Manolith Asks: Chemical Weapons – What’s the Big Deal?

What’s the big deal about chemical weapons? Who cares if some Middle Eastern nation is using them on their own people? Do folks in the States have to worry that they might soon be breathing in nerve gas? For answers to these very important questions, Manolith sought out “The Architect” – a currently-serving U.S. Army Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer. The Architect has been serving his country for years in numerous “hot spots” throughout the world, and when it comes to military matters, is pretty much Master Yoda.

What’s the big deal if Syria uses chemical weapons?

It’s a big deal because they say it’s a big deal. It’s as simple as that. When Sadaam Hussein gassed the Shiites and the Kurds in the 80’s apparently it wasn’t a big deal (nor was the fact that one of his Mirage jets sent an Exocet missile into the side of the USS Stark in 1987 killing 37 U.S. sailors, but don’t let me bore you with history or anything). But when we finally decided that it was time for Saddam’s chemical weapons to be an issue, we made it one. For whatever reason in the calculus of the Obama Administration, it is time to “get involved” in Syria, and this is a convenient excuse. I can tell you with certainty that plans were in the making for an extended campaign in Syria months prior to the “red line” being crossed.

What’s the big deal about chemical weapons in general? Why is it viewed as such a taboo thing?

It started with the unbelievable carnage in World War I, where many of the survivors returned blinded and disfigured by blister agents such as mustard gas. The effects had such an impact on veterans of that war that even Hitler himself was opposed to their deployment in World War II, even though the Nazis invented nerve agents such as Tabun, Soman, and Sarin, though chose not to employ them during the war. Many Arab countries maintained stockpiles of these weapons to counteract the threat of Israeli nuclear bombs. Despite how horrid these weapons are, anybody who has seen the end result of people being maimed and killed by gigantic metal fragments flying through the air as the result of conventional weapons will tell you that chemicals are highly overrated.


What do chemical weapons do to people?

There are four major types of chemical weapons:

Blister Agents - The infamous (although inappropriately named) mustard gas and the less effective Lewisite. These chemicals cause blistering of exposed skin, destruction of lung and eye tissue. They are incredibly painful, although usually not lethal in the short term. Many victims die later in hospitals from lung infections, although with modern medicine this probably wouldn’t be the case. These gasses are readily identifiable by their look (a yellow hue, hence the term “mustard”) and smell, and tend to stick to low-lying areas like trenches and craters. Additionally, mustard gas is a “persistent agent”- it will remain in the environment for days to months, continuing to cause casualties.

Choking Agents - Gasses such as chlorine and phosgene fall into this category. They kill through asphyxiation. They are typically ineffective in open areas since they require an intense concentration to overcome victims and are defeated by rudimentary protective masks.

Blood Agents - hydrogen cyanide falls into this category. They kill by cyanosis – the interruption of the process that the lungs deliver oxygen to the blood stream. Although more effective than choking agents, they fall victim to the same limitations – need for a significant concentration and are useless against gas masks.

Nerve Agents - These are by far the most deadly of the chemical weapons. Initially developed by IG Farbin in Nazi Germany, they were an accidental discovery during the development of pesticides. Indeed, all pesticides are nerve agents that work only against bugs. Tabun, Soman, Sarin and VX fall into this category. Sarin and VX are odorless, tasteless and invisible – they kill in small dosages and without warning. Although earlier precursors must be inhaled, Sarin and the even more lethal VX require only a small exposure to the skin to kill. VX is also a “persistent agent”. Inhalation will cause the onset of symptoms within 30 seconds – a pinhead sized drop will result in symptoms within 10 minutes – which include headache, nausea, runny nose, drooling, uncontrolled defecation and urination, convulsions, and ultimately death.

Are they effective weapons?

That depends on your definition of “effective”. If your definition is the terrorization of a civilian population, then I’d say yes. If you asked me if I could call in a 155mm artillery strike on a group of enemy fighters, and I got to pick either a high-explosive or chemical payload, then I’d pick high-explosive every day of the week. The biggest problem is that all chemical weapons are subject to environmental effects, such as wind, temperature, precipitation, etc. The first usage of chemicals by the Allies in WWI resulted in the chlorine gas blowing back from German lines back into English trenches, killing 1,000 or so. No amount of wind is going to blow the fragments from an exploding projectile away from the target.

