The Red Line has been crossed … Now what?

horsemasks2Trench warfare during World War I resulted in stalemate and accelerated the use of new forms of military technology as discussed in Ch 16, Section 3. In 1915, at the Battle of Ypres, the Germans were the first to use poison gas but both the British and French used chemicals thereafter. Our book’s author states these gases caused “vomiting, blindness, and suffocation” (565). By 1916, chlorine and mustard gas were placed in artillery shells to be used against the enemy. Both sides tried different means to defend against the unseen biological attackers including gas masks (for men and apparently horses). The Library of Congress Memory website has an interesting 1918 “Stars and Stripes” news article that describes a “paste” the American military  gave troops in efforts to withstand chemical exposure (Note: article is to the right of  soldier throwing a baseball photo). Read this WWI soldier’s memoir that describes his experience with bio-weapons. You may be surprised at the effectiveness of chemical weapons during World War I (great info all the way down the site). Given the information provided in these primary and secondary sources, would you feel confident you were prepared for this type of combat in 1918? Why or why not?

Chemical weapons were banned in 1925 but they have been in the news as of late. Take, for example, the build up to the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom where there were rumors Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical weapons. Fears persist that Al Qaeda will obtain the means to this type of weapon but just this week, evidence has mounted via videos that chemical weapons were recently used in Syria. Indeed, a disturbing video showing a Syrian Revolutionary dying of supposed exposure to chemical weapons has gone viral. Western leaders have declared in response  that “a red line” was crossed in Syria and issued further condemnation of President Assad and the Syrian regime’s tactics.

Do you think western nations who crossed “the Red Line” during WWI and WWII (when they used chemical and nuclear weapons) are justified in their criticism of those countries (Syria and Iran) who do it or attempt to obtain those capabilities today? If chemical weapons were used in Syria, do you think that would provide justification for the US and western allies to intervene in the Syrian conflict?


23 thoughts on “The Red Line has been crossed … Now what?

  1. After reading the first couple of articles I decided that I do not think I would be comfortable going into battle knowing that the enemy had this gas that could cause incredible harm to my body. Even after reading the news paper article about the cream that the soldier carried with them for protection against mustard gas, I do not think I would be able to do it. The news paper did not make it sound like they were very confident it would work during a battle due to the longer time of exposure to it and also the strengths of the gasses varying from battle to battle.

    Also, after seeing the article and videos of the gas in Syria (watched it anyways Mr. Lese), I strongly agree that the “Red Line” has been crossed. It would be crossed even if this was a war between two countries, but since it is being used against civilians in Syria that makes it so much worse.

    I do not think it is hypocritical at all for Western nations who used poisoness gas in the first world war to criticize Syria and Iraq for doing it now. During World War One, everyone used gas, and it was not outlawed until 1925, making it very okay for countries to use it against each other.

    Finally, I think that the United States should go into Syria and put a stop to the use of poisoned gasses. If Syria is allowed to use it, other countries might think it is okay to use as well, and they might not just use it on their citizens that are rebelling and rioting, they could try and use them on other countries such as the United States. North Korea could jump on board and try and use that to their advantage in not only threatening the United States, but also following through with it if they ever do so, causing United States citizens to go into a frenzy and the United States having to go to war with North Korea.

    (Link shows a dog being used in World War One wearing a gas mask made for dogs)

    • Ryan, I too would not be confident using the paste described in that 1918 article. Just think how easily sunscreen rubs off. The world wants these regimes to learn from past mistakes or regrettable acts like the use of particular weapons but these countries see a use for them and perhaps know that obtaining them will place them on more equal footing with the traditional powers of the west. There is little incentive for these regimes to give up their weapons and North Korea is proving that threats can get a lot of attention. Regarding your comment we should intervene, that is scary proposition given the murky conflicts that are essentially Civil Wars. This CNN article discusses potential plans of action for the US when it comes to Syria.

      Thank you for your thoughts!

  2. To the questions: “Do you think western nations who crossed “the Red Line” during WWI and WWII are justified in their criticism of those countries who do it or attempt to obtain those capabilities today? If chemical weapons were used in Syria, do you think that would provide justification for the US and western allies to intervene in the Syrian conflict?”

    This is a very interesting topic to bring up. You could discuss these types of questions for a lot of other topics too. Chemical warfare in WWI and WWII, I feel, does not compare to the possible chemical warfare in Syria. Back then, it was a new invention and no one thought of it to be that crazy of a type of warfare. Today, in our culture, we have not come across this type of warfare in awhile. If Syria is using chemical warfare, I feel there is no need for the US and western allies to move in or intervene in this conflict. Yes, it is scary to think about, but just because there is a new type of warfare, it does not call for us to intervene. So, crossing the Red Line in the World Wars does not justify the chemical warfare used today in Syria.

