Chemical and biological weapons: what's the big deal?

At the risk of coming across as a complete HYPOCRITE (at least, to those who read a question I posted in GQ in which I expressed my disgust at the thought that the military would devise a laser weapon designed solely to blind enemy combatants), I want to know why so many people seem to think chemical and biological weapons are so inherently evil. For many years, I have seen these WMDs demonized, and have often wondered why people seem to regard them with such horror, particularly when many of their critics seem to have no comparable problem with the remaining member of the WMD triad: nuclear weapons. I mean, like chemical and biological weapons, nuclear weapons would kill many innocent people if ever used (particularly in an all-out nuclear exchange), and would produce many long-term health problems in those who survived an attack in which they were used. They would also cause far more destruction; at least chemical and biological weapons would have the advantage of leaving all buildings and other structures in the area in which they were used unscathed. I just don’t see what the problem of using these two WMDs is. Biological weapons admittedly creep me out a bit, but I have no problems with chemical weapons; death from something like nerve gas certainly couldn’t be any worse than death from napalm or some equally charming substance.

The simple fact that one device and one attack can kill and injure so many people.

Nuclear may be WORSE than chem/bio weapons, but that doesn’t make chem/bio less harmful.

Really? Can you give an example of this? The current talk in the media has been about chemical and biological weapons because that’s what the Bush admin’s dossier primarily concentrated on in the lead up to the Iraq invasion.

With Chem, I largely agree with you.

With Bio, on the other hand…

A contageous Bioweapon reproduces itsself after being released. Smallpox, released in L.A. or Chcago, say, could spread around the globe, & kill many more people than an atom bomb.

And Bioweapons are relatively cheap.

And can kill huge numbers of people, gram for gram, when compared with explosives.

Selectively-bred diseases could have enhanced lethality. Or selective lethality.

Atomic weapons need massive centerfuges to separate the fissionables. Costly, hard to build, & easy to find. Bioweapons just need fermenting vats, mostly. Easy to hide or misrepresent. You can even claim it’s food processing equipment, & get away with it.

Chem is less dangerous, but easier to make.

The prospect of these easy-to-make weapons falling into the hands of men who would use them, for obscure or incomprehensible (to outsiders) reasons, scares hell out of many.

All that unaccounted-for Russian weaponized smallpox…

Actually, your premise is incorrect: nuclear weapons are generally included in the category of “WMD” together with biological and chemical.

Perhaps the reason you’ve heard so much focus on bio and chem is because nuclear technology is more easily controlled and contained (though certainly not perfectly), whereas bio or chem WMDs are theoretically easier for a rogue regime or terrorist group to obtain and/or deploy.

To clarify: my response was to the OP. These other responses weren’t there when I started typing.

Quick Question: Is a radioactive dirty bomb a nuclear or chemical weapon? I personally think chemical because I believe hearing (no cite) that to be a nuclear weapon, it has to have a fusion or fission reaction. A dirty bomb would most likely used spent uranium fuel rods, so the reaction would have been long gone and the radiation a by-product. But, like I said, I don’t know what the standards for each weapon is.

Radiation is not associated with a chemical reaction. A dirty bomb is effectively a fission bomb that goes pppffffssst! instead of BOOM!

Nuclear weapons are feared due to their potential devastation. Chemical and biological weapons are restricted due to the unfocused nature of their effects. You are expected to try and avoid civilian casualties however with biological and chemical weapons their movement is out of your hands the moment you open the can. Mustard gas simply drifts with the wind while biological agents can self replicate.

Dirty bombs take II.

They can also simply be radioactive materials that get ejected through a conventional explosion. The radioactive dust then floats through the area contaminating whatever it touches.

They’re not really covered by any ‘official’ definition (ie ones defined by international treaties and so forth), because such treaties were drawn up between nation states, and not with terrorists with designs for blowing up spent uranium in a city centre.

Many chemical weapons are uncontrollable. A change in breeze can shift from the battlefield to your own troops to a civilian area, etc. This is my understanding.

