Feb. 3, 2020
10. The Moral Status of Chemical Weapons: Arguments from World War I
While the human condition affords countless examples of what Pope had in mind, perhaps no more striking wartime example can be found than that of the employment of chemical weapons in World War I. Chemical weapons—regarded as vicious and hated by all self-identified “civilized peoples”—were first endured, then pitied, then embraced by both sides, even as both sides held their noses, both literally and figuratively, for having chosen to employ weapons condemned throughout history. Then, in a turn so quick as to make the head of the body politic spin, the international community roundly condemned these weapons, even as individual states muttered under their breath—in the form of treaty reservations—their willingness to employ them again if an enemy did. At least some in Germany took all of this in stride, as evidenced in a now famous diary entry by army officer and author Rudolf Binding, written in the immediate aftermath of the gas attacks at Ypres, Belgium: “I am not pleased with the idea of poisoning men. Of course, the entire world will rage about it at first and then imitate us.” Imitation did, indeed, follow, both in the attacks employing progressively more lethal weapons and the amassing, over the course of the 20th century, of huge stockpiles of chemical weapons.