Back to Basics # 38
I don't know if it will turn out to be (on balance, in the long run) wise policy to give arms to the rebels against the regime of Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria. I do know that it will harm intelligent debate on the subject if we play the linguistic games that led up to the US invasion of Iraq.
So I'm going to get back to a military basic a number of us stressed for the last wars and well summarized by the logline in Gregg Easterbrook's essay in The New Yorker for 7 Oct. 2002, asserting that "Nukes" — atomic munitions and hydrogen bombs — "Are the Only Weapons of Mass Destruction" ("Term Limits: The Meaninglessness of WMD," pp. 22-25).
Let me start with a story.
Long ago, I took a required Army ROTC course in CBR: Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Warfare. We'll return to the "CBR" designation so keep it in mind, but this story is about a student's trying to distract Sgt. Yanek, our instructor, with a question on news stories about a rumored 50- or 100-megaton Russian bomb. Yanek said that the fear was that even testing such a bomb might crack the crust of the Earth or get the Earth wobbling on its axis and thereby cracking the crust — but that seemed unlikely with just the test of one bomb though somewhat more plausible in case of full-scale nuclear warfare and the explosion in a limited area of several such bombs.
The inquiring student noted that Sgt. Yanek didn't seem very concerned. Yanek replied, "Well, maybe I shouldn't say this (our motto for World War III being 'Survive, Struggle, Prevail'), but the way I figure it is that by the time the Russians set off their bombs and we set off our bombs, and the Chinese and English and French and God knows who all else set off theirs — WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! So no, I ain't worried about no 50-megaton Russian bomb."
On another occasion, a student asked Yanek why chemical warfare (poison gas) wasn't used in recent warfare. Short answer was that poison gas is forbidden under international law. Yanek pushed the point, though. It was once forbidden for submarines to sink ships without giving warning. What happened to that prohibition? The student noted that submarines don't give warning and let people abandon ship — they just sink the ships. Yanek noted that bombing civilian populations was once forbidden. The student replied that the Axis and more so the Allies bombed cities during World War II.
The requirement that subs give warning went quickly because giving that warning was dangerous to subs and submariners and sinking ships through surprise attack was highly effective. People argue about the effectiveness of "strategic bombing," but the UK Royal Air Force, US Army Air Corps and later the US Air Force thought bombing cities — and their civilian inhabitants — useful for winning wars.
The rules against chemical and biological warfare had held, and Yanek thought there was a crucial underlying reason for that: "We have much more efficient ways of killing enemies than germs or poison gas."
Also better ways to wound or maim: we'd been taught that severely wounding or, best of all, maiming was better than killing enemies. Dead bodies can be buried fairly easily and cheaply; wounded and maimed fighters require treatment and care and are a drain on enemy resources. Also, young men tend to fear maiming more than death, and inspiring fear is crucial in warfare.
Nerve gas and anthrax are nasty weapons, and you don't want to be around a "dirty bomb" like a grenade wrapped in medical radiologicals. Still, if you want to kill (wound, maim) enemies, high explosives, fragmentation weapons, incendiaries and similar conventional armament give more bang for the buck: higher body counts per kilo of killing agent.
And nuclear weapons are in a class all by themselves. Massed artillery, a naval fleet, and carpet-bombing can cause mass destruction, using many, many weapons. One moderate-size atomic bomb can by itself cause massive destruction and widespread death; and thermonuclear war could destroy the human species.
So it was significant when the war wonks (nomenclature division) changed "CBR" to "NBC": Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical" warfare. Such a switch makes sense after the development of the neutron bomb, which is both thermonuclear and radiological: a very small hydrogen bomb that kills primarily through radiation; but the name change was a bad idea since it lumped together terrorist "dirty bombs" and old chemical weapons like mustard gas or nerve gas with large, city-killer hydrogen bombs.
And then the linguistic engineers of the UN Security Council (Resolution 687, 1991) and the writers of the FISA Amendment Act of 2008 defined by fiat CBR weapons as "Weapons of Mass Destruction" — and "WMD" entered politics and remains in political play.<>
So if Mr. Assad attacks his people with nerve gas or weaponized anthrax or radioactive medical waste, it will be a terrible thing. But he won't be dropping atom bombs on them, and he is not using "weapons of mass destruction." He'd be using CBR terror weapons in what is largely psychological warfare and political maneuvering; he could kill more by conventional means. (Ask the surviving Sunnis in the town of Hama about how thorough the Syrian military can be with conventional weapons.)
If the United States gets seriously involved in Syria, it should be to stop murders by whoever is doing the murdering, and — the point here— is should be to stop the slaughter whether the slaughter is committed by biological agents or bayonets, nerve gas or fragmentation grenades or bullets to the back of the head. And before advocating US warfare anywhere, people should keep in mind the saying from the Vietnam era, cleaned up for here: "Fighting for the sake of peace is like copulating for the sake of chastity." Military action ordinarily involves killing, and killing to save lives is always problematic; and deciding military issues requires in addition to warm-hearted compassion a whole deal of careful thought and cold calculation.
Such thought means keeping categories clear and asking if by "WMD" a politician or pundit is talking about apocalyptic thermonuclear weapons or just lethal weapons with a bad reputation.