Unfair Warfare

by Daniel Russ on December 3, 2010

Mustard Gas Protection, WWI, Germans

It’s odd how the methods of warfare are subject to general moral reviews whenever a weapon threatens to level the playing field between a small force and a larger one. Take chemical weapons. The general discussion of the history of chemical warfare more often than not ends up in a discussion on the use of neurotoxins and Mustard gas during the First World War. We have seen the drawings and the daguerreotypes of men on long trench coats in fortified positions, wearing a gas mask, all lying about in lifeless repose. However chemical warfare goes back a long, long time. Ancient armies weaponized natural substances to assist in winning that activity which man is obsessed with: waging war. In 2735 BC, Shen Nung, a Chinese medicine pioneer was credited with putting Monkshood and aconite on the tips of arrows. The ancient Chinese also referenced fire-throwing weapons two millennium before Greek Fire. An arrow tipped with the poison from a stingray needle killed Odysseus, king of Ithaca. Was this not the same poison that killed the beloved Steve Irwin? In the classical era of the Mediterranean empires, Greek and Roman troops would often destroy crops and poison wells in enemy territory to keep them from feeding themselves. In a chapter of military history that is rarely told, the Hittites, the bane of the Egyptians, won a victory over the Arzawans by sending Rams and donkeys infected with Tularemia into the Arzawan camp. During the Greek invasion of Ionia in 1000 BC, a Greek general is said to have used a psychopharmacological drug that caused enemy insanity. There is also mention of the use of mirrors and heat rays in the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 BC against naval ships. We know that during the black eye on American history that was the war with the Indians, that many benign tribes were given blankets filled with Chicken Pox that decimated the Indians. We know that the enemies of Rome would often bellows a toxic gas into the tunnels of sappers under castle walls. We know that that Byzantine navy had napalm like naphtha based incendiary weapon that could be shot of the bow of a ship in the Mediterranean.

The odd thing about people who engage in warfare is the sense of decency and fairness that seems to come to the forefront despite the overriding sin of warfare itself. All the things that make killing efficient and easy at some point come into question. Even archers in the classical era were suspect as what they did was kill from a relatively safe distance. It was much more honorable to put yourself in front of a man who you intend to kill and look him in the eyes than it is to kill by poison or some other subterfuge. Bill Maher the political commentator and comedian lost a show

The centaur Nessus offered to carry Dejanira, the wife of Hercules, across the river Evenus and then abducted her. Having already crossed the river, Hercules hid in the rocky crags beyond, readying a poisoned arrow to let loose on Nessus.

because he expressed the point of view of Arabs around the world that look at our combat pilots as cowards because they kill from long distances and never have to face the horror their bombs wreak. During the Lelanine War in 700 BC, the combatants all agreed not to use projectile weapons at all. So early military leaders struggled with balancing the desire for a good outcome with an easy to use weapon, and the dishonorable way in which the killing is done. Redundant isn’t it? Dishonorable killing. Queen Tomyris in 450 BC left wine out and when her enemies were drunk and asleep she had them slaughtered. The historian Herodotus lambastes her barbarity. Reservations about simple battle enhancements such as poisoning the tips of arrows were called into question and these reservations are reflected in the recorded opinions of the early Greeks, Romans, Hindus, Muslims and Indian historians. Even snipers were treated like cowards or murders rather than soldiers, yet their effectiveness cannot be overemphasized.

Rules of war have been written and rewritten countless times. Whether the armies were the ancient Greeks, or the Egyptians of the Romans or the Doughboys from WWI, more efficient modes of killing instantly become moral questions and are hotly debated and legislated until the fighting starts and one side becomes desperate. During the past ten years the United States has decided that it is OK to use torture to stop aggression in an asymmetrical battle plan. The world negotiates the use of nuclear weapons because their efficiency and ability to cause more damage than any

Agent Orange Applied In Vietnam

combatants want to clean up. Microwave crowd control weapons are now being called into question and soon we will see entire panoply of new weapons that give level playing fields between forces of vastly different sizes.

Historical note. It was Hercules himself that poisoned an arrow tip. In fact the word toxon once meant arrow. We have written about the Scythians before, the nomadic horse riding culture that appeared off the Black Sea around 700BC, and they were feared for their snake poison arrows, and even considered one of the cultural progenitors to be Hercules. So using poisons has always been a method of warfare. The idea has to arise when an observer sees a tiny snake kill a dog with a bite, or the effects of a tiny insect on an army in the swamp.  My guess is that the indigenous tribes that abide in the Amazon never questioned whether using natural venoms were a moral question or just a way to survive an inhospitable environment.

We will always struggle with the questions of whether novel methods of killing are moral. And as out technology improves, oddly we just all seem more vulnerable. It seems also that no matter how pernicious the weapon, it always gets produced.


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