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Trump seemed to be a big supporter of the current Syrian regime up until the recent chemical weapons attack. But why are chemical weapons such a big deal? What's the difference between killing 100 people with a bomb and doing the same with a chemical weapon?

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Philipp Apr 9 '17 at 16:55
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    "seemed to be a big supporter of the current Syrian regime" - [citation needed]. Quoting Trump in 2016 debate: “I don’t like Assad at all”. – user4012 Apr 9 '17 at 17:12
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    There is at least 3 considerations from which to approach your question. (1) Why is it a "big deal" from a humanitarian point of view? (2) Why is it a "big deal" from a legal point of view? (3) Why is it a big deal from a military point of view? You will get different answers depending on which point of view people decide to emphasize in their answers. Do you want all of the points of view considered or do you want an answer from a combinations of points of view other than all of them? Unless you specify that in your question, you are soliciting an opinion rather than an answer. – Dmitry Rubanovich Apr 10 '17 at 6:49

15 Answers 15

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Chemical weapons, like certain other kinds of weapons are banned not because of people killed by them, but because of what they do to the survivors.

A summary from NPR: http://www.npr.org/2013/05/01/180348908/why-chemical-weapons-have-been-a-red-line-since-world-war-i

It's a little counterintuitive that international law prefers weapons that kill cleanly over weapons that mutilate, but it's a widespread principle. It's also a motivation behind the ban on anti-personnel mines.

(Remember that mere suspicion of possession of chemical weapons was considered grounds for invading Iraq!)

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    In general you can assume the UN will take a stance based on the idea that pain is more of a issue then death; that the fear of death is more of a issue then death itself, etc. – Tirous Apr 7 '17 at 20:33
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    As an aside, chemical weapons weren't the only reason for the US invasion of Iraq. – Anoplexian - Reinstate Monica Apr 7 '17 at 21:05
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    @Anoplexian Also, the degree of confidence that Iraq had chemical weapons was a good deal higher than "suspicion". – David Richerby Apr 8 '17 at 0:11
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    I mean, I don't know about you, but I'd rather die relatively quickly (~2h, max, for the majority of fatal bullet wounds) or lose a limb than die because I'm coughing so hard my lungs shred themselves (mustard gas) or because my muscles, constantly triggered by uncontrollable electrical impulses, use up all the oxygen before my brain can (VX). – Nic Hartley Apr 8 '17 at 0:22
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    @DavidRicherby I should probably not have tried to summarise decades of controversy over who knew what and whether they had proof as "mere suspicion"; but the Blix investigation was still ongoing. What there was not was conclusive incontrovertible proof before starting the war. – pjc50 Apr 10 '17 at 12:00
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Two main problems with chemical (and biological) weapons is that their effects are usually considered unnecessarily cruel, and controlling their spread is not always possible. When exposed to a chemical weapon, only some victims die right away (depending on the weapon, this group may be very small), others have to endure days or weeks of pain. While a bomb goes off once, a chemical agent can remain in a person for a long time after exposure and keep creating new wounds (such as blisters) that require the person to stay hospitalized. Additionally, most chemical weapons can be carried on the wind or settle in the soil, so they can blow from a battlefield into civilian populations, or rescue staff coming to the area after the attack can be exposed.

