When Everyone Knew the Horror of Chemical Weapons


235px-Wilfred_Owen_plate_from_Poems_(1920).jpgIn these times, it may be useful to some to go back and read the poems of Rupert Brooke, Ezra Pound, Wilfred Owen and others who captured and froze in time the horrors of chemical weapons in the world’s first great war.

Wilfred Owen died in November 1918, the last week of World War I. While the world seems to have developed a substantial degree of amnesia about gas attacks, poems such as the one that follows by Owen are a useful reminder of that time:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,
we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime. –
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen, 1918

Part of the debate over President Obama’s effort to punish the Syrian
government for deploying chemical weapons against its own citizens is
the widespread ignorance today, in the United States and around the
world, about the difference between chemical and biological killing
methods and other more conventional weapons.

It’s worth taking a look back at that time nearly one hundred years ago.


21 comments on “When Everyone Knew the Horror of Chemical Weapons

  1. master says:

    for me i like so much to see the president obama because he do a great work and he like to make the sitizens live in a comfortable life… in this way i woud ike to share that comment with all the visitors “” Speaking for the intervention is President Barack Obama, live from the White House. Speaking against—also President Obama, also from the White House.””


  2. Tarik says:

    Hi Steve,
    I’m a first time poster although a longtime reader of your blog. But I have been quite shocked by your shift in reasoning. It’s as if you were using words that are not yours. You sound just like Krauthammer, Frum, and David Brooks etc…But I always had the conviction that these people use a civilized tone only to embellish criminal positions.
    Of course, they claim, (and even end up believing) that what they advocate for, is for good purposes. Even noble purposes…
    Do you ever take time to speculate what it would feel like to have a foreign power intervene in the United States to “punish” us for our behavior? Or does it not cross your mind. Perhaps because you think deep down that we don’t engage in bad behavior? That we’re “good”. Or at least, our badness can’t be compared to that of backward peoples out there…
    How about a poem about the horrors of atomic bombs. We used it in a war. Isn’t there a war in Syria?
    And not that japan was about to take over Washington DC and Philadelphia. Conventional war would have sufficed. Yet we felt “threatened” and decided that these were desperate circumstances that called for desperate measures. WE decided it was justified….to melt cities along with children, women, goats, buildings, soil, water, everything….
    It is precisely this type of thinking that’s at fault. This sense that WE know what’s best. Because we’re different, and cannot be compared…I thought that the very basis of Realism is being able to see all humans as “black boxes” that have a tendency to behave somewhat similarily given a set of circumstances.
    If you cease to reason that way, you cannot be called a realist.
    But then again there is nothing wrong with being alongside Tom Friedman, Anne marie Slaughter, Samantha Power, Matthew Continetti, Christiana Amanpour and David Gregory….They somehow manage to sound Scholarly and Fashionable too…


  3. Jessika says:

    Thank you for great blogging!


  4. Mike says:

    Such concern for chemical weapons and so little concern for nuclear weapons. I will agree that chemical weapons can destroy a town if you will agree the nuclear weapons can destroy a civilization.

    It is likely nukes will eventually be used if they are not eliminated. If you think people are unaware of the horrors of chemical weapons, they are also woefully ignorant as to what a serious exchange of nuclear weapons will do. Take out a few hundred large cities and you will see mass starvation that dwarfs anything seen in history. There are thousands of these nuclear missiles just waiting to be used on people. It could happen though human error, computer error, or intentionally by fools. The decision makers are blind to an incomprehensible degree to ignore this much larger problem. If they are used in large numbers we will see a return to mankind at its darkest, first mass starvation, then cannibalism and a return to slavery (as it has been in the ancient past). The age of technology will come to a sudden end. Chemical weapons are just a pinprick compared to the destructive power of nuclear weapons. I appreciate your post, but I don’t understand why these things are constantly ignored while lesser weapons are condemned. Pretending the problem isn’t there just means someday the problem is going to get bigger. The United States, Israel, and the other nuclear powers are hypocritical complaining about Syria’s chemical weapons while ignoring their own sins.


  5. Jus'Thinkin says:

    There seems to be some considerable evidence that our allies, the rebels and probably al-Qaida, used the poison gas not, Assad. You seem to have bought the Administration line Assad did it. Please pay attention to VIP’s post of the Veteran Intelligence Professionals.

