In the summer of 1991, I went to the Kurdish city of Halabja for National Geographic magazine. This is the town that’s now world famous for being hit by Iraqi chemical weapons. The effects of such tactics are mainly instantaneous—hence the celebrated picture of hundreds of families lying in the street as if an angel of death had done a drive-by—but the longer-term fallouts are quite arresting, too. Women, in a region celebrated for modesty, could roll up their heavy skirts to show horrifying burns. People were blind. Children were in semi-autistic states. One unexploded weapon, bearing Iraqi air force markings, was still lodged in the rubble of a basement, and I possess a photograph of myself sitting gingerly on top of it. So I didn’t need this month’s belated admission by Tariq Aziz, now Saddam Hussein’s vice president, that Iraq had finally accepted responsibility for the atrocity. (It’s worth minuting, however, given the long campaign by a section of the American right, and some parts of the United States defense establishment, to blame the crime on Iran.)
Was Halabja, however, struck by a “weapon of mass destruction”? Although the answer may seem self-evident, actually most of the city and many of its inhabitants are still there. A sustained day of carpet-bombing with “conventional” weapons would have been more lethal, as well as more annihilating. And an attack with anthrax- or smallpox-tipped devices would still have left the buildings intact, as “neutron” bombs are also supposed to be able to do.
The term “WMD,” then, appears to be both an over- and understatement. It can overstate the destructive power of some weaponry, while understating its wickedness. The two most destructive moments of the last Gulf War were, in point of casualties, the revenge taken by Saddam on the Shia and Kurdish intifadain the conflict’s closing moments; in point of physical mayhem, his decision to ignite the Kuwaiti oilfields during Iraq’s ignominious retreat. The main weapon in the first instance was the helicopter-gunship, and the chief one in the second instance was high explosive. Mass destruction of humans and resources was the outcome in each case, but this tells us little about the weaponry (while telling us a good deal about the regime).
The term “WMD” originated, as far as I can tell, as a Soviet expression during the protracted ‘70s and ‘80s negotiations about arms control and détente. It was a generalization, as well as something of a euphemism, but it was also a loosely pejorative way of referring to thermonuclear weaponry. This kind of warfare obviously meets all conditions of condemnation, because it causes unimaginable damage to cities and to the infrastructure, as well as vaporizing civilians by the million and tearing apart the web of nature that we call the ecology. Insofar as we can tell, it also threatens the whole biosphere and creates long-term risks from radiation and climatic change. At its worst, it could cause extinction rather than mere extermination: killing everybody alive, as well as those yet unborn—a true and apocalyptic “end of history.” No gas or bug or nerve agent can quite do that.
Slightly fatuous though it may be to admit it, we probably draw back from words like “gas” and “chemical” because, like the term “germ warfare,” they seem sinister and underhanded. They supply a rhetorical means of hissing at the villain and his ghastly laboratory. The use of gas in the trenches of World War I is part of a folk-memory of horror (and it also presaged the use of vermin-killing methods on civilians, which along with its racism is what makes the concept of the “Final Solution” so rank and disgusting). However, if we are to try to be objective about it, the use of gas is not more grossly destructive than the use of incendiary and blockbuster bombs to create an urban firestorm, as was done in Tokyo and Dresden. Disease warfare, repellent as it may be, is unstable and tricky and dependent on methods of dissemination that tend to require sophisticated and accurate missiles.
It is very obvious that Saddam Hussein has tried to acquire the only real “WMD”—the thermonuclear type—and it’s fairly apparent (to me at any rate) what he wants them for. The best evidence is that he has failed in this enterprise, while a good intuition would suggest that having sacrificed so much in the quest he is unlikely to give it up. So, one justification for his removal might be the simple statement that he will never find out what it feels like to be a nuclear dictator. That would be a justification somewhat blunter than any the Bush administration has felt able to advance. The official pretense now is that methods of supervision will both disclose and pre-empt the threat. Possible, but improbable.
Responsibility for this pretense is shared by those who trust the idea of “inspection” and those who take the word at its face value. There’s a potentially nice coincidence between the notion of “inspection” and the work of epidemiology: Good hygiene counters the epidemic. But these things require reciprocity. Who on earth goes to the doctor and, in response to his questions, tries to make him guess where the pain is? (“You didn’t ask the right question!”) The correct treatment for a regime of sadism and megalomania like Saddam’s is more akin to the “committal” procedure adopted for those whose mental disturbance is a menace to themselves and others. (“Take your meds and then we’ll have a long, long talk.”) That’s why inspection has had to be enforced upon him in the first place. The existence of weapons of indiscriminate destruction, or weapons of mass terror, might be inferred from the profile of any modern government. The threat they might constitute could only be inferred by a close study of that government itself. And you could not properly “inspect” or diagnose Iraq, after all that’s been endured and discovered, without being in control of it. Thus, those who emphasize “WMDs” might as well be honest and admit that they are talking partly about latency. And those who sincerely want to see a genuine invigilation ought to confess that “inspection” is only another demand for (and condition of) “regime change.”