  3. Mr. Lese,
    Of course, as a citizen of the United States, I believe in and endorse the right to protest; however, the conflict in Syria has surpassed greatly the definition of a protest. That being said, in today’s modern society, the use of chemical weapons is cruel and unjust. The question proposed is an interesting one and I think most opinions would differ. I don’t think western nations are being hypocritical, I do believe they are justified in criticizing Syria’s use of chemical agents against a revolutionary. It is important to be cognizant of the fact that World War I took place almost a century ago. Chemical weapons back then were a breakthrough in science and war strategy, and obviously they were put to the test in hopes of gaining an advantage over the opposing forces. As said in the prompt, not too long after World War I the use of chemical weapons was banned. Therefore I think it is safe to say that western countries who realized the hazards of chemical warfare perhaps “learned their lesson”. So, the Syrian government by now knows the deadliness and unnecessary brutality of using chemical weapons, yet they still choose to do so. Western leaders know from experience why chemical weapons should not be used, and that is why their critique of Syria’s actions is justified.

    • Colton, You and others bring up good points that the western powers realized pretty quick that these weapons should be banned and that latter generations should have learned a lesson. But I think that in terms of weapon technology, it is like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube after it is out. Countries that want to increase their status or preserve a regime will use banned weapons to do it at all costs. The criticism does very little, I think but it I agree that it is justified. Thank you for the post.

  4. After examining the solders memoir I do not think that I would be ready for chemical warfare. In the memoir the solder states “Officers, and Staff officers too, stood gazing at the scene, awestruck and dumbfounded” If trained solder’s were not ready for chemical warfare it is very likely that I would not be.

    Another reason I would not be ready for chemical warfare is that it is not talked about in modern society unlike nuclear weapons. Nukes are seen as the most deadly weapons of the modern era and are even portrayed that way in popular media. For example we discussed the use of nukes in the new G.I. Joe movie in class. This focus on nukes takes away from the common knowledge of deadly gas and so if I was on a battle field I would lack the knowledge of how to fully protect myself.

    Chemical warfare is still prominent in society even if it is not given the media attention nuclear weapons receives as proven by which states “The United Nations has identified about 70 different chemicals that can be used as weapons in modern combat scenarios.” I would be beneficial if chemical warfare was more well known so that people my age could feel that they would be ready for chemical warfare.

    • Peter, Thank you for your thoughtful response. I agree, the memoir does give a telling description of what chemical warfare was like. Your link shows the readiness soldiers now possess with the gear compared to the lack of it in WWI. Quite a huge difference compared to the protective “paste” handout in 1918!

  5. Mr. Lese,
    Although there were ways to prevent gas exposure, such as “Sag” (gas backwards), I would not be ready for the kind of warfare presented in 1918. The horrifying images of the “Gas Attacks WWI” video made my stomach churn, and my jaw to drop because of the wicked things that were displayed on my computer screen. Also, the overall decision to join a war while having knowledge that gas would be used would haunt my dreams and would have an overall affect in my decision.

    I found the article about the anti-gas paste to be very interesting. The fact that the inflaming of one’s skin could be prevented because of a tube of paste fascinated me. Another interesting piece of information was that the journalist did include that mustard gas cannot always be detected by scent. Yellow-journalism did not seem to be a part of “The Stars and Stripes” in 1918, because of the excerpt about the scent of mustard gas.

    Countries in WWI that used gas against each other are justified in their criticisms of Syria using gas today because in WWI both sides used this weapon, not just one. Today, the Syrian government is using gas against the rebels, and the rebels do not have a “paste” for protection. The “firstworldwar” website talks about Germany and France both having gas as a weapon during WWI. The field was equal on a chemical-weapons basis. The U.S.A. should intervene in the Syrian conflict because the weaponry is not the same on both sides, unlike WWI. The underdog in Syria does not have a chance because of the use of gas.

  6. I think that the western countries that crossed the red line in the world wars are justified in their criticism because they learned from their mistake of introducing chemical weapons. The western countries introduced chemical weapons and used them on enemy forces in WWI but they have now since been banned as of 1925 because those countries have realized the mistake that it was and realized they should not be used. The Syrians and other countries/groups that are using or trying to obtain chemical weapons have clearly not learned the lesson from WWI and deserve criticism from other countries.
    Also I think that if Syria is using chemical weapons, then the US and their allies should step in and intervene. The western super powers should intervene because it would send a strict message to any group or country trying to obtain chemical weapons that we wont stand by and watch them be used. If we were not to step in, that would simply send the message that anyone can use them as long as they are not used on us, but it would also open the window for terrorist groups to get their hands on chemical weapons if Syria is openly using them.

