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  • Considering the Unthinkable: Chemical Weapons in Modern Warfare
  • Dennis E. Showalter (bio)
Charles Stephenson's The Admiral's Secret Weapon and Kim Coleman's A History of Chemical Warfare Jonathan Tucker's War of Nerves

The use of chemical weapons can be traced back to the ancient world—as can efforts to limit or prohibit their use. But the roots of chemical warfare proper are best sought in the nineteenth century. It was an age of war, an age of science, and an age of experimentation. Thomas Cochrane, the tenth Earl of Dundonald, is best known as a heroic and controversial officer of the Royal Navy and several others as well. Indeed, he served as the model for Captain Jack Aubrey, and some of his real-life achievements would have made Patrick O'Brian's fictional hero stand in awe. But Cochrane was also an amateur of science. As early as 1811 he developed plans for deploying smoke and sulfur from specialized vessels as asphyxiants against land targets. Undiscouraged by initial rejection as contrary to the laws of war,Dundonald revived his "Secret War Plans" during the Crimean War. The ensuing debate on their possible use and eventual pigeonholing is the core of Charles Stephenson's intriguing exploration of one of naval history's unfamiliar byways, The Admiral's Secret Weapon.1

Unlike others who have written about Dundonald, Stephenson takes his ideas seriously and treats his plans as feasible. He makes a defensible case. His concluding hypothesis—that in the early stages of World War I crucial elements of the "Plans" fell into German hands and inspired their initial use [End Page 456] of poison gas—is less credible. In presenting it, however, he establishes beyond dispute that the British were, from the beginning, at least as interested in the prospects of deploying asphyxiants on the western front as were the often-vilified Huns.

According to Kim Coleman's useful brief overview, A History of Chemical Warfare, the systematic integration of chemistry into war after 1918 had two consequences. One was the near-certain invention of new and more lethal compounds. The other was the threat of rapid, large-scale production of those chemicals in easily convertible facilities for use in a surprise attack. The League of Nations sought—vainly—to establish effective legal restraints on the development and use of chemical agents. But the Royal Air Force allegedly dropped gas bombs on Afghans in 1920 and the French and Spanish used gas in Morocco five years later. Research continued unabated. In 1933 Japan established an Army Chemical School that turned out more than 3,000 specialists in its twelve-year run. As early as 1936 a German scientist seeking a more effective insecticide discovered tabun, the first effective nerve gas. Odorless and colorless, it was lethal whether inhaled or absorbed through the skin.

A new era in chemical warfare seemed to be emerging. Italy in Abyssinia and Japan in China gave point to the notion by extensive use of chemicals against opponents unable for practical purposes to retaliate. During World War II the major combatants maintained large stocks of chemical weapons, frequently close to operational sectors. That they were not used has often been ascribed to a mutual deterrent effect. Coleman is more convincing in her argument that circumstances were never quite sufficient to convince anyone that chemical weapons would have an effect decisive enough to overcome the combination of military and nonmilitary restraints on their use.

That barrier was frequently approached, however, and during the cold war chemical weapons underwent continued development alongside nuclear weapons. While briefly mentioning Soviet and British experiments, Coleman concentrates on the development of gases and delivery systems by the United States, culminating in their employment in Vietnam on a scale more significant than generally understood or acknowledged. Nonlethals, especially defoliants, and derivatives like napalm made up by far the largest body of use. Coleman nevertheless argues that, at the very least, the United States used allegedly nonlethal gases in concentrations and circumstances with lethal potential. Nor have American authorities been exactly forthcoming on the details of chemical war in Vietnam.

Coleman's discussion of post-Vietnam developments emphasizes the increasing use of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 456-458
Launched on MUSE
2008-05-02
Open Access
No
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