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    Conventional explosives can cause horrific wounds from shrapnel, internal hemorrhaging from the explosion, even just debris made airborne which scars the lungs after being breathed in... deaths by "conventional" weapons are not always quick and are very rarely clean. Unexploded ordinance can linger in areas for decades - ordinance from the first world war killed 2 people as recently has 1998. – pluckedkiwi Apr 6 '17 at 16:24
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    @pluckedkiwi - Yes, but with chemical weapons, this is the intent. With unexploded ordinance, it is an unfortunate accident, they would have much preferred it exploded during WWII. – EvSunWoodard Apr 6 '17 at 17:19
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    @pluckedkiwi When it comes down to it, what we define as a "humane" way of attacking the enemy is somewhat arbitrary. That said, I think the uncontrollable nature of chemical weapons is something that shouldn't be discounted - we can build bombs that are less likely to fail to detonate, but the whole point of a chemical weapon is that it spreads a chemical which can be picked up by the wind, stick to clothes, etc. Also rescue workers can wear simple breathing masks to avoid breathing debris, but chemical weapons require trained and equipped hazmat teams (not something in supply in warzones). – IllusiveBrian Apr 6 '17 at 18:09
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    +1 for the part about the rescue staff being exposed to the chemicals. While a bomb goes off and spreads violence, a chemical weapon goes off and makes sure that either the wounded will die without help or that those who help will suffer too. – sbecker Apr 7 '17 at 8:48
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    @pluckedkiwi Of course not, killing a human requires damaging them so much that they can no longer function, no matter what method you use the result may be slow, fast, painful, not painful, etc. FWIW, there are also international agreements banning the use of incendiary weapons, I believe, for similar reasons to chemical weapons (uncontrollable, indiscriminately harms civilians, etc). Mines are frowned upon for the same reason. No country would agree to a unilateral disarmament, because that's the same as giving up their sovereignty - the best we can do is try to ban the worst weapons. – IllusiveBrian Apr 7 '17 at 13:23
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Since no one else has mentioned it, another reason is that chemical weapons are most effective against people who are relatively weak. Civilians over soldiers. The old and the young over those in the middle. Lower concentrations can be fatal to children.

Any weapon that is more effective against children than soldiers is one that is going to be opposed.

This is not to disagree with any of the other answers. Other reasons are important too. This just doesn't seem to be an angle that they are exploring. But it seemed worth mentioning.

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    This makes a good point. The enemy (who is ostensibly the target of such weapons) is more likely to have protective gear that reduces or eliminates the hazards of chemical weapons, while civilians are not. Most conventional ordnance, on the other hand, is specifically designed to eliminate hardened targets. Granted, they work just as well (or better) on civilians, but e.g. there's no practical body armor that will make a mortal shell markedly less effective (unless you're well outside the primary blast and got hit by shrapnel). – Doktor J Apr 7 '17 at 21:15
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    But isn't that true of most other weapons as well? I mean, an armored soldier is more likely to survive a bullet than a farmer. A grown man is more likely to survive a grenade shrapnel in the arm than an old woman. A guy in a tank will less likely die by a wall and ceiling crumbling over him due to a bomb hitting a house than a baby. I'm only addressing the argumentation in your answer of course, not the humanitarian aspects of this topic as a whole. – Alfe Apr 9 '17 at 22:06
  • But any weapon is more effective against children than soldiers. – David Richerby Apr 10 '17 at 8:09
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    But you can aim conventional weapons at the enemy soldiers. Unless you use them indiscriminately, they don't kill and maim indiscriminately, whereas chemical weapons do and can't be controlled. We have a similar negative opinion on the use of nuclear weapons too, primarily because they tend to kill civilians. Chemical weapons are worse, but less 'flashy' because of the even worse side effects. – Baldrickk Apr 10 '17 at 10:43
  • Aren't all munitions more effective against the frail/infirm/children? Particularly, being hit by shrapnel, withstanding shock waves, being hit by falling masonry, inhaling smoke/dust... – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Apr 8 '18 at 11:16
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Chemical weapons are "such a big deal" mainly for historical reasons, and partly for political reasons. Prohibition of use of poisonous substances has a long history, going back to at least 1675. There's a summary of the history here. Of course, since then, many more unpleasant weapons have been invented and used. The political dimension enters because there was popular revulsion against weapons which most people did not understand; very few people have direct experience of being gassed, for example. However, weapons which cause equal suffering, such as napalm, are not prohibited (use of napalm against civilians is banned by a UN convention, but not against soldiers). "Dum-dum" (i.e. expanding) bullets are a clear example of the illogicality of bans on certain types of weapons. Dum-dum bullets are outlawed in war since the Hague Convention of 1899; but they are used against civilians by US police forces.

