Fighting in Syria has resulted in over 200,000 casualties from conventional artillery, barrel bombs, small arms fire and air strikes. Most victims are civilian women and children, and we become accustomed to seeing the reports on nightly news. But only when chemical gas is used — on a number less than 1 percent of those victims of conventional warfare — do world powers become disturbed and move to dramatic actions.

Why are most citizens worldwide horrified by gas warfare but not conventional warfare?

That is a question a scientist would ask. And that is exactly what the brilliant biologist J.B.S. Haldane asked in his book “Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare” in 1925.

He was not naive about chemical weapons. The young Haldane wrote this book, fresh from his service in World War I where he had seen and experienced gas warfare first hand. On April 2, 1915, the Germans first used poison-gas warfare. Eventually, over 25 different chemical agents were used on that battlefield, especially in retaliation by the British who had better gas masks.

In the Argonne, the Germans shelled 2,400 unprotected French troops with tear gas. German soldiers in goggles then walked across the battlefield, disarmed the temporarily blinded French soldiers, formed them into columns and led them back. Almost none were wounded or suffered any lasting harm.

Of course, chemicals scale up from tear gas to far more lethal chemical agents. Haldane knew how mustard gas was a terrible blistering agent, but he asked: Does it cause more suffering than flamethrowers? Haldane did not live to see modern nerve gases such as VX and Serin, but he would have been quick to point out that they may be far more rapid and cause less prolonged suffering than napalm, or the firestorms from incendiary bombing, or the radiation sickness from nuclear bombs.

Today, we still have veterans and civilians who are crippled for life by shrapnel too risky to be surgically removed. There are soldiers whose faces were blown off by IEDs. Child victims with burn scars that will never be hidden by cosmetic surgery. Much “legal” conventional weaponry produces lasting and grotesque outcomes.

Nevertheless, most countries have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention to ban chemical warfare. To address the problem of the continuum, from benign tear gas (such as the pepper spray in a woman’s purse or riot control canisters used by police) up to instantly lethal nerve gases, the CWC restricts riot control tear gases to police use, ironically making these humane chemicals illegal in warfare.

Signatories to the CWC must agree to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons and submit to inspections. All have done so except for the United States. Our stockpiles of binary nerve agents were so huge that it will take us until 2023 to safely dispose of them. 

Haldane said: “If it is right for me to fight my enemy with a sword, it is right for me to fight him with mustard gas; if the one is wrong, so is the other.” He was not so much proposing that we legalize or condone chemical warfare, as he was asking us why we think conventional weapons are not also devastating and horrific. 

In today’s conflict, there are a hundred-fold more civilian survivors — men, women and children — suffering and forever crippled by conventional weapons. Haldane is asking that question on their behalf, as their eyes ask us through the news camera: “Why do you not value our suffering as well?” 


Dr. John Richard Schrock is the editor of the Kansas School Naturalist and former chairman of the Biology Department at Emporia State University.