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Mark Kleiman, in the course of some Odysseus-bashing, notes that the king of Ithaca used poisoned arrows. I find it interesting that the use of poisoned weapons is against international law, has been for some time, and that this ban appears to be pretty robust and viable. There's seems to be something a bit, well, off about the idea that giving a soldier a gun and telling him to point it at people and try to fire sharp bits of metal into their bodies is a-okay, but that if he were to (God forbid!) put some poison on the bullet, well, then, that's a war crime. Aerial bombing? Fine. Poison? No way!

You can see what I'm getting at with this. I wonder if there isn't a technical explanation like, in practice, it would be extremely expensive (or hazardous to your own troops) to make poison bullets so everyone just decides to abide by the rule. It's certainly the case that one of the reasons the chemical weapons ban has held up pretty well (Saddam Hussein aside) is that chemical weapons aren't really any more effective than conventional explosives (which isn't to say that they aren't deadly, just that conventional explosives are pretty deadly too) so there's no real cost to following the rules.

December 8, 2004 | Permalink


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» The wily Yglesias defends the wily Odysseus from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Poisoning arrows probably deserved to be a war crime under the conditions of Bronze Age warfare. But whether it deserved to be or not, it was, by the conventions of the age. Breaking such conventions is socially noxious, even if they're mere conventi... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 8, 2004 7:07:09 PM

Matthew Yglesias makes an interesting point about chemical weapons bans: I find it interesting that the use of poisoned weapons is against international law, has been for some time, and that this ban appears to be pretty robust and viable. There... [Read More]

Tracked on May 22, 2006 10:39:08 PM


Rummy tells troops make due with what you have:

Disgruntled Troops Complain to Rumsfeld


Posted by: Kosh | Dec 8, 2004 1:14:51 PM

I think it's a combination of several factors, Matt:

1) Assymetrical risk to Great Power troops. Smaller countries can't really do much to blunt a Great Power military advance with conventional hardware, but lob a few chemical weapons at them, and the cumbersome countermeasures that are required slow things down to a crawl.

2) Risk to civilians. Chemical weapons are almost always area-of-effect, and thus pose a sizable risk to civilians outside the narrow target zone. Even poisoned weapons could pose a larger than normal risk to non-combatants, since the deadliness of the poison would likely long outlast the cessation of active fighting.

3) Degree of suffering. This, I think, is the most important factor. Chemical weapons and poisons are generally pretty gruesome in their effects, even more so than conventional weaponry. Being shot or blown to pieces is, believe it or not, apparently less painful than some of the lovely nerve agents we've developed. Also, the long-term effects of exposure to chemical weapons are almost always worse than the long-term effects of normal wounds. They can even be multi-generational in that they alter your chomosomes and get passed on to your kids as genetic defects.

I'm sure there's more, but those are the three that popped to mind.

Posted by: Dave | Dec 8, 2004 1:20:20 PM

One of my subtler pleasures lately is watching some of those on the thoughtful left slowly rediscover the truths of warfare that anyone actually interested in military policy has known for quite some time. Having realized that military policy is actually important (if only electorally) and can't be successfully banished with mere McGovernism, we see people like Matt trying to bootstrap himself to some semblance of credibility on these matters. It's got all the frustrating fascination of watching a dog try to teach itself to play trombone.

Yes, the various early-twentieth century chem weapons treaties have held for basically the reasons you cite. Chem weapons will greatly inconvenience and slow down a modern army, but only temporarily. Their use also invites retaliation in kind, or worse (the U.S. explicitly reserves the right to use tactical nukes if chem-weapons are used against it's troops). The notable exceptions to this has been the occasional uses of chem-weapons against civilian populations, where they _are_ horrificly more effective than conventional weapons.

Posted by: Dave | Dec 8, 2004 1:23:21 PM

Some of these things get quite absurd: US urges ban on antitank mines but happy with anti-personnel varieties

Posted by: abb1 | Dec 8, 2004 1:26:55 PM

Just curious--how does one classify using depleted uranium-tipped weapons poison-wise? Ecology-wise?


