I want to declare an interest. My grandfather was gassed in the First World War. He survived with terrible respiratory problems, suffering frequent, asthma-like attacks that made him fight for every breath.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
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.
At the outbreak of the “Great War”, the British Army formed “Pals battalions” of men recruited together from the same town. It seemed like a good idea; schoolfriends, neighbors and workmates would serve together in units, many of whose members were already known to each other. Many were related. They had common interests, supported the same football team, drank at the same pubs… They would look out for each other, knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses…
Yes, it seemed like a good idea. Until the mass slaughter began on an industrial scale in the trenches. Gas, enhanced machine guns, aerial warfare, tanks, barbed wire, acres of mud… It was called, “The war to end all wars”.
In a single battle, families could lose husbands, sons, fathers, brothers… and after a few battles, a whole generation of able men was removed from many of the major cities of Britain. Growing up in the industrial city of Bradford, I regarded as normal the great number of elderly ladies living alone, wearing black. These were women who never married, their fiances lost on the fields of battle, or who were widowed young. My experience of Chemical Warfare has been at third hand. But I have seen too much of it.
After the war, there were many attempts to outlaw the use of chemical weapons:-
- The Washington Conference (1921–22)
- Geneva Conference (1923–25) : NB. The US Senate did not ratify the 1925 Protocol until 1975
- The World Disarmament Conference (1933)
The current best hope is the Chemical Weapons Convention. 189 states are party to the CWC. Syria is not a signatory.
We should think about that. Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Syria has never promised not to use chemical weapons. Syria has retained the legal right to use such weapons, in its own eyes. And yet, much of the world feels that Syria should be prevented from doing so and that its leaders should be punished as war criminals.
We should also remember the (shall we say) “erroneous” intelligence about Weapons of Mass Destruction used to justify the Iraq War. Some claim that the war was illegal under international law. At the time, I personally felt that Iraq would be a better place without Saddam, irrespective of the “evidence”. We all make mistakes, but we should learn from them.
Would an attempt to stop Syria from using Chemical Weapons be legal, even if the UN supports it?
Such action would be imposing external moral values upon a country that has rejected them. This would be called a “Just War”, and how many wars have been called that? On the anniversary of 9/11 we should all think deeply about who has the right to use force against someone whose values they reject. We should think about Just Wars, Jihads and Crusades.
Although we need to ensure that our moral compass is not over-tuned, and that international law is upheld, to balance this, I offer Edmund Burke‘s timeless warning…
“All it takes for evil to succeed is for a few good men [and women] to do nothing.”