The nature of chemical warfare

Photo by National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

Madari Pendas/Contributing Writer 

Wilfred Owens, a poet and a soldier, vividly described the effects chemical weapons have on people in his poem, “Dulce et Decorum”: “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/ obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud…”

But what is chemical warfare? And why does it strike more terror into the hearts of citizens than the use of nuclear or biological warfare?

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons defines chemical warfare as the use of toxic properties used to cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through non-living chemicals. According to, anthrax is considered biological warfare because it is a disease that is shared by animals and humans which is caused by an organism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention qualify ricin as both chemical and biological warfare because it is derived from the oil of castor beans.

Initially, I wondered why this type of warfare was treated with such gravity, especially in a world where atomic bombs have been deployed and diseases have been used to decimate entire nations. However, with closer examination, the nature of chemical warfare is truly horrifying.

Chemical warfare is indiscriminate. It treats the innocent and guilty equally. In 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, a myriad of chemical agents including sarin nerve gas, mustard gas and hydrogen cyanide gas were released into the town of Halabja. The attack killed 3200-5000 instantly and injured 7,000-10,000 people, the majority being civilians.

Chemical warfare is also insidious. Instead of blunting, maiming an appendage or creating a visible incendiary attack, it infects from within. For instance, nerve agents may inhibit the brain from sending signals to other parts of the body. Symptoms that may follow an initial attack are vomiting, severe burning of the eyes and lungs, epileptic spasms and asphyxiation from pulmonary depression. Antidotes do exist but they have to be administered immediately, but are not available in all countries. And after the initial dispersal of a chemical weapon, the toxin is still able to spread through the contamination of clothes and skin. For instance, several nurses and doctors who have assisted victims of chemical weapons attacks have experienced mild to severe poisoning.

Even after a conflict or war is resolved, the weapons used in battle continue harming and damaging the lives of people. These chemicals stay in a state of perpetual war, ravaging everything, including the future.

During Vietnam, the United States used Agent Orange, normally a defoliant, but the batches used in Vietnam had high levels of dioxins. Several studies and reports done years after the Vietnam War claim that a large percentage of North Vietnamese children were born with birth defects and deformities due to the dioxins.

In 1998, ten years after the chemical attack in Halabja, severe health issues and genetic disorders were being reported. In 2002, the BBC ran “Kurds look back with fear,” an article that discussed the aftereffects of the attacks. Miscarriage was 14 times higher in Halabja than in surrounding towns, colon cancer ten times higher, and young adults were frequently diagnosed with cancer.

As I searched for answers regarding the nature and differences of chemical warfare, the research responded with deformed visages, blind gazes, blistered bodies, mutated appendages and young deaths – all remainders that chemical weapons were used. It is important as students and human beings to not view words as “chemical warfare” as abstractions, but rather to see the tangible long term effects it has on a populace. 


1. “Brief Description of Chemical Weapons,” via Organisation for  the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

2. “Homeland Security Planning Scenarios,” via 

3. “Facts About Ricin,” via Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention

4. “1988: Thousands die in Halabja gas attack,” via BBC News

5. “Generation Orange: Heartbreaking portraits of Vietnamese children suffering from devastating effects of toxic herbicide sprayed by US Army 40 years ago,” via 

6. “Kurds look back with fear,” BBC News

7.  “Types of Chemical Weapons,” via Federation of American Scientists

8. “Why Are Chemical Weapon Attacks Different?” via National Geographic

9. “Syrian ‘Poison Gas’ Attack By Government Forces Claimed By Opposition,” via Huffington Post

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