The Thick Red Line: Origins of the Chemical Weapons Taboo

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Radoslav Dragov's picture

Perhaps in the light of recent events happening in Washington a bit “gallows humour” was in order. In a comic strip from “The Oatmeal” a middle-aged man is calmly watching news reports on the Syrian Conflict. As the months pass and Syrians get killed in more gruesomely creative ways the man remains just as passive. Finally (on the final panel) his inertia is broken and he is seen outraged because the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.

Spotty Record

But why? Why are chemical weapons “the red line” that no regime should ever cross? They arguably do not cause more damage than conventional weapons. Chemical weapons do not cause more pain in victims and do not destroy infrastructure. It can even be argued that they are “gentler” way to terminate life than bullets, shrapnel and explosions. The stigmatization isn’t even a product of the 21st century – restraint from the use of chemical weapons has a good pedigree.

Chemical weapons were formally prohibited by the signatory countries of the 1899 Hague convention (1). After some extensive use in the First World War chemical weapons received a widespread stigma. In the 1930s there was a prevailing fear that chemical bombs will be dropped from the sky and fast-track the end of civilization (2). Despite large stockpiles and ample opportunities to turn the tide of crucial battles only the Japanese made a limited use of chemical weapons on a battlefield during World War II (1). It quickly became the type of weapon too unthinkable even for Hitler. After WW II there was sustained use of chemical armaments only in 1967 (Egypt’s involvement in the North Yemen Civil War) and in the 1980’s by Iraq against Iran.

Creeping Death

The taboo of chemical weapons seems something that an alien landing on Earth might not understand. If human behaviour allows and sometimes admires destruction through conventional armaments what is the difference in adding one more (chemical) tool to the arsenal. I will try to explore several hypotheses.

The key words when it comes to chemical weapons are “disease” and “poison”. People have an innate revulsion to the concept of poison. I was surprised to learn that at first the Atomic Bomb did not receive its special status: “weapon of last resort”. For several years in public speeches and in private conversations it was just seen as an upgraded version of conventional bombs (2). Only when the lingering blight of atomic fallout became apparent nuclear weapons received widespread admonition. The sight of radioactivity (or poison), which slowly drains the life of its victims, cannot be stomached even by the most obsessed warmonger. 

Friendly Fire

The use of chemical weapons and the effect they bring on human life creates allusions with the plague: an unseen enemy that can strike at any moment. Nowhere is safe. A bullet might miss you and you can miraculously avoid flying shrapnel behind a stone but poisonous fumes permeate everything. It’s not an enemy or pain you can actively resist. In the best of circumstances one can only endure it. Like a disease the inhaled poisonous substance is active within the body. Chemical weapons leave no battle scars one could be proud of. They may not kill you but they will make you weaker.

Noxious chemicals present a challenge even for those who deploy them – especially if the wind suddenly shifts directions. A grenade or a landmine also does not discriminate between sides but at least its impact is over in seconds. With chemical weapons there’s the lingering threat of unleashing something one cannot control. Invisible evil that indiscriminately desolates every human life in its path is a concept that has been deeply imprinted in European culture (where modern chemical weapons were first developed). The “Black Death” pandemic (1348-1350) swept through Europe and exterminated from 30 to 60% of its population (3). Ultimately the revulsion of disease is perhaps as old as humanity because it provides a clear survival advantage. In a primitive environment it is not beneficial for a person to hang around sickly people.

Weapon of the Weak

After the “Black Death” died down the survivors wanted someone to be blamed. Minorities were accused of poisoning wells and thus starting the plague (3). This brings us to the topic of poison. Chemical weapons are essentially an effective and efficient way of distributing poison. In culture and literature the poisoner is a reviled character. He or she is a weak figure without a shred of honour that tries to defeat adversaries unfairly (2). More generally poison is never a symbol of power. They are over a hundred flags of countries and provinces that have weapons in their design: axe, cannon, AK-47, machete, etc. Not even the most depraved and fascistic regime will put the symbol of biological or chemical weapons on its flag.  

Using chemical weapons in warfare may cross some unwritten laws of honour between adversaries. If I have to make a really far-fetched connection I would say that it has something to do with the 19th century intellectual phenomenon called Romantic Militarism (4). There was a widespread feeling among many intellectuals that war was necessary, that it brings essential qualities like courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice to the forefront. War and its purging effect remove the weak elements in society - it is ultimately a way for self-improvement.  At the same time (mid-19 century) the first modern chemical weapons were being manufactured and deployed. The use of poison (the weapon of the weak) seemed too dishonourable by the lofty standards set by intellectuals. Perhaps this view slowly seeped into popular understanding.

Another Way to Die

I’ve saved the best (or most probable) for last. I think that the chemical weapons taboo is case of self-reinforcing hype. Ever since the deployment of gunpowder weaponries conventional armaments have gone through an incremental evolution: explosions get bigger, bullets fly faster. Then (mid-19 century) comes along something different – modern chemical weapons, death in a canister. They don’t make an explosion or much of a sound but they get the job done. The potential there was great and the big powers of the day started developing them. The First World War was an opportunity to try them out on a massive scale.

Perhaps the novelty and surreptitious nature of chemical weapons have terrified even the most battle-hardened soldiers. They are used to explosions and gunfire not a toxic cloud that kills everything in its path. No doubt the innate revulsion to the concept of poison and disease played an important part. The horror stories of poisoning following the Great War oozed into the collective psyche and created the image of an unthinkable weapon. Before WW II all the key players had developed and stocked more chemical weapons: not so much to use it, but because they were afraid the enemy might not share their reservations (1). All sides feared that the other has developed a far deadlier toxic agent so they did not dare use it even in desperate times. As a result chemical weapons were branded too horrendous even for Hitler (although poisonous gas was used in gas chambers).

I mentioned previously that nuclear bombs were not first seen as a weapon of last resort. This happened later when the poisonous consequences of the nuclear detonation became widespread. By virtue of association the taboo for chemical and nuclear weapons reinforced each other. Nuclear armaments dwarf chemical weapons in terms of destructive potential and yet they fall under the same label: weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the end the spectre of nuclear fallout strengthened the already turgid chemical weapons taboo.

Primal Fear

The long march of progress has been a quest to find increasingly efficient ways to exterminate our fellow human beings. Chemical and biological weapons have been a long-time companion: from poison-tipped arrows through catapulting diseased corpses to the odourless nerve agent sarin. The whole point of new inventions was to make war insufferable and unfair for the enemy.

And yet chemical weapons remain a very thick line in the sand. Cold rationality cannot explain this fortunate double standard. It seems that the taboo has at its core some innate human behaviour. Allusions with disease and poison and the perceived lack of honour in deploying chemical armaments are possible explanations. Instinct was only the germ that grew into the taboo. Historical contingencies like the First World War and the creation of nuclear weapons reinforced it.

Irrespective of its justification “the red line” makes the world a better place or at the very least spares more pain being inflicted. After all the man in the comic strip demonstrated some emotion even if it was only at the end.


(1)  “The history of chemical weapons: The shadow of Ypres”, The Economist (2013), url:

(2)  Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin. com.

(3)  “Millennium issue: The Black Death: Plague and economics”, The Economist (1999), url:

(4)  Rosenblum, N. L. (1982). Romantic Militarism. Journal of the History of Ideas, 43(2), 249-268.