Winds of Death

Allied soldiers wearing gas masks run through a poison gas cloud in a staged battle photograph in France during World War I.
Allied soldiers wearing gas masks run through a poison gas cloud in a staged battle photograph in France during World War I. (Major Evarts Tracey/getty Images)
Reviewed by Stephen Engelberg
Sunday, February 19, 2006

WAR OF NERVES

Chemical Warfare From World War I to Al-Qaeda

By Jonathan B. Tucker

Pantheon. 479 pp. $30

On March 20, 1995, the deft choreography of Tokyo's Monday morning commute collapsed into terrifying chaos. Thousands of people fell to the floor, gasping for breath, pupils dilated. Some vomited, their bodies wracked by convulsions that marked their last moments on Earth.

This attack by a Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, was the first use of nerve gas by terrorists. It left a dozen people dead and has gone down in history as a relatively mild warning of the havoc that could be caused by unleashing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) on a modern city. The sarin nerve agent prepared by the group was only 30 percent pure; more competent chemists could have killed thousands.

Even before al Qaeda's hijackers setting out with nothing more than muscle and knives knocked down the Twin Towers, the debate over whether the Tokyo subway attack was a harbinger or an historical anomaly has raged among terrorism experts. One school -- call them the inevitablists -- sees a WMD strike on America not as a matter of if but when. An opposing view, voiced by those whom one might call the traditionalists, asks why terrorists would stop using the simple, conventional explosives that have proven so effective. The aftermath of America's 2003 Iraq invasion seems to have boosted the arguments of the traditionalists -- both because Iraq's dictatorship turned out not to have had WMD and because the improvised explosives and suicide bombs deployed by the Iraqi insurgents have been so devastating.

This continuing argument over the perils of WMD has significant implications for the security of every American. Even the $35.4 billion Department of Homeland Security budget that President Bush has proposed cannot protect against every imaginable weapon. And there's little point in throwing small amounts of money at myriad problems. At some point, government officials must decide what is probable and what is not. Do we install barricades in front of every American skyscraper or invest billions in chemical or germ defenses?

This debate is the grim background to Jonathan B. Tucker's War of Nerves , which offers a comprehensive history of chemical weapons, the most widely used WMD in modern history (ahead of nuclear and biological weapons). A former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, Tucker opens his story in the fall of 1914, when Germany's generals married their country's chemical prowess with the need to break the stalemate of trench warfare. The German infantry commander at Ypres was initially revolted but quickly came around. "I must confess that the commission for poisoning the enemy, just as one poisons rats, struck me as it must any straightforward soldier: it was repulsive to me," recalled Gen. Berthold von Deimling. "If, however, the poison gas were to result in the fall of Ypres, we would win a victory that might decide the entire campaign. . . . So onward, do what must be done! War is necessity and knows no exception."

Germany's innovation was quickly copied by Great Britain and, eventually, the United States; the administration of Woodrow Wilson, that great idealist, "launched a crash effort" to develop poison gas, employing teams of chemists at American University and Catholic University. By the end of World War I, Tucker reports, the combatants had fired 66 million chemical shells at each other, causing about 1 million casualties (including a German corporal named Adolf Hitler, who was temporarily blinded by mustard-gas shells). About 90,000 soldiers were killed by chemical attacks.

The most fascinating thing is what didn't happen as a result. Tucker recounts how German scientists at the IG Farben company secretly developed nerve agents far more devastating than mustard gas. These were tabun and sarin, strikingly toxic poisons that attacked the biochemistry of the central nervous system. As World War II turned against Germany, that once-blinded corporal was tempted to use these weapons, but he feared that the Allies would respond in kind. In a crucial May 1943 meeting to decide the issue, IG Farben's top expert on gas weapons warned the Führer that Nazi Germany's work on sarin and tabun could be easily replicated. (In fact, the Allies were far behind Germany in this arms race, but they did have huge stocks of mustard gas and phosgene, a chemical related to pesticides.) In the end, a country that gassed 6 million defenseless Jews declined to launch chemical missiles toward Britain. The balance of terror held.

In the Cold War confrontation that followed World War II, both the United States and the Soviet Union honed their chemical skills. Just as they built mighty arsenals of nuclear warheads and biological weapons, the two sides mass-produced "binary" bombs in which two precursor chemicals would mix in the flight of a bomb or artillery shell to create deadly gas. Tucker's book is at its best in recounting the story of Vil Mirzayanov, a Soviet scientist who went public in 1991 with charges that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had lied four years earlier when he asserted that all chemical weapons manufacturing had been halted. The superpowers never used chemical weapons, but Soviet client states such as Egypt (during the early 1960s civil war in Yemen) and Iraq (during its 1980s rampage against its defenseless Kurdish citizens) were not so restrained. The world's reaction was muted.

U.S. officials grew far more concerned after Aum Shinrikyo's 1995 subway attack, which significantly heightened the Clinton administration's worries about terrorism involving germs, chemicals or nuclear materials. In August 1998, after al Qaeda destroyed the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the administration fired cruise missiles at al Shifa, a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan, which (according to the 9/11 Commission) "intelligence reports said was manufacturing a precursor ingredient for nerve gas with Bin Ladin's financial support." Those concerns deepened with reports that al Qaeda was conducting crude chemical weapons experiments at a camp in Afghanistan called Derunta. In September 2000, when top CIA officials briefed candidate George W. Bush at his Crawford, Tex., ranch, they brought a mock-up suitcase to illustrate the ease with which Aum Shinrikyo had released its nerve gas.

Tucker's narrative is compelling but short on analysis. For example, he describes without comment an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate asserting that Saddam Hussein had probably stockpiled "at least 100 metric tons . . . and possibly as much as 500" metric tons of chemical warfare agents. How could the collective judgment of U.S. intelligence be so wrong? Tucker doesn't address the question or its implications for U.S. policy.

War of Nerves can be used to argue both sides of the crucial question of WMD and terrorists' intentions and capabilities. Yes, Aum Shinrikyo succeeded in making sarin; no, it wasn't a very effective weapon. Multiple nations have produced chemical weapons; few have used them. This will likely frustrate readers wondering how much they should worry about the chemical threat in an era well-stocked with cataclysmic possibilities. ·

Stephen Engelberg is the managing editor for enterprise at the Oregonian and is co-author, with William Broad and Judith Miller, of "Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War."


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