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Chemical War at an Inhuman Remove

10/01/2013 10:57 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

--Wilfred Owens, "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

The use of chemical weapons in Syria was judged to cross a red line. Although the casualty rate in Syria is estimated by the United Nations to be over 100,000 as of July 2013, this particular means of murdering over 1,000 people was beyond the pale.

How do we differentiate between humane and inhumane methods of killing? Any defense of violence, even in the context of just war, must respect the dignity of human persons, both victim and aggressor. If it's necessary to kill in self-defense, we should not use means that divorce us from the soul we are extinguishing.

Many reports of the attacks in Syria ruled the weapons obscene based on the experiences of the victims. Media outlets circulated the videos of civilians gasping, the horror of finding the very air turned against you, the inevitability of death. As Wilfred Owen described it, "the blood / Come[s] gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues."

Death by IED or drone has perhaps not yet found its poet. How do we weigh the suffering of a victim and find gassing obscenely gratuitous but white phosphorus or cluster bombs reasonable? What do we weigh in our ethical calculus?

Chemical attack is judged inhumane, and, indeed, there are no humans present to witness the results of their actions. The New York Times noted that the photographs of victims were "marked by the telltale signs of chemical weapons: row after row of corpses without visible injury." There is no one to grapple with, no one to resist, no one to appeal to, no one who might show mercy.

We no longer assume, in war, that we will confront our attacker, but as this shift occurred, it was seen as anything but natural. Drew Gilpin Faust notes in her book This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, that snipers were judged to have breached the rule of war. She writes:

The cool calculation, the purposefulness, and the asymmetry of risk involved in sharpshooting rendered it even more threatening to basic principles of humanity than the frenzied excesses of heated battle. When twelve soldiers from a regiment of Union sharpshooters were taken prisoner in Virginia in 1864, a local Petersburg newspaper argued for their execution: "in our estimation they are nothing but murderers creeping up & shooting men in cold blood & should receive the fate of murderers." ... Men who had displayed great courage in battle had broken down "under the monotonous worry" generated by sniper fire. De Forest judged it a "sickening, murderous, unnatural, uncivilized way of being." Men who could kill others in this way were not men as De Forest before the war had understood them to be; they violated his assumptions about both human nature and human civilization; he believed they undermined what defined their human selves.

Modern warfare has made the sickening suspense generated by Civil War sharpshooters standard operating procedure. Whether the victim is felled by an IED placed weeks ago or struck by a rocket launched from a neighborhood away or targeted by a drone flying too high to be seen, victim and killer are not in communion at the moment of death.

Both participants are damaged by this distance. As Gilpin-Faust notes, the absence of a visible enemy is an attack on the idea of peacetime and existence behind the battlelines. Civilians and soldiers live in fear, unable to differentiate moments of safety from moments of peril, and unable to make the choice to disengage from an invisible foe.

The aggressor is robbed of real-time data that might prompt mercy or repentance. Without the opportunity to witness what he or she has wrought, how can an attacker break through complacency to mourn his or her victim as a lost brother or sister? When killing is merely a matter of pushing a button or connecting wires or shooting off canisters of gas, how do we connect our humdrum actions to their cost?

Warfare at a distance, whether by traps, drones, or gas does inhumane damage, because it distances us from the humanity of our victims. When we fight at a remove, we lose the change to recognize ourselves in an oddly fitting line of Wilfred Owen's poem, and pale and turn back, "a devil sick of sin."