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.
That In Aleppo Once
For readers who’ve enjoyed Nabokov’s “That In Aleppo Once”, the similarities between the narrator’s situation and the current morass in Syria are striking. To quickly summarize, newlyweds are separated before the German’s storm France during World War II. They are rejoined in Aleppo where the wife tells a series of fantastic stories each either a lie or a dismal truth. During the separation she tells her husband she has taken a lover, or no, not just one lover, but two, or no, she has lost count, or then again, she has not taken a lover at all. Finally, she abandons the husband spreading even worse accounts about him—he’s a brute, she claims, who has chained her to his side, and furthermore has hung her favorite dog, which – if the narrator is to be believed—has never existed!
The ending does nothing to resolve the issue and the reader is left with the ultimate coin toss as to who should be believed. It’s a testament to Nabokov’s skill that the reader is not disgusted by the seemingly pointless excursions, but rather intrigued. Alas, it’s at this point where the similarity with Syria and our own feckless politics breaks down. In following the turns of the current Syrian ‘war’ story, there are multiple accounts of events and it’s nigh on impossible to determine which are ‘real’ and which are fantastic, or, more to the point, deliberately fictionalized.
There are reports that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons (sarin, a nerve agent) against its own population. There are also contradictory reports that suggest the rebels used said chemical weapons in an effort at garnering international support. There’s also the possibility that a ‘loose cannon’ in Syria’s regime used chemical weapons against the rebels. Or possibly an outside agent used chemical weapons in the hopes of dragging the international community into the war. Any one of these with slight variations may be true. Our signals intelligence leans toward an assessment that suggests the Assad regime is the culprit. But this rather muddies the water because our signals intelligence relies on our allies in the region. Our main ally in the region happens to be Israel who, frankly, does not have a good reputation for being an honest broker in matters of war and peace—especially in the Middle East. It’s very much in Israel’s interest to depose the Assad regime. Looked at in the long view, Israel’s main enemy in the region is Hezbollah. They drove the Israeli army out of Lebanon and have been instrumental in keeping them out of Lebanon since 2006. Hezbollah receives support from both Iran and Syria. In fact, Syria offers the main conduit for weapons to flow from Iran to Hezbollah which makes striking Syria an especially attractive option. In the United States, the neocons are well-known advocates of striking Syria, and they are also, incidentally, huge fans of Israel’s bellicose foreign policy. One might say they have never met a war they didn’t like. These are the same belligerents who lolled us into the Iraq debacle on assurances that Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’. At the time, they were lying, of course. They may be lying now.
When lawyers prosecute a case they look for actual evidence tying the perp to the crime, but they also look at other factors: namely, motive and opportunity. When motivation and opportunity are rolled into the analysis, the picture in Syria becomes murkier. Who would benefit by a chemical weapon strike in Syria at this particular moment? Surely not the Syrian regime, well aware of the so-called ‘red line’ the US declared not two months ago. What would possess them to unleash a chemical weapons attack, especially when they are currently holding, if not gaining ground against the rebels? With the entire international community watching?
Besides, our intelligence ‘reports’ have been misused so egregiously in the past that even if motivation and opportunity weren’t a factor, relying on them alone would be ridiculous. It’s not just the most recent Iraqi invasion where multiple lies were told by multiple administration officials multiple times. We should remember the fabrications around the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in Vietnam (released NSA documents indicate that the August 4th, 1964 attack – the pretext for our ‘police action’ in Vietnam–did not happen ), and more recently the stories that led up to the first Gulf War of babies tossed out of Kuwaiti incubators by the Iraqi military. This was also a lie, perpetuated by Nayirah al-Sabah, the daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Turns out, her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government (Hill & Knowlton, incidentally, is currently helping out the fracking industry with their PR needs. Small world). Nevertheless, at the time her testimony garnered the necessary national outrage stateside to let George H. Bush carry out the first Gulf war. Given this history, no one should put much credence in another ‘slam dunk’ speech; and until we have an independently verified analysis from a relatively objective source (like, say, UN inspectors) the cries for a strike against Syria should be met with the deepest skepticism.
True, lives are in the balance. Hundreds of innocents have died horrible deaths, but it’s hard to reconcile a missile strike killing more Syrians as a suitable solution to those that are already dead. Who benefits? The question is especially compelling when we consider that Israel, which had provided much of our signals intelligence in the region, has both the motivation and opportunity to lie us into war. Certainly, if we’re interested in ‘justice’ or ‘deterrence’ or for that matter the humanitarian fallout, the least awful option is to bring the case before an international tribunal as a war crime, and let the cards fall where they may. If the case against the Assad regime is legitimate, then the evidence should be able to stand on its own.
Unfortunately, the basis for our actions in foreign affairs, our intelligence ‘street cred’ has been deeply corrupted by those who claim to be most concerned about our ‘credibility’ on the world stage. “Won’t get fooled, again” said Bush nearly a decade ago. At the time, he and the neocons were busy fooling us into war, and mutilating a Who song in the bargain.
The old adage about crying wolf still holds. In the end of Nabokov’s story, the wife in Aleppo is abandoned— not because of the lovers or non-lovers– but because the narrator can no longer believe a word she says.