Ten years ago, this country adopted a new policy when it banned the further production of chemical weapons. In addition to making a humanitarian statement with this move, the United States also made a rather sound and sensible decision from an economic and military standpoint. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army had manufactured and stored enough nerve gas, shells, bombs and other munitions to kill or maim many times over just about every warm-blooded thing over an area of thousands of square miles.
But now the Army wants to resume production of nerve gas and reverse the decade-old policy. At this point it apears that the decision may be without debate or the extensive scrutiny that such a reversal warrants.
The Army justifies the new entry into nerve gas production on the grounds that the new gas would be "binary," i.e., the gas would need two non-lethal chemicals combining to create a lethal gas. The two chemical agents would be stored in different places and combined during, the canister's fight to its target. If the production of binary gas comes on line, according to the Army, then the old stockpiles could be destroyed and we would have safer "gas." The whole process would cost more than $2 billion.
In effect, our new policy wold take us down the road of trading in old, conventional stockpiles for a new type of binary gas. There is no military advantage to binary gas -- the advantages are merely those of additional safety There is no millitary advantage to binary gas -- the advantages are merely those of additional safety in storage and transport.
Not even the president (as required by law) has taken a public position on getting us back into the nerve gas business. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have mumbled halfhearted support, while the secretaries of defense and state have publicly opposed such a step at this time. Yet the House of Representatives has recently appropriated funds to construct a nerve gas production facility in Pine Bluff, Ark. Thus we find ourselves today "backing into" what could be intractable position with world-wide implications. "This snipe hunt should be stopped in its tracks and a reexamination of this position initiated immediately. The facts available to us simply do not justify a direct reversal of our prior policy on nerve gas.
First, as mentioned, we now have an enormous supply of nerve gas and chemical weapons. Most of these supplies are not obsolete and have not deteriorated; they can kill just about as many people as they could before. Even though the Army maintains we need "nerve gas" for our allies in Europe, the truth is that our allies won't even let us store additional nerve gas stockpiles on their soil. The West Germans, in fact, find nerve gas usage so reugnant and unacceptable that they have gone even further and decided that none of their troops will even be trained to use these weapons. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that any newly produced nerve gas would ever leave U.S. shores.
Second, it is foolish to argue that our resumption of nerve gas production is necessary for our defense capabilities. Nerve gas doesn't kill soldiers. It kills civilians -- men, woman and children who do not possess masks and protective clothing necessary to defend themselves from this colorless, odorless poison that causes violent convulsions and asphyxiates its victims.
Protective clothing and masks are standard issue in the European theater for not only Soviet troops but also our own. This special protection makes soldiers practically invulnerable to nerve gas.
Third, advocates of resuming nerve gas production point to the Soviet use of lethal gas in Afghanistan. To date, there is no way to confirm this allegataion. Our own CIA has not found any evidence that is considered conclusive in answering this question. We simply do not know.
Those same proponents argue that the Soviets are manufacturing massive stockpiles of nerve gas weapons but, again, no proof exists. The abundance of evidence supplied by those who attempt to monitor this area seems to be that greatest Soviet effort to date is defensive in nature; i.e., early detection, protective clothing, shelters and mass education. Once again, the facts elude the argument -- and rumors, confusion and misinformation now set the stage for hasty and precipitous action by an election-year Congress that has not debated the issue and by an administration thata sits aloof and silent.
Finally, there are those who espouse the cause of nerve gas as a means to right what they term our "second-rate" military capability as a nation. One right what they term our "second-rate" military capability as a nation. Of them I ask: just how will the resumption of nerve gas make us sleep better at night? It wouldn't. In fact, it will detract from those essential needs our military must have to keep on a par with the Soviets.
If the sad day ever comes when this country is forced to use nerve gas, let us pray that we have secured our gas masks and zipped our suits -- and hope that the wind doesn't change direction.
The consequence of a nerve gas war could be so tragic as to defy imagination. We must never lose sight of the fact that our battle-fields are no longer confined to the Little Big Horns or the beaches of Normandy -- they are nations and continents.