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Gas Warfare against Civilians

September 18th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Kenneth Anderson has an excellent article on modern gas warfare at Lawfare. He explains why it is especially useful against civilians, something I’d be wondering about. It’s rather like the effect of randomly distributed land mines or IED’s:

Having taken testimony from civilians in civil wars ranging from Central America to central Asia, I can say simply that the panic described by survivors in the interviews I conducted in Kurdistan were qualitatively different from that induced by ordinary weapons. This is partly because – from the victims’ and survivors’ standpoint, as they expressed it to me – poison gas free-floating in the air, blowing wherever it blew, invisible and deadly, was “indiscriminate” in some way beyond that term’s usual meaning in the law of armed conflict.

I do not know if I can properly convey what I mean here by “indiscriminate.” In part, chemical weapons induced an utterly new kind and degree of panic among a civilian population that was certainly long accustomed to regular attacks from the air and by artillery; bombing and shelling were events that happened periodically, and villagers took me into the earthen bomb shelters dug over the years into the hillside. Of course these kinetic air or artillery attacks were just as indiscriminate in a legal sense, and of course they could bring death suddenly, violently, explosively, and essentially without warning. The special panic associated with chemical weapons, rather, was that once released, the gas—agonizing death—was both persistent and random. It didn’t blow up and then it was done; and where it went was in no sense a matter of being “aimed,” not even in the sense that an indiscriminately fired artillery round is aimed somewhere. While the gas persisted, it was under no control but the wind’s.

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