Saturday, September 22, 2012

Secret History of Chemical Warfare

The secret in 'The Secret History of Chemical Warfare", by N.J. McCamley, is not the story of a covert world of mad scientists conducting horrifying  experiments under tacit government approval, but instead it is about of the success of special interest groups in manipulating public and government opinion to maintain support for the development of weapons programs of dubious utility.

The story unfolds throughout the narrative of early 20th century chemical weapons development, describing the ebb and flow of public opinion and political will fed by intense media speculation and determined chemical industry interests, told against the backdrop of the militarized war periods.

Most of the book is focused on developments of the Chemical Weapons industry during World War I and World War II, with a large section devoted to a country by country breakdown of the state of chemical manufacturing during the inter-war period. To be sure, there is a monotony to the details of the process of selecting factory locations, construction timelines, and production capacities of various Chemical Weapons ingredients and their precursor components. Overall, however, the author presents a compelling series of facts with a measure of neutrality, drawing together the implications of policy decisions, and swings in public opinion, and deftly cutting through political and military to reveal the web of motivations based on profit, fear, and sometimes just pride that fueled the stockpiling of countless tons of deadly chemical agents.

The narrative is infused with a strong anti-war morality, made particularly effective by reserving judgement for statements that would paint a fake gallantry over one mode of death versus another, and by dolling out a healthy degree of skepticism for the reliability of military intelligence or the honesty of unverified political statements.

The most informative sections of the book are those that outline how small groups of military or industrial interests were able to influence military or diplomatic policy as part of serving their own agendas. One of the most effective examples was the role the British dye industry played in shaping post WWI policy.

Almost non-existent before the war, at a time when Germany was the dominant exporter of chemical dyes, the allied powers found themselves scrambling to respond to German introduction of Chemical Weapons to the WWI battlefield. The chemical produced in the dye industry are responsible for many of the precursor ingredients of early chemical weapons, and the manufacturing processes are easily convertible to wartime purposes. Quickly built up during the conflict, by the end of the war Britain has a substantial domestic chemical industry by the of the armistice that feared the resumption of German companies trading in the world marketplace.

Similar developments in the USA left both countries with sizable chemical industries by the close of the war, groups that now possessed an interest in the continued investment into the development of chemical weapons. These industry groups undertook a process of shaping public and government opinion in order to preserve and increase their financial investments. That they were able to succeed is all the more remarkable given a general disdain for chemical weapons in military circles, and the inability of chemical weapons to claim any significant contributions to the war effort. What they were able to do was to use dubious scientific claims to fan a  general public hysteria towards possible gas attacks, paving the way for the large military powers to amass vast stockpiles of deadly chemical agents.

In what should be a positive note, the book ends with a description of the efforts to dispose of military stockpiles taking place in recent years, but the bleak picture painted in the preceding chapters greatly overshadows what could be considered a victory for both reason and peace. Modern accounts of the use of chemical weapons are also absent from the book, including examples very familiar to the general public including the use of defoliating agents by the US in Vietnam, and allegations of chemical attacks against dissidents by the former government of Saddam Hussein. 

Despite these omissions, and an at times tedious attention to obscure production details, The Secret History of Chemical Warfare offers and important lesson to attentive readers on the dangers of unchecked special interest groups, as well as a refreshingly unbiased anti-war mentality.

The Secret History of Chemical Warfare, by Nicholas J. McCamley, is published by Pen & Sword Military, and is widely available in both print and digital formats.

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