Posted by: charles | Dec 8, 2004 1:35:30 PM

I don't know that the "risk to civilians" argument holds water -- cluster munitions and depleted uranium shells (which, incidentally, pretty much count as being "poisoned") pose a usually-fatal risk to civilians outside a narrow target zone and in terms of long-term effects, respectively.

The more salient point, though, is that the ban on manufacturing chemical weaponry has not, historically, applied to everyone. Russia and the US -- with the usual Cold War excuses -- built up the world's two largest stores of chemical and biological munitions and have apparently dragged their heels in destroying them. Given Bush&Co hostility to international constraints, I don't even think it would be very implausible for them to reverse or simply repudiate their commitments to the OPCW. Concern about "WMDs" tends to be inconsistent and to apply largely to whatever state -- dictatorial or otherwise -- happens to fall into the "enemy" category at any point in time.

I think Dave is right that chemical munitions appeal to small countries with rickety military establishments as a kind of "poor man's nuke," hoping to offset their more primitive conventional capabilities. I don't really see how these would slow down a more modern military in any significant way though.

Posted by: Doctor Slack | Dec 8, 2004 1:37:52 PM

They've also outlawed "dum-dums", fragmenting bullets. As I understand it, the military rationale for these sorts of things is that you don't REALLY want to kill the opposing soldier, just mess him up, because if he's injured enough that he can't fight, but still alive, somebody has to take care of him, and you've taken TWO people out of the fight.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 8, 2004 1:38:33 PM

One of my subtler pleasures lately is watching some of those on the thoughtful left slowly rediscover the truths of warfare that anyone actually interested in military policy has known for quite some time.

Hmmm, who else needs to "rediscover the truths of warfare"? Let's see, what's his name again. I think he has a cabinet, or lives in one, or something...

Posted by: Rambuncle | Dec 8, 2004 1:49:44 PM

Depleted uranium would not count as poisonous. And I seriously doubt you are a doctor if you think otherwise. Sheesh you put the word 'uranium' in a phrase and it can cause folk tales for years. And depleted uranium is typically used on anti-tank weapons. Tanks don't worry about radioactivity levels similar to common sand very often.

Posted by: Sebastian Holsclaw | Dec 8, 2004 2:10:44 PM

Hmmm, it seems we have two Daves here. Please note that the two consecutive posts by "Dave" are by different people. I'm the first Dave, and will henceforth post as Dave R., in case anyone is confused. :)

Posted by: Dave R. | Dec 8, 2004 2:32:32 PM

wrong again sebastian. depleted uranium is barely radioactive, but it is highly toxic, like any heavy metal. remember the hoopla about lead in water? heavy metals bioaccumulate and kill you nice and slow.

and while the tanks may not complain about breathing air filled with uranium dust, the CIVILIANS WHO LIVE IN THE AREA JUST MIGHT!

Posted by: fdl | Dec 8, 2004 2:35:12 PM

Chemical weapons and poisons have the effect of creating terror among combatants on the battlefield. No protection is fully adequate and the casualty figures can predictably be quite high. They are, however, hard to handle, hard to deliver and the effects are usually very dependent upon weather conditions. Some are more persistent than others but these are easily bypassed or driven through. Anyone who uses modern chemical weapons has to have the ability to deploy them in the enemy rear areas or risk exposure of friendly forces. They can be used for blocking areas or denial of terrain. Tactically and strategically they have become practically useless and it is hard to believe that any U.S. commander would seriously consider their use. We still train for and anticipate their use against us, though. Hot weather is usually not conducive to effective deployment, however and neither is cold weather.

Posted by: Dan from Cos | Dec 8, 2004 2:45:52 PM

Good point fdl. Should lead bullets also be considered to be poisoned? Has anyone ever tried using lead in bullets before?

Posted by: Alex R | Dec 8, 2004 2:51:45 PM

Depleted uranium would not count as poisonous.

DU is carcinogenic and, according to the WHO, poses a particular risk to children in warzones (esp. potent when it gets into non-arid soils). So in terms of long-term effects, yes, it does in fact count as poisonous. Either that, or the WHO hates freedom and hates America. I know which option you'd prefer to believe... ;-)

And I seriously doubt you are a doctor if you think otherwise.

Well, actually, I'm not a doctor, Sebastian. It's called an "internet nick." Heard of them, perhaps?

Posted by: Doctor Slack | Dec 8, 2004 3:04:27 PM

California condors certainly ought to consider lead bullets to be poisonous - unfortunately they're too dumb.

Posted by: rilkefan | Dec 8, 2004 3:07:45 PM

It has more to do with debilating people versus killing them outright. A severely injured person will tie up 4 or more people with medivac and treatment. A dead person is not nearly the drain on the fighting unit. It is the same reason anti-personel mines are designed to maim not kill.

Posted by: jason andexler | Dec 8, 2004 3:16:05 PM

Oh for pete's sake- yes, lead shot is poisonous, and that's why hunters are using different metal for their shot now. Same goes for ground with high levels of bullets in it- the water that percs through the ground had high lead levels.

And yes, part of a DU shell turns to dust if it hits the target. The purpose of a DU shell, punching a hole in several inches of steel, is inherently violent and little pieces go everywhere. Dust and sand size particles can easily be lofted by the breeze and enter a persons lung.

Posted by: serial catowner | Dec 8, 2004 3:21:01 PM

The ban on chemical weapons is mostly enforced when the enemy can retaliate. Particularly with gas, when the wind is blowing the wrong way it's something they can use on you and you can't use back. Professional soldiers strongly prefer to believe that their training and their generals' strategy count for something. They don't want to be in battles where winning or losing (or surviving or dying) depends on which way the wind blows at the moment. So they tend to agree on bans.

One exception was the pacific war in WWII. The japanese supply system got so chaotic that they mostly lost track of their chemical weapons, and also they couldn't afford to shuttle them around and not use them. They depended on us not to use gas when they couldn't retaliate, and we say we didn't.

We didn't use them against germany either, and Goering said later that we were stupid not to. Germany had such a fuel shortage that they moved supplies to the front by horse, and they never got a good gas mask for a horse. He claimed if we'd gassed the horses the war would have ended quickly.

Yes, some third-world nations use chemical weapons as a WMD threat. Syria for example appears to have a lot of short-range missiles they could use to nerve-gas israeli cities. If israel nukes syria, they'll hit back even though they have no nukes to hit back with. This (plus Saddam etc) is why duct tape and plastic sheeting is such a big deal in israel, and why israel issued gas masks to all its jewish citizens.

So yes, chemical warfare tends to be effective, and generals tend to keep to a gentleman's agreement not to use them.

About DU, the evidence is mixed and is subject to a lot of bias. DU theoretically ought to be less hazardous than undepleted uranium. Lots of people have had longterm exposure to tiny quantities of undepleted uranium with no obvious effects. Apart from the minor radiation issue it's a heavy metal. Maybe some people are much more susceptible than others. People who live with DU dust will get more exposure than soldiers who just pass through briefly. The great big obvious symptom that everybody reliably shows is kidney damage when they get a whole lot of uranium. Lots of people who have the kidney damage don't have definite other symptoms, so it might make sense to figure that's the first symptom and there are no symptoms for lower doses.

However, DU in practice may not be simply uranium with some isotopes removed. It may for example be contaminated with varying amounts of plutonium and other minor components. So studies on natural uranium are less interesting than actual studies on people contaminated by DU, eg civilians living with DU in kosovo and iraq.

Again, the issue is highly politicised since if DU is banned the USA loses some very effective weapons that are ours alone. There's some reason to think that "Gulf War syndrome" etc may have other causes. It's possible to reasonably believe either side at this point, since the relevant studies have not been done and the last I heard have not been planned.

Posted by: J Thomas | Dec 8, 2004 3:23:45 PM

If israel nukes syria, they'll hit back even though they have no nukes to hit back with. This . . . is why israel issued gas masks to all its jewish citizens.

Did I read this right? Does Israel seriously issue gas masks only to its Jewish citizens? Are Jewish populations sufficiently segregated from non-Jewish ones from within Israel that it would not be a priority to protect non-Jewish Israeli citizens?

It's possible to reasonably believe either side at this point, since the relevant studies have not been done and the last I heard have not been planned.

