    Drawing distinctions between authoritarian regimes that can give independence to lower commands and democratic ones that can seems more motivated by political aims than required by analysis. The difference between militaries actively engaged in multiple wars over long periods of times in widespread areas of the world, i.e, between imperialist powers and between unaggressive powers whose militaries have no clear purpose, much less perpetual refinement in the crucible of war, seems more relevant.

    Also, given the developments in CCC where drones can be operated from thousands of miles away, satellite communications, etc. it is by no means clear to me that local command authority is so important as imagined. This may even be as much a mirage as the Fremen?

  21. What’s your understanding of the reasons behind the ban on expanding bullets in war? That happened long before body armour that could stop bullets became common. My understanding was that the ban under the Hague Conventions of 1899 was explicitly motivated by moral objection to excessive and inhumane injury caused by expanding bullets, on the grounds that a smaller wound channel was sufficient to incapacitate a soldier.

    You could make a case that smaller wounds are more likely to lead to the soldier surviving, forcing the enemy to provide medical care for him, but you could also argue that larger wounds are more likely to permanently cripple the soldier, preventing him from rejoining the war effort. Moreover, larger wounds are significantly more effective at stopping a charging soldier before he gets close enough to bayonet you, which was an important concern at the time.

    This seems sufficient to establish either that states were capable of agreeing not to use weapons out of fear of reciprocal use long before the concept of MAD was introduced, or else that moral objections are sometimes enough to prevent the use of effective weapons.

  22. I suspect the next evolution will be tied to drones and prevention of force projection, particularly naval force projection. Around most of the world the US dominates through the force projection of Carrier Groups. The logical response to that for any other nation would be to figure out how to either eliminate those carriers, or neutralize their ability to project force.

    I have no technical notion of how complex or viable a drone swarm would be at sinking a carrier. Would 1 million small drones all launched at once be able to disable a carrier? Would a swarm of drones over a given area be able to deny the airspace to enemy planes (possibly while allowing their own planes at the same time). What if they just caused every plane or every second that launched from a carrier to crash on takeoff by flying into their engines? Can drones be programmed to be self-propelled intelligent flak? If the first few dozen or hundred gazillion dollar planes to start a bombing mission were to be shot down, how many more would NATO or whoever send before they had to change plans?

  23. This raises another question: why have biological weapons also not seen use?
    They’re easier to guard your guys against while leaving the enemy vulnerable, and a false flag release leaves more diplomatic options than just immediately getting hit with everyone else’s strategic weapons in retaliation.
    A nation could, for example claim that they caught some terrorists working for their enemy, or working for a third party who they initially thought were their enemy, releasing the weapon on their soil, and that’s how they got any vaccine. Then they either only use it on themselves, or they sell it abroad in order to gain support for the conventional war they would have started.

  24. As a Canadian, i got a good laugh out of that caption “prepared to apologize some aircraft right out of the sky”. Too funny!

  25. Re: the effectiveness of Sarin in the 1995 Tokyo Subway attack:

    The description I’ve read of the events (Robert Lifton’s book “Destroying The World To Save It”, specifically. I’m like 90% sure is where I remember it from.) noted that the sarin used was rather impure (they had to rush its production — presumably a military would not. Aum Shinrikyo itself had produced much purer sarin for previous attacks iirc) and lost a lot of effectiveness from that. The estimates given in the book (I don’t remember where these estimates were sourced from — I don’t have the book in front of me) claimed the deaths would have been 1 to 2 orders of magnitude greater with actually pure sarin.

Leave a Reply