Monday, March 24, 2003

Some Meta-Comments on WOMD

Monday, 24 March 2003

Ken Parish has an interesting post up Through a glass slightly less darkly, which is attracting a fair bit of comment, some on the subject of Saddam Hussein's weapons of you know what, and when they are likely to be used. As we know that we're talking principally about chemical weapons (such as VX gas) and biological weapons (such as bacillus anthracis) - the nukes seem to have been dropped off the agenda. I'm prepared to say, with a little confidence and a lot of hope that they won't be used.

I'm basing this prediction on the assumption that, while Saddam is basically a crazy bugger who is prepared to kill his own population to get his political way, he's not a completely stupid bugger who's prepared to risk killing most of his own army on the slim chance that it might win him the war. The only weapons of etc in his arsenal that are of any account on the battle field are the chemical weapons - biological weapons aren't an effective tactical weapon - by the time your enemy has come down with a bad case of anthrax, he's still had time to shoot the shit out of quite a few of your own troops. he's also had time to figure out that, as he may basically be dead anyway, he might as well make the best of the little time he has remaining to do just that.

As far as I know, the only chemical weapon that was ever employed on the battle field was phosgene gas in World War I. Its use was quickly abandoned: all it took was a wind shift for the stuff to start killing your own troops, rather than the other side's. If (as Cassandra remarks) "Even in the pre TV age, and with armies from societies where dissent was irrelevant, it was military stupidity to risk harming those willing to accept you as a liberator," it's a more obvious military stupidity to risk harming those who are fighting on your side.

The obvious question is, given that chemical and biological weapons are basically useless as weapons of war, why did Saddam set so much store by acquiring them? One obvious answer, borne out by history, is to terrorise his own population. The other, outward looking, reason is deterrence. On this score, John Howard's prediction (?) that a war on Iraq would send a message to other "rogue states" may been borne out: if Iraq is liberated (or conquered, depending on your political bias) without Saddam resorting to the use of chemical weapons, these weapons will be discredited as effective deterrents to enemy attack. I wouldn't be too triumphant about this: as Rob Schaap has remarked the whole exercise may just reinforce the conventional wisdom, known to serious players of regional conflict since the 1960s, that, really, you have to have nukes.

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