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    Could you point to some sources about US police forces using expanding bullets against civilians? – HC4 - reinstate Monica Apr 9 '17 at 2:22
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    In the WP article "Mannstoppwirkung" one can read (in German, sorry) that according to German law the energy transfer of such a bullet hit for Germany police must not be higher than 50J/cm and that the providers of the ammunition take that into account when creating the bullets. This is of course reached by building a certain but not too high amount of burst effect into the bullets. One idea behind it is that people behind the target are endangered less when the bullet is less likely to get out of the target. – Alfe Apr 9 '17 at 22:19
  • And here is a translated news article about introducing such ammunition in Brandenburg. I checked the translation and can confirm that it matches the German original. – Alfe Apr 9 '17 at 22:29
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There is a disproportionate cost in the development, maintenance, use, disposal, and cleanup of these weapons.

Not just in material wealth, but there are also significant environmental repercussions, medical costs, and general impact on the surrounding communities.

They are also comparatively ineffective in warfare considering their other ramifications.

I have more links but not enough rep yet. The GAO study covers the monetary, environmental, and community costs of disposal quite well. Also check out the recent and relevant WMD Arms Control in the Middle East by Harald Muller.

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    While their ineffectiveness and poor strategic value for the cost are reasons why militaries don't tend to stock and deploy them, like any other overpriced ineffective weapon, it does not answer the question of why people have a phobia of chemical weapons to the point where slaughtering hundreds of thousands with conventional weapons is fairly unremarkable but merely a thousand with chemical weapons is a worldwide calamity and affront to the species as a whole. – pluckedkiwi Apr 7 '17 at 12:58
  • @pluckedkiwi While I agree Why people are more horrified with one thing or another is not in the scope of the question. Feel free to elaborate a new question. I myself horrified by the fact Damascus is possible to be one of the most ancient human settlements with more than 7k years. and in all this time we still don't have learned to stop waging war. – jean Jun 18 at 18:23
  • @jean Why people are vastly more horrified at chemical weapons instead of conventional weapons is the question being asked - "why are chemical weapons such a big deal?". That people are horrified by chemical weapons but so easily dismiss far more people being killed by conventional means is the entire point. Wistful statements about how horrible you feel that armed conflict still happens in ancient cities is out of scope. – pluckedkiwi Jun 18 at 19:07
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A big part of the problem with chemical weapons is that nobody wants to admit that something relatively effective against a civilian target can be comparatively so very simple, these are generally terror weapons.

Sure, VX or Sarin are buggers to synthesize, especially if you want them as a binary, but something like mustard or dimethyl mercury is not seriously going to challenge any decent industrial chemist, or even just industrial Chlorine (Pool supply company, industrial gasses supply house), not effective against a soldier in CW gear, but against civilians?

That is why the hammer must be brought down on anyone using these things, it is not because they are militarily particularly effective, it is because if you are targeting the unprepared civilians they are very effective terror weapons for non state level actors and nobody wants the idea that you can get away with that gaining currency.

From a military perspective, if you are on the loosing side in an ideological/civil/religious war, weapons which cause long term wounding are in some sense more effective then killing weapons simply because they cause the winning side a continuing liability. No winning side likes that (Blinding weapons are banned for the same reason, VERY easy to build today (Think parts from Ebay), but no winning side benefits from letting anyone get away with it).

The equivalence with nuclear and bio is largely a political thing to put these into the 'oh hell no' category, because otherwise the barrier to entry against a civil target is uncomfortably low (Unlike nuclear and bio).

Personally I think the missile attack was on the wrong target, finding out where Assad was going to be half an hour or so in advance could not have been that hard...

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Chemical weapons differ from conventional weapons in that they are primarily used for killing civilians due to soldiers typically possessing the necessary protective gear (gas masks, etc)

Additionally, they are considered too convenient; they don't damage infrastructure.

