The Horrors of Chemical Warfare

If history does indeed repeat itself, the Ukrainian people may, unfortunately, one day have to face the horrors of a chemical attack.

The United States charged that the Soviet Union had killed more than 3,000 people in Afghanistan with chemical weaponry. According to State Department sources, the evidence came from defectors, refugees, victims, and doctors who treated them. The lethal agents used in Afghanistan included nerve agents, phosgene or phosgene oxide, and mustard gas.

Hundreds of people were killed in the Ghouta chemical attacks on 21 August 2013 during the Syrian Civil War.  Citizens, many of them children, twitched uncontrollably and gasped for air as helicopters broadcast cylinders of chorine gas over the region.

No one took direct responsibility for the massacre. Still, it was widely blamed on President Bashar Assad for carrying out the carnage under the protection of his chief ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This heartbreaking, image provided by Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated, shows bodies of victims of a nerve gas attack on Ghouta, Syria. Photo shared from khqa.com.

Putin’s History of Carrying Out Assassinations With Chemical Agents

In 2020, Alexei Navalny, a prominent opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was poisoned with a chemical similar to Novichok, a deadly nerve agent implicated in other attacks on Russians who have crossed the current regime. A German military laboratory found “unequivocal evidence of a chemical nerve agent of the Novichok group” in biological samples taken from Navalny, who survived the assassination attempt but barely.

Without rapid medical intervention, those exposed to the poison lose control of muscles that control breathing and blood pressure, ultimately resulting in death.

Novichok agents came under strong public scrutiny in 2018 after one was used in an assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom. The attack made Skripal, his daughter Yulia, and four others seriously ill. Skirpal and his daughter survived, but one of the bystanders died.

The Red Arsenal

Some of the agents that could be unleashed on the Ukrainian people. Graphic Credit: dailymail.co.uk

A Brief History of Killing With Gas

Every war brings forth a new, signature way of killing and maiming combatants.

The 16th and 17th centuries introduced gunpowder artillery weapons with shells that could reach out and kill numerous enemies with one blast. World War II is a prime example of this phenomenon where one small weapon was capable of extinguishing hundreds of thousands of lives.

A hallmark of the first World War was the widespread usage of chemical weapons, commonly referred to simply as “gas.” These terrifying agents caused fewer than one percent of the deaths during the conflict but had a devastating psychological effect on the enemy and drove morale into the ground.

Because of this, warfare with chemical agents was banned by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. Gas has been used as a weapon of war since then, but never in such large numbers as before.

Perhaps the most devastating of these was mustard gas. Not only did it cause an agonizing death, but it also had a profound intent of demoralizing your enemy.

The effects of mustard gas on a WWI soldier. Image from simonjoneshistorian.com

Not a Gas at All

What we call mustard gas (you’ll also sometimes see it referred to as sulfur mustard) isn’t a gas at all. Come to think of it, it has nothing to do with mustard either. It is a relatively high-boiling-point viscous liquid dispersed as a fine mist of liquid droplets. For the purposes of this article and the sake of clarity, I’ll keep referring to it here as a gas.

Sulfur mustard is generally colorless but may have a slightly yellowish or greenish tint. The odor smells vaguely of mustard but has also been compared to horseradish or garlic mixed with sulfur.

Victims of a mustard gas attack would suffer a blistering of the skin and an extreme burning of the eyes. They would begin to vomit as they inhaled the gas—painful blisters formed in the mouth, throat, and lungs. Mucous membranes were stripped from the bronchial tubes. Fatally injured soldiers could take four or five weeks to die from mustard gas exposure.

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Windswept gas spreads across a battlefield in Europe. Image courtesy of kumc.edu

Although mustard gas was a genuine and deadly threat during the Great War, some would-be malingerers attempted to parlay exposure to the agent into a few weeks’ rest in a medical facility.

This letter from a Canadian officer describes how some soldiers were exposing themselves to small amounts of mustard gas in order to be pulled from the battlefield for a few weeks. In some cases, it backfired, blinding the men permanently. Image courtesy of simonjoneshistorian.com

Modern Use of Mustard Gas Against US Troops

There were at least two pretty recent instances of mustard gas being used against US troops overseas. Although far from secret, these events are not widely recognized by the general public.

On Sept. 26, 2016, a shell containing mustard gas landed at the Qayara West Air Base in northern Iraq. Hundreds of US troops were housed there at the time, and thankfully no injuries were reported.

Qayara West had been recently seized from ISIS, and it is thought that the terrorist group was behind the attack.

The second event occurred on April 16, 2017. American and Australian military advisors were at an Iraqi outpost in western Mosul when they were subjected to an ISIS-launched mustard gas attack. Twenty-five Iraqis required medical treatment, but none of the advisers were injured.

The ongoing use of chemical weapons reminds US troops to remain vigilant and be prepared to fight in a chemically contaminated environment.

Legitimate Fears in Ukraine

As recently as 12 April, there have been reports of a chemical attack in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Serhiy Orlov, the city’s deputy mayor, told BBC News on the phone that the city council has confirmed a “chemical poisoning” delivered by a Russian drone.

“We cannot provide more detailed information,” he said. “But we have confirmation from the military that this has happened.”

It is not clear how many soldiers were affected. Still, the battalion said its fighters had suffered minor injuries, including shortness of breath, with one man reportedly collapsing with what was described as “cotton legs.”

What is clear is the fact that none other than US President Joe Biden has said that Putin may consider using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine if his military fails to meet its objectives with more conventional weapons. The White House stated in March that Putin had made false claims that both the US and Ukraine had biological and chemical weapons, allegations that Biden roundly denied at the recent Business Roundtable CEO quarterly meeting in Washington DC.

Biden stated unequivocally, “His back is against the wall. That’s a clear sign that he is considering using both of those”. 

The President added, “He’s already used chemical weapons in the past, and we should be careful of what’s about to come.”