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Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
A Never-Ending Story?
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War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare From World War I to Al-Qaeda, by Jonathan B. Tucker, Pantheon Books, February 2006, 496 pp.

Michael Moodie

In War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare From World War I to Al-Qaeda, Jonathan Tucker reaffirms his stature as one of the world’s leading experts on the dangers to global security posed by chemical weapons. His new book is a highly detailed, richly fascinating account of the emergence of chemical weapons through the 20th century, of the efforts to combat them, and of the continuing challenge they pose to the health and well-being of humankind.

Tucker’s story weaves together strands of science, political security issues, and people, and the book’s great strength is not only its ability to deal with each strand individually but to demonstrate how they interact.

With respect to science, the author provides detailed explanations of the often-complex chemistry involved in making chemical weapons, and he does so in terms readily understandable to the general reader with a modest sci ence background. The volume is filled with discussions of how the key players throughout the last 100 years applied science and engineering to such key areas as the design of chemical weapons delivery systems such as artillery shells, rocket launchers, and missile warheads. Tucker details national efforts, including by Nazi Germany, the United States and the So viet Union during the Cold War, and late 20th-century Iraq, to create an industrial infrastructure for the production of the thousands of tons of agent necessary for effective use on the battlefield. He also includes discussions of how science was applied in the essential testing component of chemical weapons programs, whether it was by states or by substate actors such as the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo. That cult bought an Australian sheep station to test its version of the nerve gas sarin as an aerosol before its attack on the Tokyo subway. When finished, the reader has a clear appreciation of the critical role that science and engineering play in yielding such a deadly poisonous result.

The second thread of Tucker’s story fo cuses on security perceptions, policies, and politics that both provide the incentive for actors, whether state or nonstate, to pursue chemical weapons and give shape to the specific programs and pursuits that characterize individual efforts. He does a fine job detailing the German perspective on chemical weapons as that country took the lead in developing chemical weapons capabili ties during and after World War I. He also provides an excellent account of the evolution of the U.S. and Soviet programs during the Cold War. Particularly, he highlights the reality that, especially in the last half of the 20th century, moving to the next level of chemical weapons capability was not always an easy, clear, or uncontroversial decision.

A good example is his treatment of the debate in the United States over the utility and appropriateness of binary chemical weapons that began in the late 1970s and came to a head during the Reagan administration. It was then that Congress, in a hotly debated decision, ultimately reached a compromise allowing development of these capabilities but not their overseas deploy ment. As Tucker points out in an observa tion that has wider applicability, “[t]he fact that support for binary weapons correlated poorly with party affiliation and ideology made for some strange political bedfel lows.” The same was true of opposition to the binary program, but then, strange alliances seem to be a consistent feature of the history of chemical weapons.

Tucker also does a good job elaborating the geopolitical circumstances in which chemical weapons programs emerged and developed. Tucker had served as a UN weapons inspector in Iraq in 1995, and his treatment of Baghdad’s chemical weapons program is especially rich: how it came about, how it was used in Iraq’s war with Iran , and how ultimately it was dismantled by UN inspectors following the 1991 Per sian Gulf War. The book is careful to put this detailed examination of Iraq into the context of evolving regional security politics, not only in terms of Iraq’s rivalry with Iran but also with respect to the broader Middle East . It shows the ripple effects of decisions made in Baghdad or elsewhere, including the implications for Egypt, Syria, and Israel, all of which are also believed to have had chemical weapons at one time and in some cases may still have them.

One exception to this generally careful geopolitical discussion is East Asia, in par ticular North Korea. Despite a number of valuable and credible open sources, Tucker pays virtually no attention to the history of Pyongyang’s chemical weapons capability, which could date to the 1950s; nor does he address the implications for East Asian se curity, including how Pyongyang’s chemical weapons capabilities have interacted with the challenge of nuclear politics.

The third important element of Tucker’s story is the people. War of Nerves underlines a valuable lesson: that the history with which we have to contend is the product not of abstract forces or trends but of peo ple and their beliefs, concerns, fears, values, decisions, and actions or lack thereof. Tucker is particularly good at drawing quick character sketches, often adding personal details or vignettes that demonstrate the participants’ humanity in all its dimen sions, good and bad.

This ability reveals itself particularly in the first third of the book that concentrates on developments in Germany from the beginning of the century through the end of World War II. It is less evident in the latter parts of the book. This is perhaps because the story becomes more complex with the advent of the Cold War as the number of actors and issues increases. Yet, individuals played no less a role in the second half of the 20th century than the first. The author often identifies the players, but he does less to help us understand their views and motivations. That is too bad because those years had no dearth of “colorful” and powerful personalities integral to the story. The one exception is Tucker’s excellent presentation of the Soviet/Russian “whistleblower” Vil Mirzayanov, who brought to the world’s attention Russia’s continued chemical weapons activities intended to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

This absence is consistent with the volume’s major shortcoming, that is, what is not there rather than what is. It is a book that is certainly loaded with important detail, but two risks exist in such an approach. First, it can overwhelm the general reader with facts, and Tucker sometimes provides a level of information beyond what someone with even a strong interest in the subject needs or wants. Second, it creates the potential for “not seeing the forest for the trees.” That sometimes happens in Tucker’s book, at least insofar as the trees are defined very precisely while the forest remains a bit hazy.

