Last week I wrote (with Raj Persaud) about the deep psychological effects of chemical weapons and invisible stressors upon civilian populations—making the case that their use must be considered outside the red lines of acceptable combat practices because of the pervasive psychological horror they cause.
Today I’d like to acknowledge, as many of the commentaries to that post noted, that Syria is not the only country that has used chemical weapons, and discuss what has changed to make an international community that itself once relied upon chemical weapons now more willing to draw a red line in the case of Assad’s having allegedly gassed his own people.
Indeed, the very countries calling for Assad’s surrender of chemical weapons were once involved in their production and proliferation. Mustard gas was used in World War One. And even the Americans produced and supplied mustard gas to Europe for potential retaliatory use against the Germans in World War II (although they did not deploy it). Hitler gassed thousands of military and civilian prisoners to death, Iraq used gas against the Kurds, and in the Vietnam war the U.S. used chemical agents—namely spraying Napalm and Agent Orange over heavily forested areas in an attempt to deforest the areas where the enemy combatants were hiding. And only recently, Israel was accused of using banned phosphorous in its bombs detonated over Gaza.
Is there then a hypocrisy in drawing a red line in the case of Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his opposition forces and their civilian family members? And what changed in the West for these agents to now be considered crossing the Red Line?
In the case of the recent past and the U.S. use of Napalm and Agent Orange, it should be pointed out that the actual targets for these chemical agents were vegetation, under which enemy combatants were sheltering, not people. The problem was that the chemical agents did not fall only on trees but fell also on enemy combatants—and much more disturbingly also on innocent civilians. And the results for some were catastrophic.
But very few here at home knew about it. That is until a particularly disturbing photo of a naked little girl screaming as she ran helplessly trying to escape the burning Napalm adhered to her backside was published in LIFE magazine.
That one photo brought the horrific realities of the U.S. military’s use of Napalm and the Vietnam War’s unintended effects on innocent civilians home to an American public who increasingly became disenchanted of supporting the ongoing war efforts. The horror captured in a photo began dramatically to turn the tide of domestic public opinion about the Vietnam War and the U.S. use of Napalm in that war.
While Napalm had immediate horrific effects on civilians during the Vietnam War—and was used for years despite those effects—Agent Orange, another defoliating agent, was also sprayed over these populations. Agent Orange, is now believed to be linked to long-term illness and birth defects among those exposed to it.
Years after the war, Vietnam veterans with health problems linked to their exposure to Agent Orange successfully forced seven chemical firms to accept liability and pay damages that the U.S. government refused to indemnify them for. U.S. and international chemical companies began to understand that there were real monetary risks to producing chemical weapons—and that damages could be sought for their wartime use. This caused many of them to refuse to produce new agents when the U.S. government requested them to do so. Dow Chemical even found its representatives rebuffed at many college campuses in response to their manufacture of Napalm—many young engineers did not want to work for a company that produced an agent that had horrifically burned small children. Likewise, many consumers boycotted Dow consumer product “saran wrap” in efforts to get them to stop producing Napalm.
During the same time period the American public was also beginning to understand the deep psychological costs of war to our youth sent overseas. The media began publicizing the newly understood posttraumatic stress disorder that many Vietnam veterans suffered from. With movies, interviews, and photos of the war infiltrating back home, more than ever before the public began to understand that many of our young soldiers returned home deeply changed and psychologically wounded from their experiences in war. Immediate and dramatic media coverage of the Vietnam War and its after effects was sensitizing the entire population to the horrors of war—including the use of chemical agents and their potential rebound effect on our own soldiers. Red lines were being drawn in the minds of many.
Given the U.S. and international community’s previous use of chemical agents during war some now feel justified to ask about the moral grounds of those who are presently decrying Assad’s alleged, and in the eyes of many—established—use of chemical weapons upon his own people. Are members of that same community not entirely innocent of having used chemicals themselves? What right do they have to condemn Assad? What has changed?
In addressing the potential for hypocrisy in decrying Assad’s use of chemical weapons we must point out that there is a crucial, although still disturbing, difference between a state actor that uses chemical agents for an arguably legitimate combat reason—targeting the foliage under which enemy combatants are sheltering, and who inadvertently harms civilians, but does not desist—than one who knowingly sets out to use chemical weapons to cause civilian deaths.
And despite that we see in our own American history that one picture—of a naked little girl screaming as she tries to flee the Napalm that is already melting the flesh of her backside—drew a red line for millions of Americans and turned the tide of public support against its use.
Likewise, now the videos of children, women and civilians choking from the sarin gas used in Syria is so horrifying that anyone watching immediately understands that this type of act cannot be tolerated—it is too horrible. Sarin gas is a weapon that is not limited to attacking enemy combatants or the forests under which the enemy shelters. Instead it chokes the life out of innocents too young to have a side or be involved in a battle and it creates a wave of terror throughout the whole population. And that creates a red line that all must respect—including those who crossed it before or dare cross it today.