Analysis |

The History of Chemical Warfare - and Israel's Own Murky Experiences

While there's a gaping gulf between Bashar Assad, his murderous father and David Ben-Gurion, it's vital to remember what happened in 1948

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near U.S. troops on patrol in South Vietnam, 1966 during the Vietnam War.
A napalm strike erupts in a fireball near U.S. troops on patrol in South Vietnam, 1966 during the Vietnam War. Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The Pentagon announced midweek the promotion of 23 air force officers, among them the defense attache in Tel Aviv, Ricky Rupp, from brigadier general to major general. It was a routine, American-style announcement, first confirming a group of officers who were picked for promotion, and afterward citing their new positions. One name on the list stood out: Paul W. Tibbets IV, a strategic bomber pilot and the grandson of Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., who piloted the Enola Gay (named for his mother), which dropped the first atomic bomb in human history. Nuclear weapons and the U.S. Air Force are symbolically and fundamentally a family business.

The proximity of the announcement to promote Tibbets and the horrors of Idlib was coincidental, for there is apparently no connection between the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and the use of chemical weapons in the spring of 2017. Then, former U.S. President Harry Truman decided to use the ultimate weapon to break Japan’s spirit, to end the Second World War without losing another million soldiers (and even more Japanese) in a ground assault, and perhaps as well to avenge the Pearl Harbor calamity. Now, Syrian President Bashar Assad is going wild massacring Syrian civilians with gas. Long live the differences – but they are in the eye of the beholder.

There is a gaping gulf between Assad, his murderous father and former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, but it is vital to remember that in May 1948, ahead of the declaration of the establishment of the state and the expected invasion of the Arab armies, Ben-Gurion ordered the military industries and intelligence corps to prepare chlorine shells. With a forgiving view, it is one of the items described as dangerous substances for tear-gas devices and dispersing demonstrations; with a firmer view, it is a chemical warfare substance that blows with the wind.

The experts promised Ben-Gurion – but, lacking experience, they did not know for sure – that the “chemicals,” which harm the skin as well as the breathing passages, would cause the enemy temporary blindness and silence him without destroying him. Ben-Gurion expressed amazement in his war diary that half a gram of a certain compound of chlorine gas could “drive people away.” Ernst David Bergman, who would later head the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and Ephraim Katzir reported to Ben-Gurion some five months later that 700 kilograms had been prepared. One of them said 100 kilos a day would be required, without saying in what scenario. Biological weapons were also prepared. Ben-Gurion, according to his diary, did not object when Yigal Yadin reported to him about a telegram from Gaza that “two Jews had been caught with malaria germs, and orders were given not to drink water.”

When there is an existential interest, the goal of survival justifies the means. Major powers (and smaller countries) that maintain nuclear arsenals do so in the name of deterrence – “Peace is our profession” is the motto of the U.S. Strategic Command, the home of General Tibbets. However, deterrence is based on convincing your rival that in times of emergency the nuclear bombers and missiles will be fired at them. Internal deterrence from using nukes does not enable external deterrence.

Syrian President Bashar Assad and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, May 3, 2003.Credit: AP

No price is too high to ensure life. The only question remaining is: Whose life? National life? The life of a people (like the Jews, for example)? The ruler’s life? Tyrants like Assad, Saddam Hussein or the Kim dynasty in North Korea never desisted from any cruelty to preserve their regime, which is their life and perhaps the lives of their sect, the Alawites in Syria’s case. Before Hafez Assad deposed his colleague Salah Jadid in 1970, Syria was extremely fickle. Every cadre of officers that overthrew the previous regime knew that by and by, other officers would, heaven forbid, rise against it, perhaps from within the loyalists’ own ranks. Since Assad, the same family has ruled for well over four decades, including six years of bitter civil war, either with an iron fist – killing 20,000 people in Hama in 1982 – or with gas. No one at the presidential palace retires with a pension. Send the next one to the gallows, or else take his place. It is the custom for leaders in the region, and Bashar Assad acts without pleasure. He is an Assadist, not a sadist.

The chemical weapons used in Iraq against the Kurds in their day, and which Hussein threatened to put on warheads against Israel, were originally adopted to protect the regime. The first coups relied on the power of the armored corps. It was inevitable that the next commanders of the corps would be tempted to reenact the success of their predecessors. Thus, chemical warfare units were equipped and trained to act against the armored corps if they attacked Baghdad.

