Reports of a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus last week intensified the debate over military intervention in Syria. Following a preliminary investigation, the United Nations' special envoy confirmed that a “chemical substance” was used in the attack and that the estimated death toll ranged from hundreds to over 1,000 people. Subsequently, Foreign Policy published a report delineating new information on the extent of the U.S. government’s complicity in Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War. These new details force us to confront our own government’s history with chemical weapons as the international community grapples with the dire situation in Syria. As Conor Friedersdorf eloquently explains in The Atlantic, “We’d be a more moral country if we were better able to face our capacity for acting immorally.”
According to Foreign Policy, the declassified documents reveal that then Director of Central Intelligence William J. Casey and other top officials were repeatedly briefed on Iraq’s use of chemical agents against Iran and the high likelihood of continued use. Nonetheless, the Reagan administration rejected the possibility of an Iranian victory. In 1987, when the war began to turn in Iran’s favor, “The DIA was authorized to give the Iraqi intelligence services as much detailed information as was available about the deployments and movements of all Iranian combat units… The sarin attacks then followed.” Thus, the Reagan administration enabled the Iraqi government in its large-scale use of chemical weapons. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers were killed as a result of chemical warfare.
These revelations about the Iran-Iraq war are only the latest in a history fraught with such mistakes. During the Cold War, the U.S. Army conducted experiments on soldiers as it attempted to develop chemical weapons capable of incapacitating its adversaries without killing them. (You can find The New Yorker’s in-depth reporting here.) A physician involved with the project, Dr. Mark Needle, claimed that the program was run by incompetent people, and that “there was no humanity in it… no morality in it.” After the closure of the program, studies conducted by the Army found that 16% of “volunteers given LSD later suffered psychological symptoms-flashbacks, depression, and suicidal ideation,” and that a “significant number” of test subjects were hospitalized suffering from nervous system or “sense organ” disorders.
Additionally, the United States’ use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War serves as another harrowing example of chemical warfare with unintended consequences. Agent Orange was used to destroy the leaves of trees in order to deprive the Viet Cong of concealment in the forests. However, the chemical has been linked to cancer and birth defects among the populations in the affected areas. Moreover, Agent Orange caused long-term environmental damage from which Vietnam continues to recover.
Our government’s missteps concerning chemical warfare extends to its uneven standards for allies and perceived enemies. The Gaza War lasted from December 2008 to January 2009 and claimed the lives of 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. During the war, the Israeli military used artillery shells containing white phosphorus in densely populated areas, and this usage is banned under international law. When the chemical comes in contact with flesh, it can burn through the skin down to the bone. The U.N.-commissioned Goldstone Report outlined the crimes committed by both parties of the conflict, but instead of condemning such war crimes, the U.S. sought to sweep the report under the rug.
If our politicians were to confront our government’s misdeeds, we would be in a better position to behave morally. Professor Mark Levine of the University of California at Irvine argues that “if we are to heed Kerry’s call to respond to the alleged actions of the Syrian government in a manner that is ‘grounded in fact, informed by conscience and guided by common sense’, then supporters and opponents of a forceful response [in Syria] should hold other governments accountable to the same standard.” This would require the condemnation of war crimes and holding perpetrators accountable, even when it’s not politically convenient.