War itself is the enemy


Why is poison gas outlawed in war? As a weapon it is hard to control, hitting combatants and noncombatants alike. That is a large part of the reason why nations agreed nearly a century ago to place it in a special category. But chemicals certainly aren’t the only indiscriminate means of killing and injuring people.
War itself guarantees that innocent people will suffer. There will be so-called collateral damage whenever anyone resorts to large scale violence. Bystanders will be shot. Children will be crushed and blown up. The recent use of poison gas in Syria’s civil war was tragic for those affected by it, but their number is tiny compared to the tens of thousands killed in the usual ways.
Weapons considered “conventional” killed millions of Japanese people during World War II before another 200,000 or so died from the two atomic bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That new weapon captured the world’s imagination in somewhat the same way that use of poison gas in World War I did, but there is no similar international agreement outlawing atomic bombs.
What keeps us safe from the new weapons is fear; primarily fear that their use will blow back on us in the form of retaliation in kind. At bottom, it was the same kind of fear that led to the outlawing of poison gas.
Perhaps we are more honest now in our assessment of what war does. After the enormous carnage of World War II, the first widespread case of total war in human history, we know that one weapon alone makes a difference only in the short term. Human ingenuity will always find another one; and conventional weapons can do their own massive indiscriminate killing.
The American firebombing of Tokyo, Japan, killed an estimated 100,000 people on the night of March 9-10, 1945. By scattering small incendiary bombs across a broad area of the city, a giant fireball was created from the combined heat. Wooden structures disappeared, glass melted and river water boiled. The horror was not different from that of the atomic bombs – perhaps was worse because it built and stretched for hours.
In answer to the question above, the outlawing of poison gas is a symbol, a sign that the civilized world will not tolerate indiscriminate killing in any circumstance, including war. Of course the sign is violated around the edges by nearly everyone involved in wars. Innocent noncombatants are regular victims of our drones as well as their suicide bombers. But at least there is a public sign, a symbol, a “red line” to remind us that our destructive power must have limits.
Beyond that limit we are no longer human.
If only we could agree that war itself is subhuman. As a means of correcting injustice it adds further injustice as innocent people suffer. War is true, indiscriminate violence. Its weapons — whether bullets, bombs or chemistry — are only interchangeable tools.
Frank Wessling

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