Words of Mass Destruction in the Syria Debate

12 October 2013, 1101 EDT

Note: This is a guest post by Ty Solomon, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow

Even though the war in Syria has been raging for the past two years, much of the global outrage that we now see has only erupted with the recent reports about Bashar al Assad’s government attacking civilians with chemical weapons.   Arguably, the past two long years of war has not provoked the same level of indignation as we are now seeing from world leaders and publics.  Why is it only now, with the use of chemical weapons – and not the use of “conventional” bombs and guns – have the US and UK governments seriously debated intervening?  The conflict has not necessarily taken a turn for the worse with the recent poison gas revelations.  By some accounts 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict before the chemical weapons attack, which itself is reported to have killed about 1,400 people  While indeed horrific, chemical weapons are not necessarily more deadly than “regular” bombs and guns.

A few scholars have taken up these questions.  Richard Price, for example, helpfully details how much of it has to do with the chemical weapons taboo directing more serious attention to Syria.  Even more broadly, however, it also has to do with the ultimately arbitrary categories within which we place different types of weapons.  “Weapons of mass destruction” usually considered to be nuclear, chemical, and biological arms) are typically separated from “conventional” guns and explosives (although see the charges brought against the Boston bomber).   WMD are often viewed as more threatening than conventional weapons because of perceptions rather than objective criteria.  In this sense, WMD is not a neutral concept, but a political one.  This again raises the question: why are chemical weapons viewed as especially heinous while conventional weapons often cause much more mass destruction?  Why aren’t the conventional bombs that have killed thousands in Syria over the past two years put into a special category that prompts serious debate over a potential international response?  This isn’t to suggest that deaths by conventional bombs are more or less deserving of attention than deaths by “unconventional” weapons of mass destruction.  I am not suggesting that none of the weapons typically considered to be WMD do not deserve the label.  We only need to remember the old pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to agree that nuclear weapons truly inflict mass destruction.  And although biological weapons have never been used on a mass scale in the modern era, their potential to unleash contagious catastrophe is clear.

In work I’ve coauthored with Ido Oren we more fully draw out this contingency in a conceptual history of “weapons of mass destruction.”  The current more or less “commonsense” definition usually encompasses nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  However, we analyze the term as a contestable, changeable construct rather than a timeless, fixed concept.  In doing so, we search neither for the “essence” of WMD, nor for concrete objects that “truly” correspond to the concept.  Instead we follow Nietzsche and Foucault‘s genealogical analyses of modern ideas that have come to be seen as “timeless,” yet are the products of past power struggles and contestations.  “Truth,” Nietzsche argued “is a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically. . . which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people.”  Following Foucault, we explore the history of WMD not as the linear progression of more accurate understandings and specifications of the concept, but as the story of the twists, turns, and accidents that have shaped our present understanding of the phrase.  In this sense, we analyze the metonym “weapons of mass destruction” as a “sum” of past political and social “human relations” – how it was coined (as far as we can tell) in the 1930s in reaction to conventional bombing, how it was “enhanced” during early Cold War UN arms debates between the US and USSR (where it was argued that WMD should encompass objects like battleships, missiles carrying warheads, and other conventional arms), and how it was “embellished poetically and rhetorically” in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War.  Interestingly, the American media never used the phrase in other prominent deployments of chemical weapons.  During Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, major American newspapers used the phrase ‘chemical weapons’ rather than ‘WMD.’

In this sense, our work obviously builds upon Price’s work on chemical weapons  Price’s recent commentary on Syria is helpful in understanding how the historical evolution of the norm/taboo and how Assad’s use of chemical weapons may actually help to reinforce the taboo in the future.  His recent comments on the Duck also raise

the issue of concern here regarding the moral implications of a taboo attached to some deadly weapons but not other deadly weapons.  His insightful response is that those who criticize putting chemical weapons in a special category should nevertheless see the positive outcome that the taboo has elicited: a serious international response to Syria’s weapons (when the use of “conventional” weapons did not).  While Price takes issue with some who seem to begrudge the special status of chemical weapons, our analysis lends some empirical support to his response: why shouldn’t we more thoroughly assess why don’t we think “conventional” weapons are as bad as chemical weapons?  Moreover, our critique shouldn’t be taken to mean that we ‘don’t care’ about the chemical weapons taboo.  On the contrary, our larger critique of the category WMD suggests potential avenues for thinking about how to extend such taboos to current ‘conventional’ weapons.  Given the historical contestation of WMD, this intrinsic contingency could be actively engaged to encompass other weapons now understood as “conventional” but which are often just as deadly.

If we shift to interrogate the larger category that chemical weapons are often put into – ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – we can draw some broader conclusions about the politics of language currently at play in the Syria debate, and its potential similarities to past and (unfortunately, likely) future debates.  Consequently, the current debate should include a more thorough probing of the terms upon which the decision to intervene (or not) itself will be made.  This may lead to a realization that outrage over violence against civilians should be uncoupled from its (to date) too-often focus on various “weapons of mass destruction” that typically cause much fewer casualties than the fearsome “conventional” weapons that inflict much more mass destruction and human pain.