Thursday, 26 September 2013

Poison Gas and Our Poisoned Values

by Robert C. Koehler                           Common  Dreams                  September 26, 2013

The 1925 Geneva Protocol, in response to the horrors of World War I, banned the use of asphyxiating and poisonous gases in war, but not, incredibly, their development or manufacture. It took the civilized world another seven decades to do that. In the meantime, there was plenty of manufacturing, developing and stockpiling of poison gas weaponry going on, including in the United States, up to and well beyond World War II.
One factual tidbit I find fascinating is that Otto Ambros, a Nazi scientist and co-inventor of Sarin, convicted of crimes against humanity at Nuremberg, came to the US 1951, after serving half his term, and began advising the U.S. Army on its own chemical weapons program in the ’50s. Could the reality of geopolitics be exposed in starker relief? For all the moral pretenses of war and militarism, the game has no moral boundaries whatsoever.
The fact that the initial U.S. response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of poison gas was to bomb the country simply indicates the reckless irresponsibility of thinking in terms of military solutions to anything. Of course the moral issue was just a pretext to go to war, but even on its own terms, this was a preposterous “solution”: Bombing storage facilities could easily release the toxic substances being stored.
Poison gas is lethal whether it’s used or not. Consider the U.S. stockpile of around 30,000 tons of it, stored or buried, hastily and temporarily, in sites all over the country. The 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention treaty banned its manufacture and stockpiling and gave signing nations a decade to get rid of their stockpiles. “As a rule, chemical weapons are easier to make than to destroy,” the New York Times reported recently.“ Everybody forgets that none of these weapons were designed to be peacefully disassembled,” the Times quotes an Army spokesman as saying. “It was always assumed that they’d be used.”
Why is that not a surprise? This kind of cynicism is all we ask of military planners, quick as they are to invoke moral rectitude as a pretext for using their lethal toys. And remember, most of our stockpiled weapons were manufactured in the wake of the 1925 Geneva Convention banning their use. Much as we imagine that our nation has a cornerstone of moral values, I fear it’s an illusion.
And of course we’re reaping the consequences of that illusion. Consider that, for many decades prior to the onset of environmental consciousness, the U.S. military, tasked with getting rid of what it no longer needed, simply buried it, burned it or dumped it in the ocean, long-term consequences be damned.
Eight years ago, John M. R. Bull wrote an extraordinary investigative piece for the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va., detailing the extent of the Army’s jettisoning of obsolete poison gas canisters and other toxic trash. Summing up his findings afterward, I wrote: “Turns out, according to Army documents the paper obtained, from the end of World War II until 1970, the Army jettisoned 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents, 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste into the coastal waters off 11 states that virtually ring the country; has only a vague idea where these dump sites are; has made only haphazard stabs at monitoring a few of the sites even though leakage and container breakdown are inevitable; and has not bothered to inform the affected states or other agencies about the dumping.”
Add to all this our nuclear stockpiling and ongoing development, our use of white phosphorous and depleted uranium, our complicity in Iraq’s use of poison gas against Iran and Iraqi Kurds back in the ’80s, and I’m wondering how we can ever atone for what we’ve done, let alone clean up the leftovers.   [Abridged]
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