The shift from using chemical weapons against an external enemy to the ruler’s own people stems from ignorance or innocence. It is a tribal world view even at the nation-state level (and this is well before regional phenomena like ISIS). Israelis murdered Israelis in the slaughter at Kafr Qasem in 1956. That is how it is officially, but that is not how the Jewish policemen who slaughtered the Arab laborers felt. That is also how it is, only the opposite, in internal attacks. The identity card does not determine one’s identity.

After World War II, institutions and rules were made to prevent crimes against humanity, but they were not enough to overcome inner contradiction. Cooperation between countries that strive for contradictory goals obliges them to offset forces (like, for example, a veto in the UN Security Council) and the mutual ignoring of human rights violations in their territory. There is no practical capability to force recalcitrants to join treaties – including Israel, to the nuclear non-proliferation regime – and the pretension to intervene militarily to punish an aggressor usually ends bitterly and leaves the situation in the target country even worse.

The name of the shadow hovering over Washington for years is Vietnam. The chemically related shadow is the crime of spraying Agent Orange, which was meant to deforest the thick jungle and which killed or blighted millions of locals and thousands of Americans. However, this is merely a footnote in the main tract of the entanglement of a bottomless war – not a political, military or moral note. The cohort of intermediate officers of the American army, who returned from Southeast Asia hurting and humiliated and stigmatized as the losers, made a vow to do to the best of its ability to avoid a repeat of Vietnam. The first opportunity fell into their hands in the Middle East. Two hundred forty-one Marines from the international force were killed in a Hezbollah attack in the Beirut airport, without their death advancing the success of the mission or American security. In the wake of that attack, Gen. Colin Powell, who had been an officer in Vietnam and was then serving as the senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, influenced Weinberger’s thinking on the rules of engagement.

Residents of Khan Sheikhoun protest a suspected chemical weapons attack on their town that killed at least 86 people, April 7, 2017.Credit: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

Weinberger and Powell’s conditions demanded a precise, steady and attainable definition of the mission, vital national interest, consensus among Congress and the public and a mechanism for ending the engagement. After all, public opinion is frivolous. The cheers when Johnny goes to battle quickly dissipate and are replaced by bitterness when the bleeding goes on. Former U.S. President Reagan, who preceded Donald Trump in his ambition to make America great again, accepted the stipulation. When the next president, George Bush, appointed Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the general persuaded him to limit the 1991 war against Iraq and avoid the temptation of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, lest the American army be drawn into an endless, meaningless intervention. In his next incarnation as secretary of defense under George W. Bush, Powell was too weak to prevent the entanglement in Iraq and the crumbling before the entry of Iran and ISIS.

Obama entered the breach of this fluid public discourse opposing “dumb wars” like Iraq – a position he held before the war that Trump later adopted to the point that he tried to blur his initial support of the war. Obama’s principle approach, which is basically similar to the Weinberg-Powell stipulations, weighed on him when he considered attacking Bashar Assad as punishment for using chemical weapons. In the end, his abstention echoed the decision of former U.S. President Bill Clinton to suffice with a limited blow against Al-Qaida after the attacks against the American embassies in Africa in 1998. If the end of the operation wasn’t in mind at the beginning, and the enemy refuses to play by the American’s rules, the escalation is liable to lead to an unplanned entanglement, and to interfere as always the advancement of other foreign and domestic issues that are more important to the administration.

If Paul W. Tibbets IV is the grandson of the Hiroshima bomber, H. R. McMaster is the spiritual son of Powell (and the younger brother of David Petraeus, who wrote his doctoral thesis about decision making in Vietnam). McMaster was made an officer in 1984, in the era of the Weinberg-Powell rules. Eight years later, as a major, he wrote a doctoral thesis that was turned into the book “Dereliction of Duty” about the failure of President Lyndon Johnson and his civilian and military advisers in Vietnam, “a war in which men fought and died without a clear idea of how their actions and sacrifices were contributing to an end of the conflict,” according to McMaster.

Today, as general and Trump’s national security adviser, it is certain that McMaster, together with the secretary of defense, retired Marines Gen. James Mattis, who became an officer toward the end of the Vietnam War, will cool the emotional reaction to Idlib. When defeating ISIS is the defined priority in that same Syria, and when the American army suffers a readiness gap – namely a shortage of 1,200 fighter pilots whose training costs $11 billion, there will be no attack without an authoritative answer in advance to the question, “What’s next, how do we get out of this?”

Click the alert icon to follow topics:



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott