The Gassing Still Haunts

Posted: April 26, 2014

It is a story buried on Page A8 of the Wall Street Journal. “Gas Attacks Renewed in Syria.” A picture that accompanies the story shows little kids crying and clutching their chests. The story indicated that a chlorine-like gas has been used on civilians in Syria.

Chlorine is a pretty diabolical choice. From my training in chemical warfare, Chlorine is heavier than air and evaporates quickly. Previous chemical agents used in Syria were nerve agents. These linger in an area and can be detected long after their use. UN inspectors can certify that a nerve agent had been used and the world can condemn the perpetrator. With chlorine gas, the evidence is quickly gone.

The First World War started 100 years ago this August. This was the conflict where chemical agents were first used on a large scale. German chemists moved cylinders of chlorine gas to the front lines near Ypres, Belgium in April of 1915. Once in place, the commanders waited for the wind to blow toward the English trenches. On April 22, the Germans released gas from almost 6,000 canisters.

The success of the first gas attack was overwhelming. The English lines crumbled.  German infantry advanced but was not prepared to take full advantage of the success of the poison gas attack. Of course, gas was used by all sides throughout the rest of the war.

In one of the most memorable poems from WWI an English officer named Wilfred Owen writes about a gas attack in his poem. “Dulce Et Decorum Est”:

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime …
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face …
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues….

In Syria, the usual suspects point fingers in accusation at each other and the carnage continues.

Often, when chemical weapons are mentioned in a news article they are called “weapons of mass destruction.” While chemical weapons can kill people on a large scale, these weapons should also be called “weapons of terror.” Once deployed, word of their use spreads. Once this fear is in a community, it is simple for a helicopter or airplane to deploy a cloud of plain green smoke over an area. It is impossible to tell if the smoke is chlorine gas until it is too late.

Fearing a gas attack, anxious civilians will head to rooftops or out into the street to get away from the lower areas. Because the chlorine gas is heavier than air, it sinks into places where people need to hide from the effects of shelling. The terrorized population comes out of their bunkers and runs to the rooftops or higher ground. Once flushed, they are easy targets for artillery or snipers.

The terrified will flee; in the Syrian conflict this means civilians are filling refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Assad, the president of Syria, remains in power and the chemical warfare genie is loose on the planet once again.

Many in the United States think this is really not our problem. That people in the Middle East have a penchant for killing each other and we really should not interfere. But the longer the killing continues, the longer refugees trudge into camps, the more unstable this area will become. Sooner or later it will be our concern. Outrage and condemnation from all nations can stop this, along with hard-hitting diplomatic and military actions to stem the violence.

Unlike the cynical title in Wilfred Owen’s poem, no one in Syria is dying a glorious death for their country. Unfortunately a scourge, brought forth in Ypres Belgium in 1917, still haunts us all.