Any time you start the day by gassing women and children, you have to expect it to end badly.
—Wesley Pruden reporting on the Branch Davidian assault in the Washington Times, Waco, Texas, April 19, 1993
In this era, when we look to technology to produce a different battlefield than the trench warfare of a century ago, a battlefield whose nature may appear bloodlessly revolutionary to planners and generals — think of spy drones, for instance — but which is likely experienced very differently, nightmarishly, to soldiers on the ground, it’s worth turning the page back a century, to the multinational rush to chemical weaponry — even chemical agents thought to be relatively harmless, such as tear and mustard gases, though that proved not to be so — that changed the face of warfare, and see how that experiment worked out.
Hellfire Boys, by Theo Emery, is a thoroughgoing albeit smartly, lightly handled history of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service, which was birthed as the United States was preparing to enter World War I and found itself in need of gassing up its arsenal, which was woefully lacking in phosgene, sarin, mustard, chlorine, and sundry agents. The book’s emphasis is on the personalities involved, but there is plenty of horrifying descriptive material to keep the story rolling along.
World War I didn’t usher in chemical warfare at Ypres in 1915, Emery notes, for there were already international treaties banning asphyxiating gases signed in 1899 and 1907. But those elegantly drafted documents did not survive the brutal realities of the Western Front in 1915, and when the French troops peered over the edge of their muddy, rat-infested trenches after a morning bombardment from German cannons on April 22nd, they saw a distant movement. It wasn’t soldiers but “something else, something they’d never seen before. Something evanescent, something that flowed and coiled. Wisps of bluish smoke . . . turning greenish yellow as the cloud undulated toward them on the wind.” It was chlorine gas.
Say hello to the first chemical war. Once Germany, which was in the vanguard of industrial chemistry, let noxious and toxic gas out of the bag, it was every nation for itself, and all combatants joined in. The United States, not even party to the conflict until 1917, initiated a gas research program, which is much the meat of Emery’s book: how the Office of Gas Service became the Chemical Service Section became the Chemical Warfare Service. It is a tale of academic beard pulling, backbiting, and jockeying for power, meanwhile creating a stockpile of lethal chemical agents while perfecting the gas mask and simultaneously striving to flummox the enemy’s gas protection.
The way to do this, Emery explains, is to fire a barrage of chloropicrin — or vomit gas — which would work its way past the charcoal and cotton filters of the gas mask, making the wearer sick enough to doff the mask; then hit them with a barrage of phosgene, chlorine, or sarin. Chemists — a surprising egotistical, power-hungry, politically savvy bunch by Emery’s reckoning — were the hottest commodity: “We are of the opinion that gas will win the war,” or, in the more poetic words of one chief chemist, Winford Lee Lewis, “She [Germany] started this poison gas game and we are going to finish it. He who gases last, gasses best.” Just so.
Emery’s story is well constructed and well documented, but he writes something curious at the end of the volume. “Since World War I, the United States has never used lethal chemical weapons in combat,” then goes on to suggest that napalm and “arguably, the defoliant Agent Orange was a kind of chemical weapon as well.” And another lethal chemical weapon the United States has used with great avidity is tear gas. As Anna Feigenbaum writes, tear gas’s toxicity is determined by the ratio of toxins per square meter; the smaller the space, or the more the gas, the more toxicity. Pound a Vietnamese tunnel system with enough tear gas and, voilà, good old-fashioned chemical warfare.
Feigenbaum’s Tear Gas zeroes in on this one weapon’s surprisingly survival and evolution into something every police department wields. Her point is wickedly simple: Despite the blandishments from industry, law enforcement, and the military that tear gas is the epitome of humanistic crowd control, irritating though free of lasting affect, it is in fact a chemical warfare agent banned by the Geneva Convention. We have limited medical understanding of tear gas’s long-term affects, but anyone who has had a taste or a touch of tear gas will tell you it punches below the belt. Under the right conditions, and there are many right conditions, it is lethal.
Tear gas has become, of course, the international go-to suppression system for crowd control. Many, if not most of us believe that tear gas makes you cry and run away — and manufacturers support that impression — but Feigenbaum informs us otherwise. Tear gas is a lachrymatory agent designed to attack the senses simultaneously, prompting physical and psychological trauma. It primarily affects the mucous membranes and respiratory system and is quite capable of causing brain damage, third-degree burns, chronic respiratory problems, miscarriages, and death. It is worth repeating: tear gas is a chemical nerve agent, banned by the Geneva Convention.
Hellfire Boys touches on the subject as well — charting how a few forward-thinking companies, like Dow, saw the future use of nerve agents, while most felt that once the war was over, so would be the need for such things as tear gas — but it is one of Feigenbaum’s main concerns: how did this appalling nerve gas morph into the air poisoner of choice for public-order policing? Follow the money: “These pages shine the spotlight on some of the salespeople, scientists, military buyers, arms dealers, patent attorneys, police suppliers, and defense magazine editors currently enlisted in the worldwide effort to sustain the fiction that tear gas is safe and humane.” That she does, with the same quality documentation as Emery but with a bracing passion held neatly in check.
Feigenbaum quickly covers the ground Emery has so assiduously turned, and it is nice to see that their facts are in alignment. Then Feigenbaum uncovers the morphing process, when tear gas was used on the postwar Bonus Army of American military veterans demanding government aid. Manufacturers extolled its ” ‘irresistible blast of blinding, choking pain’ that would ‘produce no permanent injury’,” while the Nation magazine spoke of one victim “one eye glaring at me and something like a mouth — when he tried to call for water, more blood and sputum came out than anything else.”
Strikebreaking, riot control, protest dispersal — here was a tool that could “render the rioters temporarily harmless without inflicting physical injury of any consequence.” Seemingly only one step north of laughing gas, tear gas was used in great quantities by colonial authorities to quell nationalists from India to southern Africa to Palestine, from Selma to Montgomery and all through the antiwar protests in the United States, and probably, somewhere, right now. Each of Feigenbaum’s chapters and subsections feels like an intensely observed vignette, spelling out how tear gas made some ghastly impact or another, wrecking havoc, causing death.
The fiasco of the 1969 Battle of the Bogside, in Northern Ireland, where “by the end of thirty-six hours of CS [tear] gassing, a total of fourteen 50-gram grenades and 1,091 cartridges containing 12.5 grams of CS had blanketed the Bogside,” prompted the Himsworth Report, which, unsurprisingly, found tear gas to be a crackerjack riot control gas. It is a report still referred to today by proponents of tear gas use. And as the militarization of the police continues, the more commonly such reports condone the excessive use of tear gas, writes Feigenbaum.
“If the century-long medical history of modern tear gas shows us anything, it is the problem with for-profit science. When science is leveraged for the few instead of the protection and health of the many, all of society suffers . . . Government secrets pile up and the partisan membership of weapons evaluation committees remain undisclosed.” We were suitably aghast when in 1988 Iraq smothered a Kurdish town with sarin and mustard gases; when in 2013 Syria’s president ordered a sarin and chlorine attack on his own capital city; when the Islamic State retaliated in 2015 with mustard gas; in 2017 when Syria again was accused of using sarin gas. But tear gas is being used somewhere right now, in Bahrain or Venezuela, Uzbekistan or Baltimore, in a prison, at a protest, to disperse some lawful, even if unruly, assembly. It’s likely to be a long wait to see who gasses last.