Why don’t terrorists use them more often? They seem like a weapon that would incite lots of terror.

Because these agents are inherently unstable, and require a great deal of maintenance, technical know-how and careful handling – none of which are staples of the Jihadist methodology. This is why no viable WMDs were discovered in Iraq, only old stockpiles of chemical munitions that had long since degraded past service life. That didn’t stop Al Qaeda from launching them at us, or tying Sarin shells to IEDs over there – they just didn’t work because they had passed their shelf life. The munitions in Syria are “unitary” chemicals – they must be mixed and loaded into rockets or shells shortly prior to launch, and are thus unsuitable for use by terrorists. More modern shells like the VX gas stockpiled by the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the cold war are “binary” munitions – two inert chemicals that are stable and harmless in storage and mix in flight to the target. These are the weapons that could be dangerous if they fall into terrorist hands. All chemical weapons must be properly disposed of in specialized incinerators that vaporize the contents, rather than just bombed indiscriminately.

Do Americans in the States need to worry about chemical weapons here?

I’m not saying that they wouldn’t be able to manage a chemical attack here – indeed, the media coverage they would garner may well be worth it for them – but there are better ways to cause far more casualties. Like, I don’t know, hijacking a bunch of airplanes and flying them into buildings. Personally, I’m surprised a coordinated attack of rifle and bomb-armed Jihadists at major shopping malls hasn’t happened yet – something which would kill far more than a chemical attack. Look no further than the Aum Shinryko attack on numerous locations in the Japanese subway system, which only managed to kill 13 people.

gas mask SAFE

Will a gas mask – the kind you buy in Army/Navy surplus stores – protect you from chemical weapons?

A gas mask will protect you from choking agents, and blood agents, and the inhalation and optical effects of blister agents. Active charcoal-lined protective garments along with sealed rubber gloves and boots are the only thing that will protect you against nerve agents.

What should you do in a chemical weapons attack? If you don’t have MOPP gear, are you just screwed?

Obviously owning an entire set of MOPP gear is not feasible for the average person, nor is it of any use if it is in your basement. If you happen to be out in the open when a nerve agent is deployed, the only thing that can save you is an injection of Atropine, followed by an injection of 2-PAM Chloride, an autoinjector pack typically carried by U.S. soldiers, and as far as I know, not available to the public. That is if the Atropine doesn’t kill you, which it may very well by inducing a heart attack.

Boots on the ground or Tomahawk Missile party – which would most ensure that Syria doesn’t use chemical weapons again?

The Clintonesque diplomacy via Tomahawk missile, especially after a very generous period of repeated warnings, threats, and equivocations, would produce only a handful of smoldering empty bunker complexes, at the cost to the taxpayer something along the lines of $500,000 per shot. If for some reason Assad was inept enough to actually to have left his chemical munitions in place with this much lag time, these strikes would only serve to induce two results: to release the chemical agents into the air, which may result in even more casualties that have occurred already, and to scatter intact munitions around the desert where eager Jihadists can lay their hands on them.

Syria SAFE

The only realistic method to ensure the destruction of these devices is the forcible entry into the country by masses of Special Operations forces to seize the compounds where the weapons are held, in tandem of the seizure of numerous airfields by paradrops of the 82nd Airborne Division to exfiltrate the munitions to a third country for disposal, along with a sustained campaign of airstrikes to give cover to this operations. Probably along with the invasion of border regions of Syria by Jordan and Turkey. Not that I’m an advocate of this course of action. I’m just saying, if you’re going to do it right, that is how you do it.

Can people screw in MOPP gear?

With the addition of females to almost every part of our armed forces, I have unfortunately witnessed all manner of inappropriate sexual behavior while in a combat environment, to the detriment of security and unit cohesion – despite protestations that “people in combat are too busy and yucky to screw” arguments. In the end, young men and women are young, and hence, will find a way to bang each other. Even if it means cutting holes through the crotches of their charcoal-lined pants, and then promptly dying when the Sarin leaks in. Yay.


Got any questions for The Architect? Leave them in the comments. If you’re cool, maybe he’ll respond.

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One Response to Manolith Asks: Chemical Weapons – What’s the Big Deal?

  1. Eugene Seber says:

    Joyful to become here