Isn’t napalm also banned, just like nerve gas and bio weapons?

Technically yes. Whether or not nationas actually consider their incendiary weapon a banned one is always up for debate. From the IRC

An additional point is that chem/bio weapons are pretty much a sure sign that someone is targeting civillians. Modern military forces have effective protective suits, sealed vehicles, and sealed and protected facilities. A chem/bio attack against a military target would be pretty ineffective, and most nations realize this (terrorists, who knows, but presumably they’re not dumb even if they are crazy).

The experience of WWI is instructive…Germany was the first nation to deploy poison gas, in Northern France. The Nobel-prize winning chemist (Fritz Haber) advised the German high command…several attempts were made to use gas on the allied lines. Chlorine was firstused…it was felt that this gas (being heavier than air) would yield the best results. Later, other gases were used (mustard gas most prominently).
The results were poor…mainly allied soldiers were killed and blinded, but the prevailing winds blew most of the gas back into german lines. In fact, one german general felt that the chlorine caused as many casualties to the germans as to the allies. Plus, all gases disperse rapidly…even the feared nerve gas will dissipate within a few hours…less if there is a strong wind and rain present.
Conclusion: gas works in small areas…against widely-dispersed enemy soldiers, it is almost useless.

Thanks to everyone who has posted on this thread so far. I will address some of the points you have raised.

First GorillaMan. You ask me for evidence to back my claim that a lot of people who have problems with chem/bio weapons don’t have any with nuclear weapons. Well, one such piece of evidence, I suppose, would be the fact that, after WWI introduced the world to chemical warfare, people moved pretty quickly to ensure that chemical weapons would never be used again by banning them (along with biological weapons) in 1925 (I think). (Not that that did much good!) After WWII introduced the world to the even greater horrors of nuclear weapons, however, no comparable effort was made by the world community to ban these weapons AFAIK; instead, many other countries scrambled to get their grubby little hands on them while the US increased its own stocks. Incidentally, my posting this question has nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq; I’ve noticed a widespread (and rather hypocritical IMO) opposition to chem/bio weapons for many years now (there was much talk of banning them in 1989, for example, and earlier than that as well).

cmkeller, I think you may have misread my OP; I think I made it pretty clear in that that nuclear weapons were a WMD (I described them as the remaining member of the WMD triad). Nonetheless, your point about the disturbing ease with which chem/bio weapons can be made was certainly valid (Bosda Di’Chi of Tricor mentioned it too). While the cheapness of chem/bio weapons (which I have occasionally heard described as a “poor man’s atomic bomb”) is certainly a legitimate cause for concern, I can’t help thinking that there’s more than a little hypocrisy at work when powerful nations like the US and Russia condemn such weapons on these grounds. It’s like they’re saying, “It’s all right for us to possess the ability to slaughter thousands, even millions, with nuclear weapons; God forbid that any piddling little Third World country should be able to afford to wield similar power!”

To those who mentioned radioactive (aka dirty) bombs, one interesting thing I heard about them was that, from a military point of view, they’re virtually useless. While the explosives that set them off certainly pose a threat to life and property (as all explosives do), the radioactive matter that those explosives are designed to eject into the air will probably be dissipated too quickly and thinly to do any real damage. A worst-case scenario I saw portrayed on a television documentary on the subject explored what would happen if a dirty bomb was set off in part of London. Even if the worst conceivable case of radioactive contamination occurred, and cleaning up that contamination proved too difficult or expensive to be feasible, the effects of that contamination on human life and health would be nigh-on negligible (something on the level of one more cancer case per 10,000 during the next few decades than usual or something equally insignificant). The main value of a dirty bomb would be in its psychological effect. Since most people seem to have been sadly brainwashed into believing that all radioactivity is lethal (and that the slightest amount of exposure to even the feeblest radioisotope is going to cause raging tumours to immediately erupt in every organ of their bodies), the main purpose of a radioactive bomb would be to spread panic and terror.

