Morality, Legality, Humanity

John Singer Sargent’s 1918 painting “Gassed”

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.

Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum est“, 1917

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.

Humanity, Again

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.”

6 thoughts on “Morality, Legality, Humanity

  1. I for one, don’t think that the US should interfere, unless the threat would be detrimental to us. I’m a Vietnam Era Army Veteran. I will heed the call should I be needed. However! We are tired. Let the UN handle it. They are supposed to be the
    world’s guardian, not us. Blessings.


    1. My respect to you as a Vet. Vietnam still holds a powerful grip on the American imagination. Quite rightly.

      The US should have learned the big military lesson there : “Never start something you can’t finish”. But it did not prevent involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, not forgetting Lebanon and Somalia. And, yes, the UK and others joined in; I’m not pointing fingers across the Atlantic.

      But, over Syria… the uncertainty caused by alternatively sabre-rattling, then delaying to seek democratic/legal authority to go in does seem to have done the trick, with Putin coming onboard and Syria offering to destroy its chemical weapons. One cost estimate for the arsenal’s destruction is $1 billion. It’s more expensive to destroy than to manufacture such weapons. Sadly, Syria does not have such monies in the middle of a civil war, and I can guess who will have to stump up for the destruction.

      However, it’s better to pay $1 billion to remove the problem than to spend that amount every day plus countless lives by sending in troops.


  2. shanedean99037

    Very good insight. Thank you for sharing this. I think a lot of people have forgotten why chemical weapons are such a horrible thing, even compared to the other horrible things of warfare, it still stands out. I posted last week about Syria as well in my own blog, I hope you check it out and would like to know what you think. One last thing. I was not aware of how the fighting forces were organized during World War I. It is sad to think of towns losing their entire male population. Thank you for bringing the scope of this tragedy to attention. My great grandfather was also in World War I. He was shot up very badly but managed to survive. Anyway, I have a strong bond with that era as well because of him.


    1. Welcome, Shane.

      Thanks for your comment. My father always told me about the Pals and I researched it to be sure. It did seem like a good idea at the time, all that pre-bonding and mutual support, etc. But that was old warfare. It is said that generals are always fighting the previous war. The Polish army even sent cavalry against the German Panzers in 1939. It was the best they had, poor sods.

      Another disastrous tactic (click the link for a visual) : “When a British soldier went ‘over the top’… he had to carry all this equipment through the mud, barbed wires and crater holes made by mines”. . Many of those who were wounded fell into deep pools of liquid mud and simply could not stand up again. Horrific. By contrast, the Germans attacked with a helmet, a rifle, an ammo belt and a gasmask; other supplies would be brought up once they had established their new position.

      As the old saying goes, “Lions led by donkeys.”


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