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Book Review: A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja by Joost R. Hiltermann

Published by Cambridge UP (2007)
Reviewed by Kenneth Anderson
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 3:44 PM

A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja
by Joost R. Hiltermann (Cambridge UP 2007)

Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds (Middle East Watch Report)
by George Black (Human Rights Watch 1993)


Down in a corner of my basement, among the accumulated suburban junk and detritus of middle age, are the twisted tail fins of a bomb.  A chemical weapons bomb, as it happens, dropped by Saddam Hussein’s forces on a Kurdish village during the genocidal Anfal campaign of 1987-88 that ravaged Iraqi Kurdistan.  This was the infamous scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign in which the Iraqi general Ali-Hassan al-Majid, nicknamed  “Chemical Ali,” boasted in tape-recorded conversations to senior Ba’ath party officials, “I will kill them all with chemical weapons! Who is going to say anything? The international community? Fuck them!”

The chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Halabja on March 16, 1988 killed thousands of people and was the worst single chemical attack undertaken by the Saddam regime, not to mention by far the largest use of chemical weapons in an otherwise mostly short list since the end of WWII.  Halabja was not the only chemical weapons attack by Saddam’s forces; they were widely used both on the Iraqi Kurdish villages and towns in the Anfal campaign as well as against Iranian forces in the now mostly forgotten (in the United States, anyway) long and horrific Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).  In 1992, I headed one of Human Rights Watch’s and Physician for Human Rights’ missions in Kurdistan, spending several months doing forensic anthropology investigations into conventional massacres during the Anfal campaign, but also investigating a 1988 chemical weapons attack upon the village of Birjinni in Iraqi Kurdistan.

When the team began to open graves to exhume the remains of Iraqi Kurds reported to have died from exposure to chemical weapons, the head of the forensic anthropology team, Clyde Snow, pioneer of forensic anthropology in human rights investigations (long before the nearly magical techniques of DNA analysis and the like featured on today’s TV cop shows), explained to the victims’ relatives that the fatal damage of chemical agents is to the body’s soft tissues.  A nerve agent such as sarin impairs the ability of nerve endings in muscles to turn off; a minuscule amount inhaled or even on the skin can be fatal, and death can occur within one minute of direct inhalation as the lung muscles are paralyzed.  In 1992, it was not known whether or how much samples of victim tissues could reveal direct physical evidence of chemical weapons, especially so many years after the event; hence the exhumation.  But the flesh had decayed from the bones over the four years the bodies had been buried in the ground.

So there wasn’t much for the forensic anthropologists to investigate in the victim remains; the science has moved forward since then, and the UN scientific team investigating events Syria, working weeks rather than years after the attack, has many more possibilities for assessing physical evidence. As a lawyer and not an anthropologist, however, my task there in Kurdistan was to conduct interviews among survivors of the attack and attempt to piece together what had happened from witness testimony.  Reports were consistent among villagers and consistent with the effects of nerve agents. Death was most often after a victim started twitching like a “cockroach sprayed with insecticide,” one survivor told me; indeed, the mechanism of action of nerve agents is similar to some common insecticides in inhibiting muscle control.

Likewise, no one in the field with us in 1992 knew whether the bomb canisters might contain residues or anything to give physical evidence of chemical weapons.  But since by luck we had the detritus of several bombs, the team took samples from the inner casings and soil samples from the bomb impact craters. Later tests by the UK Ministry of Defense on these (and, more important from a legal point of view, subsequent samples from later research missions, including ones conducted by the author of a book under review here, Joost Hiltermann, following standard evidence chain-of-custody procedures) established for the first time reaction products that, it reported, could only have resulted from the presence of sarin. As Human Rights Watch noted in a press release in 1993, UK MOD scientists stated that this marked “the first time that we have found evidence in soil samples of traces of the degradation products of nerve agent …  this is the first example, to our knowledge, that a suspected use of nerve agent had been corroborated by the analysis of environmental residues. The analyses also demonstrated that traces of chemical weapons agents or their degradation products can still be detected in the environment over four years later, provided that the samples are taken from a point of high initial contamination.”  The science has come a long way since, but these are among the early building blocks that the UN technical team in Syria today relies upon in its physical evidence analysis.


These chemical weapons attacks were not random, irrational atrocities mindlessly inflicted during the Anfal campaign, the desperate tactic of an army gone crazy.  Nor were they conceived by the Saddam regime as a strategy in and of itself.  Rather,  chemical weapons were a part of an integrated, strategically well-planned, carefully-executed counterinsurgency campaign.  It was undertaken to deal once and for all with the quite-real fact of ethnic Kurdish insurgency—that is, the insurgency of an ethnically distinct minority with strong, long-running aspirations to separate statehood, living in a distinct geographical area of Iraq, and bordering enemy Iran—in which armed, active guerrilla forces, the peshmerga, sheltered among the local population and actively collaborated, including at the time of Halabja, with Iranian forces.

This is one of the several core insights of Joost R. Hiltermann’s careful, detailed, and never sensational history of the use of chemical weapons by Iraq in the 1980s, A Poisonous Affair: America, Iraq, and the Gassing of Halabja.  Hiltermann is a former Human Rights Watch staffer (he succeeded me at the Human Rights Watch Arms Division in the 1990s) who later went to the International Crisis Group.  He spent considerable time in Iraq in Human Rights Watch’s investigations there and has long experience both on the ground and in Middle East diplomatic and policy circles.  The book appeared in 2007 after a long gestation, but in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq and the trials and executions of both Saddam and Chemical Ali, the book’s careful account of Saddam’s strategic use of chemical against both Iranian foes and a simmering Kurdish insurgency, along with a detailed examination of the American, European, and UN responses, oddly disappeared from sight.  It was old news, apparently; I favorably reviewed the book in the Times Literary Supplement (London) and it received laudatory and respectful reviews elsewhere—but apparently not much readership. Chemical weapons, it seemed, had been consigned to the dustbin of history, no matter the stockpiles that states continued to hold, especially in the Middle East, right up to today.

The Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 forces new attention, however, not just to how firm the norm against chemical weapons use actually is, as a matter of its formal and informal legal legitimacy but also to how chemical weapons might be used to genuine strategic advantage today. It is a not-insignificant data point in assessing whether the weapon stays in the dustbin of history.

This is not Hiltermann’s primary point in the book, however, which is not strategic, but political and historical: American policy, he says, favored Iraq over Iran, and this policy preference caused the Reagan administration to ignore and downplay increasingly well-sourced, finally undeniable, evidence of Iraq chemical weapons use in the late 1980s.  The Iran hostage crisis, Iranian support for terrorist groups abroad, and many other factors contributed to a distinct American view that, however bad Saddam might be, in geopolitical terms, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini was a far greater threat to the United States and its allies.

It amounted, in Hiltermann’s view, to tacit US support or at least significant international diplomatic cover for Saddam.  This in turn enabled America allies, other countries in the Middle East that either supported Iraq or feared Iran,  and actors at the UN to do little beyond issuing diplomatic statements of concern.  I recall the personal frustration of senior staff of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the lack of outrage and serious, real-world response at the UN; the ICRC thought it clear that, by 1988, the customary international law prohibition on the use of poison gas weapons found in the 1925 Geneva poison gas protocol now applied not just to international armed conflicts between states—Iraq’s use of it in its interstate war with Iran was clearly a massive violation of the laws of armed conflict—but also to internal armed conflicts, any armed conflict, along with other fundamental rules on targeting and the conduct of hostilities.  International actors did not necessarily disagree—but neither did they take any significant action.  There are perhaps relevant comparisons to 2013.

Hiltermann’s research is thorough and detailed, and he is clearly correct about the Reagan administration’s taking Iraq’s chemical weapons use less seriously than it would have absent its views of revolutionary Iran.  Since publication of his book in 2007, however – in just the last few weeks, in fact – pathbreaking investigative reporting by Foreign Policy’s Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid into recently declassified CIA documents paints a quite different, and far more damning, picture of the US role.  Their research confirms what Hiltermann had already concluded on the basis of his thorough interviews of both former US and Iraqi officials.  But they go on to add, based on their archival research in the newly released documents, that not only did the US know about Iraq’s chemical weapons attacks, during the waning days of the war in 1988, it

learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent. The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence. These attacks helped to tilt the war in Iraq’s favor and bring Iran to the negotiating table, and they ensured that the Reagan administration’s long-standing policy of securing an Iraqi victory would succeed.

This is new, extraordinary, and damning.  It is actual sharing of information to direct the location of chemical weapons attacks, not just greater knowledge of Iraq’s use of chemicals than the US government had publicly admitted.  It’s also impressive investigative work by Harris and Aid, going far, far beyond anything that had been previously been shown by interviews or documents, so far as I know, including in Iraqi archives.  My one modest demurral is that I am not persuaded the Reagan administration actually sought an Iraqi victory, at least as measured by its war aims.  Iraq’s original war aims in 1980 had been seizure of a small but important bit of Iranian territory, for which Saddam invaded.  Saddam miscalculated (as he was wont to do) Iran’s revolutionary zeal combined with a patriotic rapprochement with remaining professional military officers who had survived the Ayatollah’s firing squads, hangings, and purges; Iran’s revolutionary Islamic leadership initially defined its war aims as no less than the destruction of Saddam and his regime.  Iraq was thrown onto the defensive as Iran struck back through the relentless, suicidal attacks Hiltermann describes so well; as more than one former Iraqi officer told me, Iraq’s greatest conventional military expertise lay in its military engineers and their minefields, and the precision and tactical skill of their artillery forces, and that was what held the border for Iraq.

The war settled down into a brutal, chemical-laden standoff more or less at the borders that went on for eight long years (and longer for the million or more prisoners of war, including a generation of very young boys, mostly Iranian, who came of age in these camps, deprived of family, real education, training for work, and subject to privation, sexual predation and abuse, a situation decried by the ICRC, Human Rights Watch, and many others to no substantial effect).  By 1988, Ayatollah Khomeini had reluctantly given up the goal of ending Saddam, and both sides were looking to a settlement that would not amount to a victory for the other; the fighting in 1988 was in anticipation of the ceasefire, to secure the most favorable position beforehand.  But what Harris and Aid show is active intelligence assistance to Saddam in military operations, including ones in which it appears from the documentary reporting that the Reagan administration knew the intelligence would be used to support chemical attacks on Iranian forces.

Harris and Aid are correct that the Reagan administration sought Iraqi victory only if victory for Iraq, by 1988, simply meant a return to the status quo ante of the borders and, well, not losing; not Iraq securing its initial war aims or Iranian territory.  The Reagan administration’s cold calculation was that the war had weakened both parties significantly, focused their attention on each other and so less attention to the rest of the world, and that an end of hostilities based on the strategic stalemate was a good thing.  What the US policy sought at the time, as Hiltermann himself says, was “dual containment” of both Iran and Iraq.


For the narrow purpose of seeking to understand what the effects of  widening use of chemical weapons into the future might be, if that were to happen, however, US complicity with Saddam’s regime in the Reagan years is historically significant, but not revelatory or predictive.  Whereas the importance of Hiltermann’s book in 2013, even more than when it appeared in 2007, is that A Poisonous Affair provides many insights into the Saddam regime’s strikingly sophisticated and disturbingly-rational tactical use of chemical weapons.  Hiltermann has done thorough research, both in the archives and in many personal interviews in the Middle East with former military officers and others who took part in the war.  After Saddam started the war with Iran by invading and seizing territory in 1980, Iran responded—as it ran out of conventional weapons and ammunition left over from the Shah’s regime—using so-called “human-wave attacks,” consisting of masses of ill-trained infantry soldiers, sometimes simply unarmed young boys dressed in white burial shrouds with green ribbons of martyrdom, who were used as human sacrifices to breach the elaborate mine fields that formed the Iraqi defensive line.  These human-wave assaults proved surprisingly effective at breaching the mine fields. Hiltermann quotes a former Iraqi officer who spent long periods on the front lines: “They’d come toward us and reach the minefield.  The first one would try to move a mine with his foot and be blown up, but in doing so create a small gap, and then the next one would come, killing himself, and this is how they created corridors.”

Hiltermann’s military sources say that even as the bodies piled up, the attackers still kept coming, and coming, rushing Iraqi lines in hordes.  The Iranian tactic forced repeated withdrawals. Lest this seem surprising, framed in World War I terms of machine gun fire mowing down men by the hundreds of thousands—recall that Iraqi military forces were considered decent conventional forces, and their military engineers, who dealt with the mine fields, and their artillery forces especially competent.  Yet Iraq had no effective response, Hiltermann says, to the human-wave attacks. To save his troops’ lives, Saddam Hussein

could mass artillery, of course, and he did, but this became prohibitively expensive.  His forces needed thousands of rounds to obtain an adequate “kill ratio” against the hordes of Iranians rushing at their positions, unafraid to die … “We were using astonishing amounts of ammunition, and still they would reach our positions,” recalled an Iraqi brigadier general. “We faced serious serious shortages and had to import from many places.  Iraq then decided to experiment with artillery-delivered mustard gas.”

It was not long before it had moved to sarin and, in a dubious first for humanity, introduced use of another nerve agent, tabun, to the battlefield.  In the face of Iran’s perennial suicidal offensives, Iraqi forces exhibited a “swift learning curve” in devising tactics to best use the gas weapons.  Iraqi forces would

drop a quick-acting and nonpersistent agent such as tabun or sarin along the front lines.  This would set Iranian troops running but permit Iraqi ground forces to advance safely.  Iraq would simultaneously saturate Iranian staging areas with a persistent agent, such as mustard gas, thereby trapping the Iranians retreating from the front.

These rear-area gas attacks, according to a CIA analysis, acted as a force multiplier for the Iraqis.  The pinching of Iranian forces between the front line and the rear altered the tactical situation for the Iraqis.  Yet the view persists that chemical weapons are not effective, on the grounds that they are not “effective killers … because they cannot be delivered efficiently.”  This might well be overly-sanguine.  Though not his primary intent, Hiltermann’s book offers a challenge to this conventional view in its accounts of how the tactical use of gas was integrated into the Iraqi army’s unified playbook.  Still, even integrated into an overall operational framework, chemical weapons are important in the first place because they “are enormously powerful instruments of terror.” This was true of the reaction of Iranian troops in engagements throughout the Iran-Iraq war; Iraq “consistently used chemical weapons to sow terror in its enemies’ ranks—with sensational results.”


Commentators today who shrug off the use of chemical weapons in Syria—as unfortunate but not meriting a US military response—should consider carefully whether they might have an incorrect perception of chemical weapons’ utility even in regular armed conflict.  They should consider logical extensions of the Iraqi army’s tactical uses of gas weapons, particularly with contemporary technology.  It seems quite certain that if chemical weapons were to evolve away from a genuinely taboo, prohibited weapon, into merely an unsavory but not systematically rejected weapon of war, they will inflict many horrible deaths among soldiers and fighters.  Armies and insurgent forces in the developing world, even among the rising great powers, are not likely to have adequate protective gear for their forces en masse or adequate training and constant drilling in their use. And though American soldiers will have the latest protective technology, Obama administration officials are correct to declare that letting slip chemical weapons back into warfare also threatens American soldiers and makes America’s combat missions potentially much harder and riskier both to troops but also to the national security aims of an operation.

Administration officials might reflect, too, that the “red line” for the US used to be, at the time of the First Gulf War in 1990, the open threat by US officials that should Saddam use gas weapons against the US or the concert of nations arrayed against him, the US would regard that as the use of a weapon of mass destruction that might elicit a response using weapons of mass destruction.  The unspoken threat was a nuclear strike. Israel, threatened as a target, made similar statements, and so did Britain. Arms control expert John Pike summarized those threats against Saddam:

On 14 August 1991, Defense Secretary Cheney stated that “[i]t should be clear to Saddam Hussein that we have a wide range of military capabilities that will let us respond with overwhelming force and extract a very high price should he be foolish enough to use chemical weapons on United States forces.” The American government reportedly used third-party channels to privately warn Iraq that “in the event of a first use of a weapon of mass destruction by Iraq, the United States reserved the right to use any form of retaliation (presumably up to and including nuclear weapons).” After the initiation of hostilities in January, American officials continued to stress the risk of retaliation. Defense Secretary Cheney warned that “were Saddam Hussein foolish enough to use weapons of mass destruction, the US response would be absolutely overwhelming and devastating.” Cheney also noted that “I assume (Saddam) knows that if he were to resort to chemical weapons, that would be an escalation to weapons of mass destruction and that the possibility would then exist, certainly with respect to the Israelis, for example, that they might retaliate with unconventional weapons as well.” General Schwarzkopf added that “if Saddam Hussein chooses to use weapons of mass destruction, then the rules of this campaign will probably change.”

While one might question whether the United States would actually have used nuclear weapons in response to a chemical attack, Saddam Hussein obviously could not have been confident that we would not. As Bruce Blair noted, “There’s enough ambiguity in our deployments of nuclear weapons at sea and our ability to deliver nuclear weapons by air and quickly move them into the region to plant the seeds of doubt in Hussein’s mind.” The effectiveness of the threat of chemical or nuclear retaliation was confirmed by Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, deputy commander of Desert Storm, who stated that “we tried to give him (Saddam) every signal that if he used chemicals against us that we would retaliate in kind and may even do more, so I think he was hesitant to use it there.” The British also made several threats to respond harshly to an Iraqi chemical attack. On 30 September 1990 it was reported that a senior officer with the British 7th Armored Division, being deployed to Saudi Arabia, claimed that British forces would retaliate with battlefield nuclear weapons if attacked by Iraqi chemical weapons. On 1 October 1990, British Prime Margaret Thatcher noted that “[y]ou’d have to consider at the time, if chemical weapons were used against us, precisely what our reply should be.”(19) Several days later, British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd stated that an Iraqi chemical attack would “provoke a response that would completely destroy that country.”

The United States certainly is not going to return to that, to be sure, nor would I consider suggesting it should. It was, in its way, a different world, one in which, taking Harris and Aim’s revelations, the US government could offer intelligence that it knew would direct an Iraqi chemical weapons attack – and then turn, three years later, and state that use of chemical weapons against coalition forces in the First Gulf War might result in a nuclear strike – or, in principle anyway, a retaliation using any weapon of mass destruction. Different, but not that different, however. The Obama administration should therefore understand how much of the “red line” consisted historically not of calibrated, international-legalist, proportionate responses that always invite the calculation of holding out, but instead the radical uncertainty of what the United States or others might do, including ending the regime—and even consider it a proportionate response to the threat posed globally by the loss of a firm line against the use of chemical weapons ever.  The Obama administration invites calculations of risk, where it should be inducing fear of uncertainties.

But, still, the threat to US forces from chemical weapons that might arise in the future is nothing compared to what chemical weapons might mean in conflicts against less technologically-equipped militaries or insurgent groups.  And that threat is still nothing compared to the threat to posed to civilians, civilians in counterinsurgency campaigns, civilians particularly where ethnic cleansing is at issue.


This is so, not just because gas is generically a terror weapon, but because Saddam showed that it can be a fantastically effective terror weapon specifically against an insurgency and the population that supports it, if integrated as one prong of a fully articulated strategy.  This is the enduring lesson of his regime’s use of gas against the Kurds in the Anfal campaign.  It bears consideration in assessing, today, what Assad’s preferred weapon might be against the insurgents and their civilian supporters in Syria, were he simply unconstrained.  That at this moment Assad is constrained (by, that is, threats from the United States that at the least are probably not sporting good form under the UN Charter) does not does not alter the need to understand why chemical weapons are potentially so rational a weapon for a regime engaged life-or-death counterinsurgency and civil war.  Saddam’s use of poison gas against the Kurds, Hiltermann notes, was the only weapon that proved capable of defeating a tenacious

Kurdish insurgency.  Fear of poison gas attacks flushed Kurdish villagers hardened to artillery and air bombardments out of the countryside in a matter of hours.  A simmering Kurdish insurgency had started posing a serious threat to the Iraqi regime in the 1980s.  Kurdish rebel parties took advantage of the war, specifically Iraq’s preoccupation with Iranian offensives in the south, to seize control over large swaths of the Kurdish countryside.

The Iraqi government’s response, to an ethnic insurgency that it was unable to contain, was to take a lesson from the terror of Iranian troops, and adapt the same to counterinsurgency.  This was the Anfal campaign.  And it was successful in a remarkably short time where no other tactic had been—something not often true when battling serious insurgencies.  The best source for understanding the facts of the 1987-88 Anfal campaign on its own terms, however, a source drawing all the elements of the counterinsurgency strategy together, is still the 1993 report authored by journalist George Black for Human Rights Watch.  That report, Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds, is now some twenty years old, but its attention to the factual details of the campaign has not been surpassed by later literature, which tends to place the campaign in broader accounts of the Kurds, Iraq, or genocide.  Moreover, Black (who has emerged in the years since as a leading writer on the environment and natural habitats) is possessed of formidable skills as a writer and journalist able dexterously to weave together the many complicated strands of the Anfal campaign. As an institutional report by the world’s leading human rights monitor, Genocide in Iraq does not offer an analysis or conclusions  about counterinsurgency strategy; the report is strictly a “just the facts” presentation.  An overall strategic conception of the campaign as counterinsurgency has to be analytically inferred by the attentive reader; the report is not for the general reader, certainly, but instead for the specialist seeking a thoroughly researched and organized record of the campaign.

Counterinsurgency is broadly a strategy to separate insurgents from territory and population.  The counterinsurgency state, not usually able to attack insurgents directly because they are hidden and mobile (often by and among a sympathetic population, as in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s), does so indirectly by taking control of territory and population instead.  This leaves the insurgents nowhere to go.  US counterinsurgency doctrine says this can be done through “clear and hold” and then by winning the “hearts and minds” of populations; my own experience of successful counterinsurgency (in 1980s Guatemala, for example) suggests something far less sanguine, and in any case I am not sure what the US could point to as a case of its success at counterinsurgency through hearts and minds.  A senior Guatemalan army officer, interviewed by photojournalist Jean-Marie Simon and me in the 1980s, told us that hearts and minds was a wonderful idea – after the actual counterinsurgency war had been won, by means that would convince the peasants that the guerrillas could not protect them, after the peasants had been relocated to “relief” camps, after their villages had been “rebuilt” to enable “modern development” and “control” to protect them from “subversives.” After that, hearts and minds was a winning strategy.  Which is to say, if the guerrillas swim in the sea of the peasantry, per Mao, then drain the sea—and the Anfal campaign took that at its word.  The enabling method was chemical weapons.  Yet chemical weapons, viewed from the standpoint of the goals of Saddam’s counterinsurgency, were not an end in themselves, but rather a method for terrorizing populations out of their homes and into the mountains, following which the other elements of counterinsurgency strategy.

The Iraqi army correctly foresaw that their chemical attacks would cause Kurdish civilians to flee toward the borders, where Iraqi army units were ready to intercept and capture them.  Once in army hands, the regime’s forces then began separating out men and boys, large numbers of whom were killed, and sending the women, children, and old men south to government-controlled camps away from their home villages, pending an “Arabization” campaign to dilute the Kurdish population as they were allowed to return, and other measures.  These included a massive campaign to raze Kurdish villages to the ground—not the exemplary, occasional brutal sack, but nearly all the villages located in designated “Anfal” areas.  In the “three governorates of Erbil, Suleimaniyeh and Dohuk,” Black reports, “4049 [villages] had been destroyed.” That left a mere 673 still standing. Control of territory and population, in other words; counterinsurgency, but counterinsurgency conducted as the anti-COIN.

Despite the many elements of the Anfal campaign that were unique to Saddam’s Iraq, that episode is not irrelevant as a lesson about the Assad regime or, for that matter, future counterinsurgency dystopias.  Chemical weapons used in Kurdistan turned out to be nearly unparalleled as a terror instrument.  Why were chemical weapons so special an instrument of terror?  Having taken testimony from civilians in civil wars ranging from Central America to central Asia, I can say simply that the panic described by survivors in the interviews I conducted in Kurdistan were qualitatively different from that induced by ordinary weapons.  This is partly because – from the victims’ and survivors’ standpoint, as they expressed it to me – poison gas free-floating in the air, blowing wherever it blew, invisible and deadly, was “indiscriminate” in some way beyond that term’s usual meaning in the law of armed conflict.


I do not know if I can properly convey what I mean here by “indiscriminate.” In part, chemical weapons induced an utterly new kind and degree of panic among a civilian population that was certainly long accustomed to regular attacks from the air and by artillery; bombing and shelling were events that happened periodically, and villagers took me into the earthen bomb shelters dug over the years into the hillside.  Of course these kinetic air or artillery attacks were just as indiscriminate in a legal sense, and of course they could bring death suddenly, violently, explosively, and essentially without warning.  The special panic associated with chemical weapons, rather, was that once released, the gas—agonizing death—was both persistent and random.  It didn’t blow up and then it was done; and where it went was in no sense a matter of being “aimed,” not even in the sense that an indiscriminately fired artillery round is aimed somewhere.  While the gas persisted, it was under no control but the wind’s.

Interviews I conducted among survivors in Iraqi Kurdistan leave me impatient, I admit, with American commentators opining sententiously that death by gas is no more horrible than other ways of getting killed by kinetic weapons, so why make a big deal out this Assad attack? And anyway, dead is dead, what does it really matter whether you died from being explosively dismembered with your guts pouring out, or spasming as your nerves locked up and finally your breathing centers were paralyzed?  The agony of death in your final minutes might be no more less horrible—though death by sarin is, let’s be clear, pretty terrible—but the terror of not knowing whether the next intake of air, by you or your child, might not be poison, death with a characteristically sweet smell of apples?  Breathe or not?  A better approach would be to start from the assumption that the gradual evolution of a norm against chemical weapons’ use over so long a time reflects some qualitative judgment about these weapons, and the skeptical reductionism (dead is dead) does not do justice to these qualities.

The true strategic value of chemicals, then, is as a terror weapon against civilians.  Demonstrated with ruthless efficiency in Saddam’s Iraq.  Glimpsed in what chemical gas can do in a crowded Damascus suburb in Syria in a nearly-no-limits civil war. So let us consider a future in which an Assad or Saddam or others like them, some place, somewhere, might arrive at the conclusion that gas was the optimal way of clearing a city of enemy fighters and civilians on enemy side, killing people and driving them out—yet without physically razing the city.  The threatened population might (as happened in Halabja) immediately try to seal themselves in their homes—Hiltermann says this kept the casualties there far lower than they might have been.  But they have to come out sometime, and the ability of the insurgents to organize themselves for fighting is crippled; when they emerge forces of the regime (in gas masks if still needed, but likely having used relatively quick-dispersing agent) await them.  It could conceivably be a game-changing weapon—contrary to many perceptions of chemical weapons’ low utility—for a desperate regime.  Would the United States respond militarily then? Would it regret having allowed the bar to be lowered by Assad in Syria?  Or would it stand aside, on the ground that there’s nothing special about death by chemical weapons, and the US would not have acted had the regime simply moved to raze the city?


These scenarios are all entirely speculative; and perhaps nothing like this ever happens and the use of chemical weapons by states remains merely an occasional blip.  As for non-state terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and insurgent forces, although it is true that they have sometimes experimented with chemical weapons in their safe havens, use by such groups is likely to occur only if supplied by a state.  Or if they are able to seize existing stockpiles from a state, such as Syria, and have sufficient technical expertise to make use of them.  Terrorist attacks using nerve agents (such as the subway attack with sarin in Japan decades ago) might sporadically take place if the chemicals and technical expertise are sufficiently spread to transnational terrorist organizations.

But in actual warfare, in actual tactical engagements, these weapons seem far more likely to be used—if they are used at all—by states against non-state fighters or civilians.  That is so, if only because the uncertainty of how and where gases will drift favors their delivery from a safe distance, by aircraft or by artillery shell. Perhaps some insurgent forces in civil wars will master their delivery, but states would seem far more likely to be successful users, whether as a deterrent against otherwise overwhelmingly powerful states, such as the United States, or as a terror weapon in counterinsurgency, where the object is not directly the insurgent forces, but instead the civilian population as a way of flushing out the insurgents.

As to US forces, barring the development of new agents that can’t be protected against, they will be reasonably safe from chemical agents (though one should expect horrible accidents, perhaps a lot).  Their main direct tactical effect, as US military planners have often said, will be on the pace and logistical burden of engagements.  (Allied NATO forces, already hesitant to invest in the latest expensive technological innovations, likely would to be less willing to join the US in some expeditionary engagements, because their forces would not be supplied with the most protective gear or adequately trained in their use.)  The introduction of chemical weapons into conflicts against US forces, were that to happen, would certainly bring about America’s perennial response to a side’s use of law-violating tactics (hiding among civilians, for example, or using them as shields): new technology.

In practice, this would mean more efforts to reduce the number of exposed US ground fighters on the battlefield, mostly through automation. It would mean more engagement through drones and safely from the air.  It might also mean more use of local proxy forces, and more use of the CIA and covert civilian agents, rather than conventional boots on the ground.  It all amounts to fewer US engagements—and, over time, less US engagement with the world.

(Kenneth Anderson is the Reviews Editor of Lawfare.)

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