Sunday, September 01, 2013

Weapons Of Mass Disinformation

"I’d come to realize that all our troubles sprang from our failures to use plain, clear-cut language. So I resolved always to speak—and to act—quite clearly, as this was the only way of setting myself on the right track."

- Tarrou in Albert Camus' The Plague, 1947

President Obama has sent to Congress the draft of a resolution authorizing military force against Syria.  The seventh of its whereas(es) argues "The objective of the United States' use of military force in connection with this authorization should be to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction."  

The President

is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines is to be necessary and appropriate in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in the conflict in Syria in order to-

(1) prevent or deter the use or proliferation (Including the transfer to terrorist groups or oehr state or non-state actors) with, to or from Syria, of any weapons of mass destruction, including chemical or biological weapons or components of or materials used in such weapons; or

(2) protect the United States and its allies and partners against the threat posed by such weapons.

Here we go again.  Three days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq began on March 20, 2003, President Bush gave a speech from the White House in which he claimed

Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised. This regime has already used weapons of mass destruction against Iraq's neighbors and against Iraq's people.

Characteristically bellicose, he warned

It is too late for Saddam Hussein to remain in power. It is not too late for the Iraqi military to act with honor and protect your country by permitting the peaceful entry of coalition forces to eliminate weapons of mass destruction...

Do not obey any command to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, including the Iraqi people. War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, "I was just following orders."

In May, 2003 President Bush claimed "we found the weapons of mass destruction."  In July, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer contended "I think the burden is on those people who think he (i.e., Hussein) didn't have weapons of mass destruction to tell the world where they are."

Visions of mushroom clouds were to be imagined. September, 2002 had brought the loathsome implication by Bush's loathsome National Security Adviser that the invasion would prevent "a mushroom cloud" unleashed by Saddam Hussein.  Usually, however, the Administration argued that the Iraqi tyrant possessed chemical and/or biological weapons.

That did not stop Bush and his supporters from frequently referring to Baghdad as wielding "weapons of mass destruction" or, in the more trendy terminology, "WMD."  And now Damascus- which no one has suggested is even planning to develop nuclear weapons-  is purported to have "weapons of mass destruction." The Administration asks to be authorized to use the armed forces to respond to the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of "mass destruction because the "regime" (an interesting and significant substitute for "Bashir Assad") "has already used weapons of mass destruction..."

No, it has not.  Very likely, the "regime" already has used chemical weapons, though it is less certain recent use was authorized by Assad or the upper echelons of his military.Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction.  In this instance, the WMD dodge is intended to minimize the horrific use of conventional weapons by the Assad regime, which has been largely condoned by the Obama Administration.  It also diverts attention from the unpleasant reality that only one nation in world history ever has used nuclear weapons.

But in a larger and more critical sense, the conflation of chemical and/or biological weapons with "weapons of mass destruction" serves to panic the intended audience, to convey the false impression that human life is being exterminated on an extraordinary, perhaps even unprecedented, scale.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, Gregg Easterbrook of The New Republic in October, 2002 explained

The phrase "weapons of mass destruction," then, obscures more than it clarifies. It lumps together a category of truly terrible weapons (atomic bombs) with two other categories that are either less dangerous than conventional weapons (chemical arms) or largely an unknown quantity (biological agents). This conflation, moreover, muddies the American rationale for military action against Iraq. That rationale should be to prevent Saddam from acquiring atomic weapons. This alone is reason to go to war. 

Though chemical weapons are associated with gruesome mortality, in actual use they have caused horrible choking and blisters--see the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the World War I British soldier whose famed work concluding "The old Lie: Dulce de decorum est/Pro patri mori" concerns troops being gassed--but have proven less deadly than bombs or bullets. Fewer than 1 percent of battle deaths during World War I, the only war in which chemical arms were extensively employed, were caused by gas. As John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University, and his son Karl, a RAND Corporation analyst, have written, "In the First World War, only some two to three percent of those gassed on the Western front died while, by contrast, wounds caused by traditional weapons were some 10 to 12 times more likely to prove fatal." American fatalities followed exactly this ratio: 2 percent of those gassed during the war died, compared with 24 percent of those struck by bullets, artillery shells, or shrapnel. 

Moreover, during World War I the Germans and British expended one ton of gas on average to achieve a single fatality on the opposite side. Chemical weapons were used in huge amounts to small effect because they are hard to deliver and hard to control. They waft on the wind, missing their targets and attenuating to the point that they cease to be lethal. Sunlight breaks down many chemical agents. And artillery shells don't carry chemicals well, because impact tends to immolate the chemical. Finally, in close combat, chemical weapons are as likely to blow back onto your position as to remain behind enemy lines.

The Syrian regime's weapon of choice, according to Secretary of State Kerry, is sarin gas.   Easterbrook continued

Though more frightening than the mustard gas of the Great War, modern chemical arms such as sarin also fare poorly in pound-for-pound comparison. Writing a decade ago for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in an article presciently titled "The Myth of Chemical Superweapons," Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson estimated it would require one ton of sarin delivered under perfect conditions to inflict substantial casualties on unprotected civilians. And perfect conditions for gas--no wind, no sun, a very low-flying plane that no one is shooting at--almost never happen. A terrorist crop duster trying to spray sarin over a city, for example, would have to fly at least several hundred feet above the ground to avoid hitting buildings, meaning most of the gas would waft away harmlessly. A 1993 study by the Office of Technology Assessment found that one ton of perfectly delivered sarin, used against unprotected civilians, could kill as many as 8,000 but that even light wind or sunlight would drop the death toll by 90 percent. Eight hundred dead would be horrible, surely, but not "mass destruction" compared with what conventional arms do all too readily. A single U.S. bomb dropped against one Iraqi bunker during the Gulf war, for example, killed 314 civilians.

Words matter, as very smart people who use them inaccurately understand.  If they did not, politicians and their allies would not obfuscate their words and would speak plainly with more clear-cut language. Whenever a policy-maker or his/her apologist invokes "WMD," he or she is trying to pick your pocket.  Whatever the merits of any resolution authorizing President Obama to employ military force against Syria, members of Congress would be exceedingly irresponsible to vote in favor of anything which conflates chemical weapons with "weapons of mass destruction."

                                                     HAPPY LABOR DAY

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