This shortfall is the result of the author leaving too much of the assessment to the reader. Tucker never really makes his case explicit as to why he thinks this is an im portant story to be told and why the reader should have an interest. He does argue briefly in his opening pages that chemical weapons “serve no peaceful purpose,” but that is true of most weapons systems. So, what makes the story of chemical weapons special, particularly for us today?

Tucker suggests that it is important because of the existence of an inherent hu man taboo or norm against the use of poisons as instruments of violence. To some extent, his story is one of constant pressure working to erode that norm. With respect to that pressure, in reviewing the strands of the history Tucker so usefully intertwines, one could argue that science makes it possible; perceptions and politics, especially as they relate to “military necessity,” provide the rationale; and people make it happen. Is Tucker’s message, then, that in the future each of these elements requires close at tention so that their confluence, which we witnessed in earlier times to devastating effect, is never allowed to happen again? He does not tell us.

This problem could be a result of the essentially chronological organization Tucker uses to structure his narrative. Again, because the story is simpler in its early days, a chronological approach is useful for the period through World War II. The situation becomes more complex, however, with the arrival of the Cold War; the spread of chemical weapons capabilities beyond those involved directly in the East-West standoff, especially in the developing world; and eventually chemical weapons use by terrorists. So, the reader finds that, in the latter chapters, the chronological narrative skips from decisions in Iraq to events in Russia to diplomatic negotiations in Geneva to congressional politics in Washingtonto the efforts of Aum Shinrikyo in Japan. Telling what happened in the order it happened sometimes makes it difficult to bring into sharp relief the implications of those developments. Had the author provided a more expansive vision of why he thought this was an important exercise and elaborated on the key themes that supported his argument, the reader may have been better able to retain focus.

Telling a complicated story in any vol ume of this length entails tough choices of what to include and what to leave out. Some of Tucker’s choices are frustrating. As mentioned, he provides remarkably detailed scientific information, even though some other important aspects of the story could have benefited from a richer telling. In par ticular, despite the author’s clear commit ment to the importance of the CWC and the norm against chemical weapons that it embodies, the CWC narrative left this reader unsatisfied. Although this book is not a history of the CWC—a subject that would benefit greatly from the author’s talents—it is an important aspect of the story that he relates at only a rather high level of generality. As a result, the story does not yield the additional insights that it could on some issues that resonate today.

One leitmotif of the CWC negotiations, for example, was the tension that existed between developed and developing coun tries regarding the latter’s demand for cooperation and assistance in acquiring and exploiting the science and technology covered by the treaty for peaceful purposes. This tension still not only haunts the CWC’s implementation, but it is a peren nial issue in other multilateral security forums, including those addressing both the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Some insight into this issue, how it played out in the negotiations, and how and why it continues to assert itself today would have been helpful. Other aspects of the CWC story, including the sad tale of its quite conditional ratification and imple mentation by Congress, also deserve more than the few paragraphs they are allotted.

A final “missing piece” of the story, one to which the author is clearly sensitive and hints at but which would have benefited from more elaboration, relates to the future. In particular, what do current trends and developments in science, industry, and security suggest regarding the extent to which what lies ahead will be marked by continuity or discontinuity with what has gone before? One paragraph at the very end of the book mentions the changing nature of the threat that could result from scientific and technological innovations such as the partnering of combinatorial chemistry with high-throughput screening of molecules or the widespread industrial adoption of “microreactors.” These devel opments are mentioned, but that is all. No discussion is provided, for example, of how they might be used to generate new, nontraditional chemical agents. Nor does the book consider how the global chemical industry has changed in the last 15 years in terms of its geographic distribution and its methods of operation. Both have important potential implications, not only for identifying new, unknown chemical agents but also for the continued relevance of CWC measures designed to ensure that illicit activities do not occur.

As the book so distressingly shows, because some key chemical weapons discoveries were accidents emerging from industrial research, such as pesticide development, these implications deserve some atten tion. Similarly, the interest that terrorists have shown in and the concern that has arisen about the security of toxic industrial chemicals as either the means or the targets of terrorist attacks suggest that the concept of what constitutes a “chemical weapon” may be expanding beyond those traditional ones designed for battlefield use that are the subject of this volume. Rather than essentially listing them in a few short para graphs, some elaboration of the challenges ahead would have reinforced the author’s case that this history is worth examining.

In making this comment, one must recognize that Tucker’s aim in writing this volume was not futurology, but history. To that end, he has succeeded remarkably. It is a work that cogently and richly tells the story of a man-made plague that has lasted more than a century and shows every intention of remaining on the global security agenda. Knowing from where we have come helps us know where we are going and whether we are on track. Jonathan Tucker’s book provides an invaluable contribution to the former, and we should all hope that he continues to apply his masterful talents to assisting us with the latter.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Tucker is a member of the board of directors of the Arms Control Association. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

Michael Moodie is a consultant who has worked for more than 15 years in chemical and biological weapons issues in government and the policy research community. He headed the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute and served as assistant director for multilateral affairs at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

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