As we eye Syria, mil­i­tary-force def­i­ni­tions mat­ter

Dayton Daily News - - Ideas & Voices - By Richard Er­lich Guest Colum­nist Richard D. Er­lich is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Miami Univer­sity in Ox­ford. He is cur­rently re­tired in Ven­tura County, Calif.

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.

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