What Did You Do During the Great Chemical War, Grandpa?

(Bloomberg View) -- You probably didn’t take a moment this weekend to toast the 20th anniversary of the global Chemical Weapons Convention. Maybe it slipped your mind. Or, given the horrific chemical weapons attack in Syria last month, maybe you felt any commemoration would ring hollow.

Yet the anniversary is worth honoring. The only international arms control treaty that bans an entire class of weapons, the CWC has been signed by 192 nations, and has resulted in the destruction of nearly 95 percent of the world's chemical weapons.

Granted, I’m not disinterested. My family has its own history of involvement with chemical warfare. No, my grandfather wasn’t on the front lines breathing in mustard gas like the poor sods memorialized in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” whose “blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” He was on the home front manufacturing it.

Lieutenant John R. Suydam was in what became the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service, stationed first at American University in Washington, where nearby residents still dig up the toxic fruits of his unit’s labor, and then at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland, which was built in 1917 to produce chemical agents. According to the memoirs of one of his roommates at Columbia, where he got his PhD in chemistry, Grandpa “had a delightful personality, but was somewhat absent-minded.” One of his nicknames, apparently, was “Foggy John.” Little did his roomies know what kind of fog John would soon be putting down.

I was 11 when my grandfather died, and never had the chance to ask him, “What exactly did you do during the Great War, Grandpa?” But I do know now that Edgewood was making about 675 tons of toxic agents a week in late 1918, shipping the stuff to France. It was a dangerous business. I wouldn’t be here today if he had died “from absorption of deleterious gas,” as one of the arsenal’s casualty reports artfully put it.

Nearly 30 percent of U.S. casualties during the First World War came from gas attacks. Relatively few died, but 70,000 to 90,000 were wounded, some to lifelong effect. My grandfather’s commander, General Amos Fries, was something of a chemical evangelist: After the war, he fought a rear-guard action to keep the service intact, writing tracts like “The Humanity of Poison Gas.”  He transmitted his enthusiasm to his men, whose proposed slogans for an Edgewood Arsenal newspaper included “GAS killed the GERM in GERMany,” and, less mellifluously, “GAS warfare: a policeman’s club for world peace.”  Whether my grandfather carried any of this zeal into his decades as a chemistry teacher at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, I’ll thankfully never know.

Some four score years after Lieutenant Suydam’s Edgewood tour of duty, on April 4, 1997, I found myself in the Map Room at the White House, watching a white-gloved steward carefully peel a banana and proffer it to President Bill Clinton. We were at a pre-briefing for an event to garner support for the treaty, which was up for ratification in a recalcitrant Republican-controlled Senate. (I was a Foreign Service officer on detail to the National Security Council as a speechwriter.)

As Clinton reviewed his remarks, Rahm Emanuel, then Clinton’s senior adviser on politics and domestic policy, snarled, “I don’t hear the sound bite. Where’s the bite?” Clinton munched on, nodding as National Security Adviser Sandy Berger briefed him.

The point of the event was to wrap the treaty in the mantle of as many Republican heavyweights as the administration could round up. So we had former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairmen Generals Colin Powell and David Jones, former strategic arms negotiators Paul Nitze and Edward Rowny, former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency head Kenneth Adelman, and a slew of others. This approach had other dividends: Even as Vice President Al Gore gave a bloviating address, former Secretary of State James Baker was crisp, forceful, to the point.

Many of the last-ditch objections to the treaty raised by Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who was leading the fight against it, were risible. He harped on how many potentially hostile nations were refusing to sign on. But as Clinton noted at a subsequent press briefing, keeping the U.S. out of the treaty until Russia joined would reduce U.S. leverage over Moscow. Waiting until rogue nations such as Iraq and Libya joined would likewise prevent the U.S. from using the treaty against them.

In the end, the treaty passed the Senate 74-26 on April 24, and entered into force five days later. Since then, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons -- which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 -- has destroyed 68,000 metric tons of chemical weapons and 7.4 million munitions.

True, signing the CWC didn’t stop Syria from using chemical weapons. But as Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told me, “Syria isn’t an easy test case” of the treaty’s effectiveness. For one thing, Syria’s civil war made inspections harder; for another, even as the OPCW destroyed Syria’s declared chemical weapons stocks, it made clear that Assad’s declarations had omissions and inconsistencies. Moreover, the organization repeatedly documented Syria’s continued use of sarin, mustard and chlorine gas.

In short, the failure to hold Syria to account is a weakness not of the OPCW or the treaty, but of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who drive enforcement. “Russia has a lot to answer for,” said Kimball.

So, too, does the U.S. Members of the Obama administration have downplayed their failure to punish Assad for crossing Obama’s 2012 “red line” by pointing to the subsequent Russia-backed disarmament deal. But such protestations fall flat in the face of Obama’s willingness to tolerate Assad’s later chemical attacks. If Obama had responded with a military strike after Assad’s use of sarin in August 2013 -- which killed more than 1,400 people -- smart diplomacy might well have secured the same disarmament deal, only with much greater deterrent effect.

Instead, enforcement of the taboo against chemical weapons was left to President Donald Trump, whose response to Syria’s April 4 attack seemed much more influenced by grim footage of “innocent babies, babies, little babies” than violations of international treaties.

That’s too bad, because as an international instrument, the CWC faces some big challenges. Holdouts need to be brought on board, including Israel (which has signed but not ratified it) and Egypt (which helped Syria develop chemical and biological arsenals and is thought to have stocks that homegrown terrorists could potentially acquire). As technology evolves, so must the expertise and reach of inspectors. And 20 years after the CWC came into force, no member state has ever called for a “challenge inspection,” fearing a tit-for-tat response.

The building at Edgewood Arsenal where my grandfather worked was torn down a few years ago. And the U.S. has spent more than $5 billion since 1997 to destroy its chemical arsenal. But for taboos to retain their power, they must periodically be enforced, preferably by those who believe in them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was features editor at the Atlantic, deputy editor at the New York Times op-ed page and executive editor at Foreign Policy magazine. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.

  1. He was not the only one to think so: At the Hague Conference in 1899, the U.S. uber-strategist Captain Alfred T. Mahan was the lone "no" vote on a ban against using artillery shells with asphyxiating gas, arguing that gas was less inhumane than blowing up naval ships and drowning hundreds of men.

  2. Among other motto contenders were "A heavy concentration of gas warfare development may keep the COVER on that peace PRESERVE JAR" and "Chemical Warfare Service -- a brand new branch of service which offers a FUTURE with real OPPORTUNITIES."

To contact the author of this story: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

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