  7. In reply to the first question that Mr. Lese poses, the countries were not crossing the “Red line” when they used chemical weapons. First I agree with Ryan B. in that chemical weapons were not made illegal until 1925, so there was no reason for countries to stop using them during WWI. On the other hand, in WWII chemical weapons were illegal, but most of the countries in the war at least used Phosphorous gas or napalm. I believe that chemical warfare was perfectly fair in WWII because of the famous saying, “All is fair in love and war.”

    As we have seen time and time again throughout history, war is not glorious, it is gory, scary and in some ways impossible to understand unless experienced first hand. As we have talked about in the past week, how terrorist attacks should be handled and where the line is drawn. Many people may say that the US crossed the “Red line” while we were searching for Osama bin Laden and how we interrogated some of our suspects such as water boarding and locking people into a 8’x4′ box for days. But in the end, we got him, in the end we feel justified because we eliminated a major threat to national security. So I ask, if water boarding and torture are not crossing the line as long as we succeed, than how can chemical weapons be crossing the line in something as gruesome as war?

    As for the countries that are criticizing Syria and Iran, I do not believe that they are hypocrites, because most countries from WWI and WWII do not use chemical weapons anymore. Many countries do indeed have chemical weapons, but many of those countries do not use their chemical weapons, most of the usage of chemical weapons have been non-lethal, like tear gas.

    US intervention is not necessary at this point, the use of chemical weapons has not escalated enough for the US to believe that Syria could do serious harm to itself or surrounding countries. As of this past week, the White House and the President are reluctant to intervene in the Syrian affair, smart idea. As many news outlets as well as the White House have addressed the fact that intervening would cost a lot of money, according to we would spend about 10 million dollars just to start an intervention. Obviously, I would rather the government spend that money on something else, then again, wouldn’t we all?

    • Great points, Kellan. I think your point is that nations should be able to decide what is right or just in terms of their own self defense. Is Syria justified then in using these weapons to ensure their security? Thank you for your post.

  8. After reading over these primary and secondary sources I would not feel totally comfortable in joining the war since there is only a small hint that the gas is in the air and it takes hours for it to act up. Once you notice that you have been exposed it will already be too late to stop most of the damage. The cream would be a good protection if the soldier had known when he was going to be exposed to the gases. But, if I were an eager boy around the age of 17 during the war I would be totally up for it! I would imagine that the government is quickly coming up with new ideas to protect its soldiers from getting hurt like the gas mask and the “sag” cream. I wouldn’t be thinking about the consequences of being exposed to these deadly substances, only the glory of being an American Soldier.

    Agent-15 is said to be the gas used in Syria and I think that the line is getting very close to being crossed if it already hasn’t been crossed. After watching some videos about how this gas works and the effect that it has taken on the Syrian rebels I believe that now that they have the ability to deploy this type of weapon they will only start using it more and in bigger doses.

    I believe that the western nations who crossed “The Red Line” in both of the World Wars know how deadly and dangerous these weapons are. The nations during WWI didn’t know exactly how inhumane it was until it was outlawed in 1925. If the chemical and nuclear weapons get into the wrong hand, the world could be destroyed many times over. I do think these nations are justified in criticizing the upcoming nations for trying to produce nuclear and chemical weapons because it is unnecessary. The only problem is that the major nations that have both of these weapons won’t give them up. Some of the nations might want to achieve a new status in the world. They want to become a bigger threat and be a part of the nuclear deterrence group of nations. I do think that the US should intervene if the Syrian’s start to use nuclear weapons since it could escalade into something way bigger than this has to be. If nuclear weapons aren’t being used, I think the US should try to stay out of the war. We should try to let the country finish this war internally.

    • You bring up a good point in that soldiers typically trust their countries to provide them with the gear needed to survive war. The link in the post describes soldiers at Ypres who “protected” their faces with cotton wads dipped in solutions and urine soaked cloth. I am sure the gas masks and “paste” were welcome innovations at the time. They did not have visions of HALO helmets and body armor in 1918 and probably assumed the paste, helmets and gas masks would work just fine or perhaps as good as it got at that time period. I wonder what technology our soldiers use today will seem antiquated in a hundred years? Thank you for your comment.

