If you have not seen the 2017 film ‘Carnage’ you are probably not alone- but it might be worth a watch. This film depicts a futuristic vegan society coming to terms with its meat eating past. It captures the transition quite well- recapping the campaigns which led society to abandon meat and for the taboo against the practice to solidify. I alas am an un-awakened meat eater, and watched this at a time I was thinking about weapon prohibitions- and specifically chemical weapons.
The idea of moral progress is something which most of us in some abstract sense probably buy into- but we are perhaps right to be cynical of those who profess a route towards it. In the context of thinking about warfare in particular, be it why or how wars are fought- those who advocate for moral limits on warfare are often treated as naïve. Indeed, if we think about the discussion of chemical weapons in conflict in recent years it is clear that such norms are not off-limits in terms of politicization. Added to this, it is clear that in times of war, the practice of singling out specific forms of war-crime in the context of others is always open to the charge of particularism.
But despite the problem of enforcing ideals, in a non ideal world- it is truly quite amazing that chemical weapons have been in the main externalized from state arsenals- something which is the product of happenstance and self-interest in as much as it is moral restraint. The apparent survivability and adaptability of this norm meant that the use against soldiers and civilians throughout the 20th century became part of the story of stigmatization rather than of the normalization of such weapons. Such stigmatization, to some extent has served to stunt the development of an entire generation of weapon systems.
We have not however, ended war- and the destruction and lies, and horrors which characterise it- which brings to mind that often quoted statement about the UN not being built to take us to heaven, but to save us from hell. It is clear that the chemical weapons norm has to a great extent served to close down the dark technological promise of chemical weapons- which would have likely otherwise supplemented ‘conventional’ weapon systems; which continue to maim and kill on a massive scale in a largely indiscriminate fashion. Indeed, those working in disarmament are on one hand treated as naïve optimists- and yet on another the focus on a specific weapon system as part of a campaign is deeply pragmatic. There is then no purity to disarmament, it sits among the dead – but its history continues to beg questions about the possibility of progress, or at least the resistance to the continued existential and ontological threat of technology enabled military overkill which stalks humanity.
Coming back to that film you probably haven’t seen on veganism ( it really is excellent). Evolving taboos are what make the past a foreign country. Indeed, I came across a long out-of-print book by the polymath J.B.S Haldane. Someone who is occasionally remembered today for his work popularising science. His writing reveals a sharp mind, tainted by the prejudices of his age ( and it appears some of his own making)- many of which make his work quite revolting to read today.
Haldane, writing in 1925, dismissed the prospect of a comprehensive prohibition of chemical weapons as sentimental- and argued that the objection to ‘scientific weapons’ of the late First World War were essentially the product of ignorance and fear of the new. He foresaw no possibility of multilateral prohibition- and called for investment into both chemical defence and offence. He also saw little sense in comprehensive prohibition- arguing that ‘mustard gas, when we have got over our first not very rational objection to them, turn out to be, on the whole, good’. Such technological optimism, came despite the fact that he himself foresaw the use of existing chemical weapons against civilians in the context of the aerial bombardment of cities- and saw great potentials in the ability to increase the lethality of such weapons. He also argued that the UK, at the earliest opportunity, should denounce the Washington Naval Treaty -a treaty which would prove to be the first in a long line of agreements to distinguish and eventually completely prohibit the development, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. Today these weapons are rightly recognised as abhorrent.
Yet his cynicism, would have looked shrewd to many at the time- and indeed, predictions about the bombing of civilians which were prevalent in the 1920’s would be shortly realised. He was also right that chemical warfare investment would lead to significant advances in both offence and defence. Yet, for whatever reasons – the norm against the first use of chemical weapons against others states did in effect ‘hold’ and solidify during he next global war – with belligerants in Europe refraining from use against each other. However, chemical weapons were employed by Japan in this period- and were also used by a number of states to quell insurgencies. Defoliant agents were also used on a massive scale by the US in Vietnam.
The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, epitomised by the Halabja massacre, would also prove to be the death knell for chemical warfare programmes; which continue today in an ever dwindling number of states. History could have been very different in this regard- but it wasn’t. This is no concrete guarantee against re-emergence, but it has meant that chemical weapon use is now the exception rather than the norm. Although of course, modern warfare is still brutal, barbaric and senseless.
It seems likely, that contemporary preoccupations with bans on specific types of weapon will one day seem odd in their own way- but it is not quite yet certain how history will date them. The optimistic soul working in this field, so often accused of being blinkered or naïve, should perhaps hope they will be labelled an unambitious pragmatists by future generations. And that these isolated islands of action will be swallowed up by broader humanitarian norms of both war and peace at the global level.
By Brett Edwards
Cover image: Dust cover of Orson Well’s ‘ The shape of things to come’ published in 1933. Which predicted the wide-spread use of carpet bombing tactics against cities in the Second World War, as well as the spectre of large scale chemical weapon attacks.