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    Chemical weapons are not inherently used to target civilians specifically - historically that is a very rare use case. Additionally, conventional weapons are used to target civilians fairly often. This is a pointless canard. As far as not wanting to damage infrastructure goes... I don't think that has ever been a concern in any event where chemical weapons have been used. – pluckedkiwi Apr 7 '17 at 12:50
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    @pluckedkiwi they do tend to spread, and can affect many non-targets. Ideally, standard weapons are aimed to reduce casualties. You can't do that with chemical weapons. – Baldrickk Apr 10 '17 at 10:46
  • @Baldrickk The idea that chemical weapons are used for targeting civilians while conventional explosives are safe against civilians is outright foolish. Explosives are not discriminate - the only way explosives are not going to harm civilians is if they are not used where there are civilians. If I don't use them near civilians, chemical weapons won't kill civilians either, but this is hardly meaningful. Explosives, like poison gases, are not discriminate - there is no such thing as "safe" explosives free of collateral damage. They are identical in that respect. – pluckedkiwi Apr 10 '17 at 13:43
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    @pluckedkiwi I never said that. Conventional weapons typically have a (relatively) minor area of effect, in time and space. Drop a bomb on an enemy building, you'll destroy it and there may be some casualties in the immediate area. As you said, weapons are decidedly not safe. Set off a Chemical weapon and you will probably do the same job - taking out the base, but then the wind comes and spreads the chemical through a nearby housing area... – Baldrickk Apr 10 '17 at 15:30
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The Geneva protocol, also accepted by Syria (and almost every other country including the USA) considers the use of chemical weapons to be a grave breach of the international treaty.

Wikipedia:

The main elements of the protocol are now considered by many to be part of customary international law.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geneva_Protocol#Chemical_weapons_prohibitions

You have more than a single issue here: in addition to the war, and the use of inhumane weapons, you have a breach of an international agreement.

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The outrage against the weapons are orchestrated by wealthy nations with modern arsenals through their media to gin up public demand against them. They do this for several reasons

  • Defending against chemical weapons is a pain in the rear (requiring extensive training in the use of protective gear, decontamination kits, antidotes, etc.)
  • Chemical weapons are expensive and volatile (requiring a huge infrastructure to research, manufacture, store and deploy)
  • Chemical weapons can harm the force that deploys them
  • Chemical weapons do much less damage to the enemy (dollar-for-dollar) than conventional weapons

Because of these practical reasons, the moral reasons were manufactured and now even the thought of purposefully killing an enemy with concentrated bug spray is seen as evil while killing that same person by stabbing him in the throat with a bayonet is perfectly fine.

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    -1 People have been outraged by chemical weapons since they were first used. 192 countries have agreed to be bound by the Chemical Weapons Convention, which constitutes overwhelming international agreement. This directly contradicts your claim that people are only against chemical weapons because rich countries with fancy conventional weapons want them to be. Your claims that the moral reasons were manufactured after the practical reasons is flatly wrong. – David Richerby Apr 8 '17 at 0:18
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    Do you have any citation to back up this answer? As-is, it reads as speculation. – doppelgreener Apr 10 '17 at 10:07
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Because they offer a means of killing lots of people (soldiers or civilians) to countries who can not possess nuclear weapons. Basically they are poor mens non-nuclear nuclear weapons.

All of the arguments put forth here against chemical or biologic weapons apply to nuclear weapons as well.

Stripping lesser countries of wmd strengthens the nuclear powers and provides them with more advantages in a conflict.