However, AFAIK the US Army takes safety precautions for its soldiers surrounding DU (such as requiring the wearing of masks in situations where it could be encountered in particle form) that presume it's a poisonous substance. The disagreement seems to me to centre around whether it's a poisonous enough substance to warrant wholescale banning, not whether or not it's poisonous.

Posted by: Doctor Slack | Dec 8, 2004 3:41:11 PM

Come on, guys. From the IAEA:

"Based on credible scientific evidence, there is no proven link between DU exposure and increases in human cancers or other significant health or environmental impacts."

Unless something changes, this is the bottom line.


Posted by: bonk | Dec 8, 2004 4:32:51 PM

Dum dum bullets are outlawed, but the 22 caliber bullets used by our military act the same as dum dums. They are designed to tumble when they strike flesh, making their wound much larger and more serious than if they just penetrated and passed on thru. In other words they act like dum dum bullets. DU is poisonous, and the problem with it is that it oxidizes rapidly when hot, as it is whenever it strikes anything. So, DU munitions scatter uranium oxide dust everywhere when they are used, making them a chemical weapon. Napalm is outlawed, but we simply reformulated it, called it something else, and continue to use it. All's fair in love and war, I guess.

Posted by: Vaughn Hopkins | Dec 8, 2004 4:37:28 PM

Chemical weapons are woefully ineffective. All of the reports from WWI were that the main benefit of chem shells was the fear they induced because they were a lot less effective at killing than conventional bombs.

You want a great example of the ineffectiveness of chem weapons. The sarin attack in the japanese subway system a few years back killed a dozen people in a jam packed subway station. The conventional bomb attack in the Madrid subway killed 200. A crazy guy with a gas can attacked the Seoul subway and killed 200.

Posted by: pj | Dec 8, 2004 4:37:46 PM

It is as certain as scientifically possible that DU is not the cause of Gulf War Syndrome. Only a small number of sufferers show signs of unusually high levels of uranium. There are any number of other causes that are credible - oil fire smoke, innoculations etc.

There is no question that DU is toxic and radioactive. That the army takes precautions to protect soldiers who have frequent and long term exposure to large ammounts of the stuff is perfectly reasonable. The dangers to those who live where it is used are not zero, but they are much less than the dangers to those who are exposed to it routinely. Uranium is natural, and ubiquitous. We all have about 0.1 mg in our body normally. The exposure due to DU ammunition is trivial. Even in the extreme cases where a tank is destroyed right outside a home, DU poses less of a threat than traditional armaments. High explosive weapons cause more collateral damage and are also less accurate.

Posted by: Njorl | Dec 8, 2004 4:51:34 PM

A few comments.

The one poster referring to the IAEA is correct: there are no hazards from DU. It is not only the US using it, but also Russians and Chinese in their advanced armor designs: it's use is one of the reasons that the M1AE1 Abrams is so heavy.

The ban on poison bullets is one of the Geneva Convention's principles: no unnecessary suffering.

The same principle holds true for rounds designed to tumble. While the 5.56 mm ammunition used by the US may tumble, it was not designed to do so: the Soviet equivalent that was first used in Afghanistan, for instance, had a air gap behind the bullet ogive that was designed to create a bullet that would achieve an asymmetric balance when it actually hit something that would *always* tumble in the wound.

Getting back to DU, there are a couple of posts that point out correctly that DU is a toxic heavy metal and incorrectly that small particles from the impact could be breathed in and end up being cancerous: if you are in the tank (the only place where this comes into question), the last thing you will have to worry about when the tank is hit with DU round(s) is getting cancer. The DU arrows involved (APFSDS rounds after firing and discarding the sabot are indeed called arrows) have an additional endothermic effect and generally bond to the inside of the target. In other words, they melt seriously enough to become part of the tank wreckage.


Posted by: John F. Opie | Dec 8, 2004 5:03:26 PM

"Some of these things get quite absurd: US urges ban on antitank mines but happy with anti-personnel varieties"

Posted by: abb1

Probably because the M-1 Abrams has very, very thick armor, which is proof against most weapons. Anti-tank mines attack the tracks, which are among the weaker spots that you have a chance of hitting.

Posted by: Barry | Dec 8, 2004 5:06:47 PM

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