    Obama and the Military-congressional-industrial complex toadies want to bomb Syria and eventually we will bomb Syria. It is U.S. policy to overthrow Assad. Then on to Iran. I say no war in Syria.


  6. marjorie says:

    War for Peace.


  7. The Audacity of Hype says:

    Obama = Lame Duck, Chuck Hagel = Plucked Duck, John Kerry = Dead Duck


  8. Austin says:

    Hey Steve – I like the thoughtful post, but I find it a bit ironic. I’ve always read this as an anti-war poem above all else. He chooses to show the horrors of chemical warfare as one graphic reason (of many) as to why nations shouldn’t send their children to war so quickly. Yes, chemical weapons are horrible, but war in its totality is what is being railed against here. It begs the question then, is stopping the use of chemical weapons worth becoming entangled in a larger war and subjecting our troops (possibly) and Syrian civilians to the innumerable other horrors that would come with it? Here’s to hoping there can be a diplomatic solution to containing the chemical weapons stockpiles, and that it’s not just a stalling tactic. Thanks


  9. Paul Norheim says:

    Dear Steve, glad to hear that you intend to post “much more” on The Washington Note again! I’ll visit your blog more frequently than I’ve done for the last couple of years. Good luck with the moderation issue this time!


  10. VIPs says:

    Here’s that report by Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity mentioned above.



  11. Bruce Levine says:

    Thanks Steve and thanks commenters.


  12. Don says:

    If we don’t want these countries using chemical weapons maybe we should stop selling them the reagents to create them. I would love to see the report Saddam Hussein gave the UN on countries and companies that sold him weapons components.

    Nerve gas is difficult, it’s common to pesticides and we’re actually exposed to it all of the time. But it’s also a much cleaner killer than mustard gas, which maims and disables more than kills. That’s probably want the author above is speaking about.

    But anti-personnel weapons like cluster bomb units and anti-personnel mines are terrible too. children pick these up and lose eyes, arms, and legs. Not to mention unexploded fragments from large bombs that don’t explode. The blend to look like dirt, but become more unstable and can explode when stepped on or compressed some how.

    I don’t see how we pick and choose times and places to intervene leaving other atrocities unanswered. But with Russia, Qatar, France, Saudi Arabia and other money interests extending the war this whole thing has stunk from the start.


  13. Obama's a liar says:

    “I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.” Winston Churchill 1919


  14. erichwwk says:

    And Rudyard Kipling:

    It is not wise for the Christian white
    To hustle the Asian brown;
    For the Christian riles
    And the Asian smiles
    And weareth the Christian down.

    At the end of the fight
    Lies a tombstone white
    With the name of the late deceased;

    And the epitaph drear,
    A fool lies here,
    Who tried to hustle the East.

    And even more important, oft forgotten in the focus on “chemical” weapons, is the amnesia of the refusal of the U.S. to give up its monopoly on nuclear weapons, weapons causing sufferings that make the above description by Wilfred Owen pale in comparison. In putting such prolific amounts of lipstick on the pig, it has led Americans to murder 20 million civilians since World War II, converting America to a country where the “will of the people” rarely matters. But such is the power of US propaganda as described by Stewart Udall in his NYTimes oped [ http://nyti.ms/mGXKuh ]

    “The atomic weapons race and the secrecy surrounding it crushed American democracy,” Mr. Udall said in a interview. “It induced us to conduct Government according to lies. It distorted justice. It undermined American morality.”


    • Steve Clemons says:

      Erich — great to see you here. I’m going to be posting much more on TWN again. Had to deal with the trauma of moderating comments. Your note is compelling and important — and thanks for sharing it. it’s an imperfect world but we should be very aware of those imperfections and hypocrisies. All best to you, steve

  15. The River Temoc says:

    And if an-Nusra gets ahold of the chemical weapons in the aftermath of our intervention, then what?


    • Steve Clemons says:

      Then we have an even bigger problem. I have been raising the prospect for some time that a variety of non-state actors may end up with these chemical weapons in their possession — and that is something we have to anticipate and prepare to deal with. Thanks for raising the issue.

Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *