Saddam Hussein's regime "is busy enhancing its capabilities in the field of chemical and biological agents," Vice President Dick Cheney told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August, adding, "These are not weapons designed for the purpose of defending Iraq. These are offensive weapons for the purpose of inflicting death on a massive scale." Billed by the White House as laying out the case for military action against Iraq, the speech employed the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" eight times. George W. Bush also regularly uses "weapons of mass destruction" as a collective term for chemical, biological, and atomic arms. In his 2002 State of the Union address, for example, the president stated that the United States would not "permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most dangerous weapons," citing chemical, biological, and atomic arms as equal concerns.
Indeed, during the last year, politicians, pundits, and the media (including The New Republic) have used the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" as a constant shorthand for chemical, biological, and atomic arms. As of this writing, the phrase "weapons of mass destruction" had appeared in The New York Times in some 250 articles over the past month alone. And while I do not claim to have examined all of these citations, it is a safe bet that most referred collectively to chemical, biological, and atomic arms, implying equivalent power to inflict "death on a massive scale."
Yet their lethal potential is emphatically not equivalent. Chemical weapons are dangerous, to be sure, but not "weapons of mass destruction" in any meaningful sense. In actual use, chemical arms have proven less deadly than regular bombs, bullets, and artillery shells. Since the gassing of the trenches in World War I and the Holocaust a generation later, people have been terrified by the thought of death by gas--partly because chemical agents are invisible, partly because we visualize ghastly, helpless choking rather than vanishing in the flash of an explosion. But pound for pound, chemical weapons are less lethal than conventional explosives and more difficult for an attacker or terrorist to use. It's also hard to see what the moral distinction is between being killed by gas and being blown up. Modern artillery shells create horrific scenes of carnage, and yet we don't view them as weapons of "mass destruction," though firing them into an unsuspecting city could readily produce more deaths than gas.
Similarly, biological weapons are widely viewed with dread, though in actual use they have rarely done great harm. The most successful biological warfare to date took place nearly 250 years ago, when the British gave smallpox-laden blankets to French-affiliated Native Americans during the Seven Years' War. Japanese attempts to use biological weapons against China during World War II were of limited success. More recently there have been accidental releases of smallpox and anthrax in the Soviet Union and Ebola exposure in the United States; all did far less harm than would have been caused by the detonation of a single conventional bomb.
Biological agents are surely dangerous: Being alive, they can propagate, in theory "manufacturing" more of themselves from tiny initial amounts. But the biological weapon that creates a runaway effect, killing huge numbers rapidly, so far exists only in science fiction and preposterous Hollywood thrillers such as Outbreak. The living things of Earth have spent millions of years evolving defenses against runaway pathogens, and these defenses have grown stronger during the postwar era as public health has improved spectacularly in most nations. Deliberate, systematic distribution of weapons-grade anthrax in the United States in 2001 killed five people--terrible, but hardly "mass destruction" compared to the jet-fuel explosions that killed 3,000 on September 11 and the conventional bomb that killed 168 in Oklahoma City in 1995. Because actual attempts to use bioweapons have been few, it's hard to be sure; but it may well be that, like chemical weapons, biological agents will prove less dangerous than conventional arms, as well as more difficult for armies or terrorists to use.
Then there are atomic and nuclear devices--utterly, unmistakably "weapons of mass destruction." Pound for pound, these are the most awful constructions of human enterprise, thousands or millions of times more dangerous than any chemical or biological arms.
The phrase "weapons of mass destruction," then, obscures more than it clarifies. It lumps together a category of truly terrible weapons (atomic bombs) with two other categories that are either less dangerous than conventional weapons (chemical arms) or largely an unknown quantity (biological agents). This conflation, moreover, muddies the American rationale for military action against Iraq. That rationale should be to prevent Saddam from acquiring atomic weapons. This alone is reason to go to war.
Though chemical weapons are associated with gruesome mortality, in actual use they have caused horrible choking and blisters--see the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the World War I British soldier whose famed work concluding "The old Lie: Dulce de decorum est/Pro patri mori" concerns troops being gassed--but have proven less deadly than bombs or bullets. Fewer than 1 percent of battle deaths during World War I, the only war in which chemical arms were extensively employed, were caused by gas. As John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, and his son Karl, a RAND Corporation analyst, have written, "In the First World War, only some two to three percent of those gassed on the Western front died while, by contrast, wounds caused by traditional weapons were some 10 to 12 times more likely to prove fatal." American fatalities followed exactly this ratio: 2 percent of those gassed during the war died, compared with 24 percent of those struck by bullets, artillery shells, or shrapnel.
Moreover, during World War I the Germans and British expended one ton of gas on average to achieve a single fatality on the opposite side. Chemical weapons were used in huge amounts to small effect because they are hard to deliver and hard to control. They waft on the wind, missing their targets and attenuating to the point that they cease to be lethal. Sunlight breaks down many chemical agents. And artillery shells don't carry chemicals well, because impact tends to immolate the chemical. Finally, in close combat, chemical weapons are as likely to blow back onto your position as to remain behind enemy lines.
Though more frightening than the mustard gas of the Great War, modern chemical arms such as sarin also fare poorly in pound-for-pound comparison. Writing a decade ago for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in an article presciently titled "The Myth of Chemical Superweapons," Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson estimated it would require one ton of sarin delivered under perfect conditions to inflict substantial casualties on unprotected civilians. And perfect conditions for gas--no wind, no sun, a very low-flying plane that no one is shooting at--almost never happen. A terrorist crop duster trying to spray sarin over a city, for example, would have to fly at least several hundred feet above the ground to avoid hitting buildings, meaning most of the gas would waft away harmlessly. A 1993 study by the Office of Technology Assessment found that one ton of perfectly delivered sarin, used against unprotected civilians, could kill as many as 8,000 but that even light wind or sunlight would drop the death toll by 90 percent. Eight hundred dead would be horrible, surely, but not "mass destruction" compared with what conventional arms do all too readily. A single U.S. bomb dropped against one Iraqi bunker during the Gulf war, for example, killed 314 civilians.
When the Aum Shinrikyo death cult attacked Tokyo's subway system with sarin in 1995, thousands were sickened but only twelve people killed--and this from the release of gas from multiple containers in an enclosed area without sunlight. The worst known use of gas, by Saddam against the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, is generally estimated to have killed 5,000 people, though some analysts think the toll was lower. But in that attack, Iraqi air force planes made repeated, low-level, unopposed passes over defenseless civilians. Regular bombs and strafing would have caused a similar slaughter.
By the end of World War I, improved gas masks were already negating chemical arms on the battlefield, reducing them to the level of annoyance. Similarly, today's much improved "NBC" (nuclear, biological, and chemical) suits for soldiers would probably negate improved chemical arms as battlefield weapons, though the suits are uncomfortable--one reason why, if the United States must invade Iraq, winter would be the best time. America's M1 main tanks and M2 assault vehicles have pressurized sealing systems that would probably render even perfectly delivered modern chemicals weapons useless against armor. The United States and Russia both agreed to destroy their stocks of chemical agents in 1997--incineration is now in progress--partly because these arms are seen as inhumane and partly because the nations' military establishments realized conventional bombs and bullets are more effective anyway.
Assuming Saddam still has stocks of chemical arms, these pose some threat to his neighbors--though Iraq's Scud and Scud-like missiles are inaccurate, and in general missiles are an ineffective means to deliver chemical weapons. The real threat posed by chemical weapons is largely psychological. The notion of being gassed is so horrendous to Israelis that if even one gas fatality were sustained, Israel might strike back with overwhelming force. But it's unlikely that chemical arms in Saddam's possession constitute "weapons of mass destruction" in the literal sense; the world may even be better off if he wastes his money chasing chemicals rather than stockpiling bombs, shells, and other proven munitions.
One substance Iraq was forbidden to import under the U.N. sanctions regime throughout much of the '90s was chlorine, which can be used to make chlorine gas. Chlorine gas was the least effective chemical weapon a century ago in World War I, and it hasn't gotten any more potent. While dangerous to unarmed civilians (all weapons are dangerous to unarmed civilians), when it comes to battlefield use, chlorine gas would be the equivalent of the single-shot Enfield rifle. As the Muellers note, depriving Iraq of chlorine on questionable "weapons of mass destruction" grounds meant that much of the country's drinking water was not chlorinated during the '90s--one factor that may have contributed to the Iraqi deaths attributable to sanctions. Richard Garfield of Columbia University, who has studied the numerous Iraqi death estimates, believes sanctions contributed to around 450,000 avoidable childhood deaths. If even a fraction of those were attributable to the ban on chlorine, then excessive fear of chemical arms may have contributed to a policy decision that made the sanctions regime crueler than it needed to be.
Then there are biological agents. Supposedly these weapons kill very rapidly in huge numbers. William Cohen, when secretary of defense under Bill Clinton, once held up a small bag of sugar and declared that an equivalent amount of anthrax spores could kill half the population of the District of Columbia. "Dark Winter," a bioterrorism war game conducted a few months before September 11, 2001, at Andrews Air Force Base--and featuring Sam Nunn as "President Nunn"--posited that a handful of terrorists with small quantities of smallpox could set in motion unstoppable events that would kill up to one million Americans. National newscasts have illustrated reports about biological weapons with video clips from the movie Outbreak, in which U.S. bombers obliterate entire areas, killing everyone within in order to halt a super-plague. Richard Preston's sci-fi thriller The Cobra Event depicted a biological weapon capable of killing everyone in New York City in 24 hours. Since Preston had previously written a more-or-less nonfiction best-seller, The Hot Zone, which claimed Ebola could kill millions unstoppably, his Cobra Event was said to have deeply disturbed President Clinton--even though it was a sci-fi novel. In 2002 the BBC aired a docudrama, which to the viewer looked awfully like a straight news show, in which a single terrorist with smallpox causes a global epidemic that kills 60 million people.
That is the public perception of biological weapons. Here is what has happened in actual use: In 1971 smallpox from the old Soviet bioweapons program got loose in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, a place with terribly low public health standards--life expectancy for men at birth was just 40 years. Despite these seemingly ideal conditions for a runaway plague, the smallpox killed a total of three people. In 1979 an explosion at a Soviet bioweapons plant near Sverdlovsk (now called Ekaterinburg), also a place with poor public health, released a large quantity of weapons-grade anthrax spores into the air. The anthrax killed 68 people. In 1989, monkeys carrying the Ebola virus were accidentally shipped to a government facility in Reston, Virginia, just outside Washington. Workers at the facility were exposed to the virus and then moved freely among friends and family for several days before the situation was discovered. This event--the subject of Preston's book The Hot Zone--has since been discussed as if it showed how vulnerable the United States is to bioterrorism. Usually skipped over in such discussions, however, is that the Ebola loosed near the nation's capital in 1989 did not cause a single death.
Historic efforts at killing large populations through biological warfare have met with mixed results. During World War II, Japanese army researchers bred fleas infected with bubonic plague, which were dropped in clouds over Chinese cities and dumped into Chinese water wells. This biological attack, directed against an impoverished population with almost no modern health care, is thought to have killed several thousand Chinese civilians; it was halted when the Japanese realized that plague-infected drinking water was killing their own soldiers in China. But conventional Japanese bombing of Chinese cities also killed thousands. Farther back, during medieval times, siege armies used catapults to hurl the bodies of bubonic-plague victims into cities, hoping to spread contagion. And that's about it for the actual use of biological weapons.
Note that bioweapons have done steadily less harm in recent times, as public health infrastructure has improved. When the Aralsk smallpox outbreak happened, for example, Soviet officials moved rapidly to vaccinate the 50,000 people closest to the area; this stopped the disease, giving it no vulnerable hosts to jump to. Ebola had no impact in the United States in 1989, and anthrax had relatively little impact in 2001, because the releases occurred in areas of high public health and excellent health care services; the pathogens were rapidly isolated and antibiotics were given. In a world of ever-better public health (in the West, at least), using a bioweapon is like shooting a gun at someone wearing a bulletproof vest--the bullet is still dangerous, but there is a reasonable chance it will bounce off.
Consider public health defenses against smallpox: American and European populations retain at least some residual smallpox immunity from the vaccinations that stopped about three decades ago. Estimates vary, but somewhere around half of the United States public probably has some resistance to smallpox, which would instill a partial "herd immunity" against outbreak--the disease could less easily jump from host to host. Smallpox must be spread by person-to-person contact; it does not waft on the breeze. This means that physically isolating an outbreak area (as was done at Aralsk) stops the spread of the disease. Vaccination as many as four days after exposure usually prevents death, as smallpox's incubation time is at least ten days. There are about 155 million doses of smallpox vaccine on hand in the United States--more than enough for all those who were never inoculated--and the government will have roughly twice that amount by year's end. The reintroduction into society of smallpox, declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1980, would be a terrible thing. But would "mass destruction" result? Again, possible but not likely.
What's more, it is unclear that anyone other than the United States, Russia, and the World Health Organization has smallpox samples; the disease no longer exists in nature. Assuming terrorists did acquire some, smallpox would hardly be easy to distribute--aerosol forms last only for a short period and travel a short range, while person-to-person infection would be slowed by "herd immunity."
Anthrax, by contrast, can be spread as a long-lived aerosol, and Iraq is known to have cultured significant amounts of this bioweapon. Israel is relatively safe from an Iraqi anthrax attack, however, because anthrax probably cannot be delivered by missile: Anthrax-loaded warheads, arriving at hundreds of miles per hour, would immolate their own contents. Anthrax could be spread from a low-flying plane, or through the ventilation systems of large buildings. But a low-flying plane could drop bombs, too, and buildings could be blown up; moreover, conventional attacks of this nature would kill people right away, whereas bioweapon attacks would leave time for physicians to save the victims.
Other pathogens might also serve as bioweapons; foes could even employ genetically engineered crop blights designed not to kill people but to cause agricultural failures, the National Research Council recently warned. In theory the germs could be made more cheaply than bombs, putting them within the financial reach of terrorists; in theory they could be produced in small laboratories that are hard to target in counterstrikes; in theory they could even be carried to the target in someone's pocket. But that's all true only in theory. Actual experience suggests that biological weapons are both hard to make and hard to use, for many of the same reasons that medicines are hard to make and don't work unless administered precisely. Aum Shinrikyo employed skilled scientists and spent freely to make "high-grade" anthrax, which it spread around Tokyo on several occasions. The cult gave up on anthrax after it failed to infect even a single person.
Why do bioweapons elicit such anxiety when recent experience suggests they pose less threat than bombs and bullets? Like chemical agents, bioweapons are invisible; human nature dictates that we fear what we cannot see. The American public also shows little understanding of the basics of public health, having developed a media-encouraged phobic conviction that minute quantities of laboratory-made substances are far more dangerous than everyday lifestyle risks. People imagine that one part per quadrillion of dioxin or the incredibly weak electromagnetic fields made by power lines are shocking health threats--yet they cheerfully consume vast amounts of fats and sugars despite the fact that obesity is the number-two cause of death in the United States.
That leaves the one true "weapon of mass destruction" that Iraq or a terrorist might obtain: the atomic bomb.
There is nothing speculative or uncertain about the doomsday power of atomic bombs like those used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Its still more destructive sibling, the nuclear fusion bomb, is considered too complex for rogue states or terrorists to build.) At least 70,000 people died at Hiroshima, at least 40,000 at Nagasaki. A crude atomic bomb of similar power detonated in a modern city, where large skyscrapers would topple, could produce an even greater death toll. Unlike chemical weapons, there are no questions about whether the wind will blow away the agent or the sun dissolve it; horror is 100 percent certain. Unlike biological weapons, there is no exposure followed by gradual sickening during which doctors could labor to save most victims; horror is instant and irreversible. Everything about the atomic bomb is horrific and known to work.
Yet in debates about Iraq, and about global terrorism, everything that isn't a bullet or shell is lumped together under the rubric of "weapons of mass destruction." Virtually every national leader and most major publications invoke this phrase without seeming to care what it means; protests have come only from such quarters as Slate.com, The Village Voice, Reason, and The Journal of Strategic Studies. Endlessly referring to "weapons of mass destruction" in this way distracts us from focusing on the one weapon we can be certain causes mass destruction: the atomic bomb.
In 1981, Israeli warplanes blew up an Iraqi reactor designed to make fissile materials, buying the world a decade of grace. The attack on the Iraqi reactor was widely condemned at the time but now looks like one of the smartest and most peace-serving actions any nation ever staged. In 1991 the Gulf war damaged Iraq's atomic-bomb facilities, buying the world another decade of grace. Reports at the time said that Iraq had been less than one year away from building a bomb. Now that second grace period is expiring. No weapons inspector has set foot in Iraq in four years. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London, recently concluded that Iraq could assemble an atomic bomb "within months" of acquiring fissile materials on the black market and is only "several years" away from completing its own facilities to make atomic bomb fuel.
Whether the United States and its allies should invade Iraq is debatable; there are points pro and con. But if we stopped talking in loose generalities about speculative "weapons of mass destruction" and focused on the weapon Iraq seeks that is known to cause widespread death, a moral course might become clear. Saddam must not be allowed to become the first madman to acquire the atomic bomb. Even one in his hands and the Middle East would likely enter such a phase of violent turmoil that today's situation will seem like a summer vacation. The threat to U.S. national security would be immense. Dictators of the old Soviet Union held the ultimate weapon, but the old Soviet system had internal restraints missing from Saddam's one-man rule--and, at any rate, there was nothing the United States could have done to deprive the Soviets of nuclear arms without unleashing a cataclysm. Saddam, on the other hand, can be stopped. The locations of his atomic-weapons facilities are known. Invasion or not, they can be destroyed, preventing him from inflicting mass death upon the innocent. What, exactly, are we waiting for?www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20021007&s=easterbrook100702E-mail this article