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    This answer presumes nuclear powers would use nuclear weapons in the future. Though a possibility, thankfully nuclear powers have understood that that would be a terrible move in the long run and it why nuclear disarmament has been a continual discussion for the past many decades. – user1530 Apr 6 '17 at 22:07
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    grammatical note: should be: "poor man's nuclear weapon" – JoelFan Apr 6 '17 at 23:53
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    Provably incorrect answer: chemical weapons were already a big deal after WWI, at a time when nuclear weapons were not even considered. Also, the OPCW is almost universally accepted, not just the nuclear states. – MSalters Apr 7 '17 at 11:48
  • @MSalters On the other hand, question was not: "Why were chemical weapons such a big deal after WWI..." but rather "Why are they now..." – DrCopyPaste Apr 11 '17 at 8:38
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Because chemical weapons are classed as a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Under US military doctrine, a chemical weapon is a biological weapon is a nuclear weapon - there is literally no distinction made between them as to consequences. One of President Obama's failures (and I say this as someone who really liked him) was that he did not act when Syria last used chemical weapons, which presumably is why they thought they could get away with it again.

It is a valid ethical question, of course, considering the way in which Syria and Russia have used barrel bombs to indiscriminately massacre civilians. But one of the consequences of widespread use of gas attacks in WWI was a global consensus that this should not happen again.

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I'm not expert on this, but I would think it's largely due to the distinction between weapons that are designed to target the enemy's military and military assets, vs. weapons that target people in general?

In principle, war is meant to be conducted between militaries fighting in a battle and, civilians are not directly targeted. A gun used to shoot a solider can be targeted at that soldier. A missile used to shoot down a plane can be targeted at that plane. A bomb used to destroy a military planning facility can be targeted at that facility. In the first case - the solider is a person, yes, but he/she is considered a military asset. In the second cases, the people inside the plane and building are in many respects incidental to the destruction of the thing.

A chemical weapon targets people in its vicinity, and that vicinity is in fact variable subject to wind conditions. It doesn't do anything at all to destroy military hardware. So it's very difficult to claim it was well-targeted at military assets.

Generally civilian deaths and injuries are supposed to be minimised. Difficult to do with chemical weapons (and biological, and nuclear I might add...)

  • Your argument might apply specifically to guided munitions (ignoring ample collateral damage there too), but compare to unguided bombs and artillery. Why is it so dramatically worse to kill a small number of people with chemical weapons than kill orders of magnitude more by dropping barrel bombs out of aircraft flying over residential areas of a city? If you want to look at the second world war, high-altitude bombing was barely able to just hit within the city, much less the particular factory that was the purported target. Was that safe for civilians or variable subject to wind conditions? – pluckedkiwi Apr 10 '17 at 14:16
  • @pluckedkiwi No matter the weapon used, using them for terror is the problem. IMHO What Nigel wants to say is chemicals are perceived as being anti-civilian weapons. Also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Dresden_in_World_War_II – jean Jun 18 at 17:15
  • @jean the question is not the facile issue of why targeting civilians is worse than targeting military targets, but why one means of indiscriminately killing civilians is "worse" than another means of accomplishing the same result with the same intentions. In this case conventional has a much higher casualty number, yet somehow that practice is far more acceptable. Why are large numbers of civilians deliberately killed by explosives more acceptable to you than small numbers killed by gas? – pluckedkiwi Jun 18 at 17:48
  • @pluckedkiwi Killing civilians are not acceptable nor justifiable in any context (unless you are a psychico or a really big jerk). What Nigel is saying IMHO is bombs are not made to be used against civilians while gas is an anti-civilian weapon, or at least is how most people perceive it. – jean Jun 18 at 17:56
  • @jean "not acceptable" yet somehow still preferable to use conventional instead of chemical means. The barrel bombs dropped by the Syrian military were explicitly created for indiscriminately dropping on neighborhoods full of civilians as a way of either terrifying the locals or as collective punishment - they have no significant military application (were a war crime to use). There is nothing inherently "for military use only" about conventional explosives in the same way that gas weapons were developed for the battlefield and not inherently for use against civilian targets. – pluckedkiwi Jun 18 at 18:14
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They're a big deal because they've been used extensively in the past and found to be useless except as a terror weapon against civilians:

  1. Low effectiveness against military forces. Even back in WWI, Chemical weapons were not a wonder weapon that resulted in major breakthroughs. Gas was super effective when first used, but once the warring parties realized what was going on, they passed out gas masks. Although it's uncomfortable to walk around everywhere with a gas mask on, it pretty much solved the chemical weapon problem. Although chemical weapons have gotten much better since then, so has protection from those weapons. Chemical protection gear is in the inventory of every modern military. Attacking with poison gas will just result in everyone suiting up. Vehicles have been protected from NBC attack since at least the 60s. This is the main reason the major military powers have all discontinued use of chemical weapons.
  2. High effectiveness against civilians. Civilians don't have rubber suits or gas masks (unless they live in an area under constant threat from chemical attack like Israel). They don't drive NBC protected vehicles and they don't have sealed off residences. For someone looking to kill or terrify large numbers of civilians, chemical weapons are fantastic- they deliver shocking, horrible effects over huge areas for a relatively modest investment in fuel and ordinance weight. And they don't damage buildings, vehicles or infrastructure. But the thing is, there is a pretty broad consensus that people who want to do things like this are very bad guys.
  3. Historical reasons- WWI involved heavy use of chemical weapons, with many fatalities and many permanently injured from chlorine, mustard gas, etc. All involved agreed that it was a pretty bad experience. During WWII, all sides were armed with far more effective chemical weapons, but mostly refrained from using them for fear of retaliation. The Japanese used them against the Chinese but that was pretty much it.

So you have a weapon that is mostly worthless for military use (although it does provide your adversary with a great excuse to escalate things once you gas him), great against civilians and produces a horrifyingly painful death and lots of sympathetic, gut-wrenching footage of dying women and children. If you use them, you're pretty much asking for it.

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It's a matter of perception

You can think of war is all about death and destruction and yes there are lots of nasty things but war is not about those things.

War is about control, dominance, and submission. While a bunch of soldiers wielding assault rifles backed by armored vehicles and air support is great for keeping control over people an invisible death is all about terror and murdering.

Offensive forces are, by nature, very mobile and ideally will not keep concentrated more than the strict necessary making then bad targets for chemicals. Of course, you can use chemicals against a static force defending a position, but while mortar and bombs have an effective radius measured in yards chemicals can spread for many square miles.

They are very effective against densely populated areas making the ideal weapon for genocide. While bullets kill they are associated with engagements between two military forces, chemicals are associated with the massacre of civilians (because they are very effective for it).

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Why are chemical weapons such a big deal?

It's a big deal politically because it can be used a justification to illegally attack another sovereign nation, even without any U.N approval or any investigation.

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    Not my downvote, but your answer should definitely be improved. Please, provide some references to sustain what you say. It will also benefit from extra information (one phrase explanation is hardly a balanced answer). – Alexei Apr 9 '17 at 18:12
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    Those "references" do absolutely nothing to sustain the answer. – Philipp Apr 9 '17 at 18:49
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    @Philipp Did Bush not invade Iraq illegally by using chemical weapons as a justification? Did Trump not just attack Syria illegally by using the same justification? If you consider those two statements valid, then surely my answer should be consider valid as well. If now, I would honestly like to hear why you disagree. – dan-klasson Apr 9 '17 at 19:07
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    @Philipp There is no why. In both my examples U.S acted illegally. They had no reason to do it. They merely used it as a justification. My answer is down to the point, no need to elaborate into irrelevant details. Every single answer to this question is based on personal opinions. As to why the other answers provide a better rationale, that is your opinion and is obviously not based on any facts whatsoever. However, I am still interested why you claim that. – dan-klasson Apr 9 '17 at 19:28
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    US used chemical weapons as a justification to e.g. invade Iraq. (So this part of your answer is right.) But it's not the reason these weapons got banned in the first place. They were banned well before the invasion of Iraq. (So this part of your answer is wrong.) – user31389 Apr 10 '17 at 14:31

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