When I was 21, and a cub reporter for a local college rag, I interviewed a ninety-year-old man who had witnessed first hand the German attacks at the Battle of Cantigny back in 1918. Actually, he bore witness to something that happened just prior to the battle of Cantigny, and what is not widely reported. The Germans dropped about 15,000 gas shells on the newbie American troops, the ‘dough boys’, cutting off all communication with the forward positions. These gas shells contained the infamous mustard gas; which is sometimes referred to as sulfur mustard, a gas that produces blisters on the skin and lungs if inhaled. When a soldier was caught without a mask and was hit with a heavy dose, death would result—it amounted to suffocation by drowning in your own bodily fluids.
Since then of course, the American military has been adept at preparing for chemical warfare. The US Army and USMC Boot Camps train troops for potential nerve gas attacks and they equip everyone with gas masks and hypodermic syringes filled with sarin’s antidote, atropin. The hypodermic needle is jabbed into your thigh should a nerve gas attack occur. No one questions the efficacy of these measures even though a general ban on chemical and biological weapons was reached by the world community and signed into law as early as 1925 with the Geneva Protocols. US troops and most military organizations across the globe continue some type of training for potential chemical or biological weapons attack because there are still a lot in circulation among allies and enemies alike. We famously have one of the larger stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons on Earth. Our allies and one-time allies do, too. We used Agent Orange and Agent Blue in eradicating whole swaths of crops and the Vietnamese countryside in our failed effort to destroy North Vietnam’s ability to seek cover in the jungle and to feed their own people. Ironically, Secretary of State John Kerry apparently has forgotten that our government’s chemical warfare in Vietnam killed 400,000 people and caused birth defects in 500,000 children. Many died from starvation since crops were targeted.
Israel used white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that burns uncontrollably when used against personnel, against Palestinians in Gaza in 2008 and 2009. Amnesty International said a fact-finding team found “indisputable evidence of the widespread use of white phosphorus” in crowded civilian residential areas of Gaza City and elsewhere in the territory.” In 2004 we used white phosphorous in Fallujah in Iraq–which at first we denied– but later, on November 15, 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed to the BBC that white phosphorus had been used as an incendiary anti personnel weapon in Fallujah.
Speaking of Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was our friend and erstwhile ally, he used the same deadly nerve gas in the Iran and Iraqi war that we are accusing the Assad regime of using. In 1987 we wanted to prevent an Iranian sweep of the city of Basrah and a potential victory for the Iranian army. So we provided crucial reconnaissance information to Iraq indicating Basrah was going to be hit. Should Basrah fall, the foreign policy thinking was that Iraq would fall and Iran would be victorious in their decades long war. President Reagan read the report and wrote a note in the margin addressed to Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Subsequently, a decision was made at the top-level of the U.S. government (almost certainly requiring the approval of the National Security Council and the CIA) to allow Saddam to do whatever he needed to do in order to prevent the fall of Basrah.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, the sarin attacks then followed.
“CIA analysts gauged the number of dead as somewhere between “hundreds” and “thousands” in each of the four cases where chemical weapons were used prior to a military offensive. …That March, Iraq launched a nerve gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq. A month later, the Iraqis used aerial bombs and artillery shells filled with sarin against Iranian troop concentrations on the Fao Peninsula southeast of Basrah, helping the Iraqi forces win a major victory and recapture the entire peninsula. The success of the Fao Peninsula offensive also prevented the Iranians from launching their much-anticipated offensive to capture Basrah.”
According to the magazine, “Washington was very pleased with the result because the Iranians never got a chance to launch their offensive.”
We seem quite hardened to chemical weapons as a matter of national policy. I wonder what has changed so dramatically? A bare two decades ago we enabled sarin gas to be used successfully against Iran and we were apparently, “very pleased with the result.”
Nearly three decades ago when I interviewed the 90-year-old World War I veteran, I was heartless and ambitious in equal measure as only a true cub reporter can be. I asked him to describe the effects of the events around the battle of Cantigny in detail. I was thinking it would be a great interview, filled with graphic information about a distant war that few living Americans actually remembered, much less lived through.
He did not give me the story I wanted. Not one graphic detail.
Instead, he wept.
When I asked him to remember Cantigny, he shook his head, said it was awful and wept. His wife came in and ushered me away. That’s about all I know about the battle from his perspective.
If you read accounts of The Battle of Cantigny from standard histories to Wikipedia, you will find that it was considered a victory for the Allies and that it proved the ‘strength’ of the new American fighting units. General Pershing made his reputation there. He proved his mettle, as they say. Today we might use the more common euphemism ‘credibility.’ Only a single sentence in the Wikipedia entry describes the use of 15,000 canisters of mustard gas against the American soldiers, hardly a footnote.
In the news today, Russia has volunteered to isolate and monitor Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons while Syria’s foreign minister says his country welcomes Russia’s proposal. Syria’s chemical weapons would be under international control and then dismantled to avert the 60 to 90 days of U.S. strikes that congress is contemplating. That seems like a reasonable idea. Especially when I consider that 30 some years ago, an old man broke down remembering a moment that transformed his life forever; a moment that no one had even bothered to record, because, after all, The Battle of Cantigny was a victory.
I didn’t get the details or the interview I wanted that day, but I think his actions explained well enough just how careful we ought to be when weighing what new strikes might entail. His eyes said better than any words what war is, what it can cost. There was no mention of who won or who lost the Battle of Cantigny, or the war. For him, it didn’t matter.