To those who argued that chemical weapons are so bad because the gases they release are at the mercy of the winds, a similar criticism can be levelled at nuclear weapons. While the wind won’t have much of an effect on the explosion these weapons produce AFAIK, it will have a pretty significant effect on where all the nasty by-products of that explosion (ie fallout) go.

To those who oppose chem/bio weapons on the grounds that they tend to kill a lot of civilians, nuclear weapons do that too. Indeed, it is my understanding that, during the Cold War (and perhaps even now), the various nuclear superpowers’ strategic nuclear weapons were aimed at cities ie centres whose respective populations consist predominantly of civilians (and, of course, as noted in the previous paragraph, the fallout from nuclear explosions tends to drift where it will, and land on soldiers and civilians alike). Furthermore, from what I recall of some modern Japanese history I studied back in high school, one of the controversies raised by the destruction of Hiroshima with the first atomic bomb was the observation that Hiroshima was a militarily insignificant city, relatively speaking. Indeed, some went so far as to suggest that that city was chosen as the target of the world’s first atomic bomb because, at the time, it had managed to remain relatively unscathed by the war, and was therefore an ideal city upon which to test the destructiveness of a weapon like the A-bomb.

As for the claim that armed forces at war are obliged to try and minimize civilian casualties during their operations, one sad irony of war that I once heard mentioned was that the most effective weapons tend to be the most indiscriminate. There was an excellent television series on (in Australia) a few years ago entitled “Great Military Blunders” that explored this observation in depth in one episode. The episode in question claimed that one common cause of the title blunders was an over-reliance on new technology. Apparently, a lot of the new military technology that was developed during the 20th Century was supposed to make war more “humane” by minimizing civilian casualties. Unfortunately, in order to be used in an even remotely effective manner, this technology ended up having to be used in ways that greatly reduced its much-trumpeted selectivity. One example given was that of bombers which, at the start of the Second World War, were apparently going to revolutionize warfare by only destroying military targets. Unfortunately, however, after early bombing runs proved disastrous (by being carried out in broad daylight, for example), the way such runs were conducted was progressively altered until they ended up becoming quite indiscriminate in terms of what they destroyed on the ground. Apparently, the culmination of all these changes was the sort of horrific firebombing raids that were carried over German cities like Hamburg, with much attendant loss of civilian life.

Finally, thankyou to Grey for the information on incendiary weapons and their current legal status.

I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Master’s related column.

I think it’s still spot-on and the fear of biochem weapons is wildly exaggerated. The only additional advantage biochem weapons have over conventional explosives is area denial (you can’t go back in until it’s been cleaned up) and there are a lot of disadvantages. Until such time as a biochemical attack actually harms more people than a comparable conventional explosive attack would have, I don’t even think they should be considered “weapons of mass destruction”.

In part the reason that Bio and Chem weapons are banned is because of their dubious military value. The instantaneous and recurring misery they cause is out of proportion to their military value. Radiological weapons (of which dirty bombs are but one) probably fall into the same category (although Manhattan Project scientists put considerable thoughts into how they might best use radiological weapons against German soldiers or their food supply should Atomic bombs be too hard or too slow in production).

Nuclear weapons clearly have effective military (as well as deterrent) uses and their mere existence changes the equation radically. Add to that the fact that the start-up costs are high and the fact that those who possess them are/were unwilling to trust their rivals to disarm, even if they were to concede that universal nuclear disarmament were a good thing, an unlikely occurence through most of the cold war.

The linking of the three stems in part from the U.S. ending chemical and biological weapons programs in the 1970s. If a developing nation used the “poor man’s atomic bomb” and spread sarin or anthrax in the NYC subways, what would the U.S. response be? By grouping together WMDs of all varieties, we were making the statement that if you attack the U.S. with any of these weapons, then we would respond in kind, and since the only “kind” we had left was nuclear, that would be the form of the response.

For reference, see this article from The Washington Post:

Do you know what bio chemical weapons do to your body, are you serious, look up pictures of what a biochemical does to your children if you survive an attack