As we eye Syria, military-force definitions matter
I don’t know if it will turn out to be 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 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Long ago, I took a required Army ROTC course in “CBR” — chemical, biological and radiological warfare. A student tried to distract Sgt. Yanek, our instructor, with a question about a rumored 50or 100-megaton Russian bomb. Yanek said that the fear was that even testing such a bomb might crack the crust of the Earth.
The student noted that Sgt. Yanek didn’t seem very concerned. Yanek replied: “Well, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but, the way I figure, 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 else set off theirs — we’re all gonna die! So no, I ain’t worried about no 50megaton Russian bomb.”
A student asked Yanek why chemical warfare (poison gas) wasn’t used. 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 it was dangerous to subs and sinking ships through surprise attack was highly effective. People argue about the effectiveness of “strategic bombing,” but the Royal Air Force, U.S. Army Air Corps and later the U.S. Air Force thought bombing cities — and their civilian inhabitants — useful for winning wars.
Rules against chemical and biological warfare had held, and Yanek thought there was a crucial underlying reason: “We have much more efficient ways of killing enemies than germs or poison gas.”
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 enemies, high explosives, fragmentation weapons, incendiaries and similar conventional armament give more bang for the buck.
And nuclear weapons are in a class all by themselves. Massed artillery, a naval fleet and carpetbombing can cause mass destruction, using many, many weapons. One moderate-size atomic bomb can cause massive destruction and widespread death; and thermonuclear war could destroy the human species.
So it was significant when the war wonks changed “CBR” to “NBC” — nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. Such a switch makes sense af- ter the development of the neutron bomb, which is both thermonuclear and radiological, but the name change was a bad idea since it lumped together terrorist “dirty bombs” and old chemical weapons, like mustard gas, with large, city-killer hydrogen bombs.
And then the linguistic engineers of the U.N. Security Council and writers of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 defined 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, 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.
If we get seriously in- volved in Syria, it should be to stop murders by whoever is doing the murdering — and the point here — whether the slaughter is committed by biological agents, bayonets, fragmentation grenades or bullets. But military action ordinarily involves killing, and killing to save lives is always problematic.
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.
Richard D. Erlich is a professor emeritus at Miami U niversity.