  9. After reading and analyzing the articles, and links posted, I have come to the conclusion that I would not feel comfortable with the “paste” as a protector against chlorine or mustard gas. First of all, my conscious would not consider any type of paste a sufficient protectorate against a deadly gas. What if I didn’t apply enough? Is it thick enough? Did a miss a spot? These are some questions that would be running through my head as I sit there with a poisonous gas around me. In conclusion, no, I would not feel comfortable with this alleged “paste” protecting me from death by bio weapons.

    On the other hand, a question was asked in your article regarding the justification of bio weapons back in WWI and WWII versus today in instances like Syria and Iraq. In my opinion, the use of bio weapons (mustard gas, chlorine, ect…) was justified back in WWII and arguably justified in WWII, but not in todays society (2003 included in todays society). I believe that these weapons were justified in WWII and WWII (somewhat) for several reasons. First, WWI and WWII some would say were arms races in order to develop the best, and most effective weapons, at this time bio weapons were that effective and most lethal weapon. Today we understand the true effects of these weapons, but back then they did not. They did not have adequate means to protect themselves, and the technology was still very young. Today although, we understand the effect of these harsh, ruthless, and lethal weapons. This is why that “red line” has been drawn. As a nation we understand the effect of these weapons and realize that it is unacceptable. This is why in my opinion, the answer to the question “If chemical weapons were used in Syria, do you think that would provide justification for the US and western allies to intervene in the Syrian conflict?” is that we should intervene. Chemical weapons can lead to a downfall of a nation, especially when they are used on somewhat “harmless” revolutionaries. So yes, the U.S and other powers now should intervene in Syria due to the use of chemical weapons.

  10. Pertaining to your first question:
    No I would not be comfortable using the SAG paste during battle. This is because anything could happen to alter the applying of the paste to your skin. You could lose the bottle of past, the paste could possibly not squirt out of the bottle, or even run out of paste. For this paste to save your skin from burns there is no room for error, which is very unlikely while fighting.
    Pertaining to your second question:
    Yes I believe countries that used chemical weapons in earlier wars are justified to criticize countries that use chemical warfare today. This is because in today’s world, we have the technology to make chemicals that are way more hazardous than mustard gas which is why countries despite their history with chemical warfare are careful about their and other countries use of chemical warfare.
    Pertaining to your third question:
    Yes I believe it would provide justification for the U.S and or other western allies, to intervene in the Syrian conflict if Syria used chemical weapons. Why? Because if the chemicals are dropped, then they could potentially affect one of its allies and potentially affect the countries’ relationship. Or who knows…there could even be a chemical winter of some sort.

    • You bring a good point that may be a reason the west, including America intervenes which is the potential for violence or the weapons themselves to spread to other countries or groups like al qaeda. What if Israel, Jordan or Turkey is hit by one of these weapons?

  11. Relating to what we discussed in class, at the time, the paste may have been a breakthrough in warfare technology. As much as we all think the paste is a ridiculous idea, if we were born before WWI we probably would have thought the paste was a great idea.
    In 50 to 100 years, who knows what chemical protection technology we’ll have. Maybe a harmless gas to counteract the enemy’s gas. Maybe a modification to soldiers’ lungs. We wont know until it actually happens.
    I was hoping to find a link to how effective “sag”, the paste, was. If anyone could help find that link that’d be great.

    • You are right, but we can always use information now and try to make educated predictions.

      Take a look at this article about the efficteness of the Sag paste and other uses they found for it!

      1918 article

      The Library of Congress site (Which is where I find these articles) has a search link that you can find more primary source links to your question.

  12. After reading the article and other websites I would not feel comfortable or safe using paste. Although it saved many life’s and facts support it, I still wouldn’t want to take any risk. Since the war was fought as a trench warfare, the terrain was ruff. The paste could rub off leaving you with no protection, you could possible miss spots on your skin, or you could ruin out quickly. The mustard gas and chlorine is way stronger than the paste in my opinion. Pertaining to the U.S. and Syrian conflict I do believe we are justified if they use chemical weapons. Most countries look at us as the cops and firemen of the world. Meaning that we always keep people in check and try our best to maintain safety to those in need. Chemical weapons can hurt innocent people and can spread quickly. It is only right for us to stop innocent people from being harmed.

  13. In response to your first question, I believe that the countries that crossed “the Red Line” in WWI and WWII are justified to criticize the countries using or planning to use this kind of weaponry. I agree with this, first of all, because when they were used in WWI and WWII, there was already war taking place. Today,there is fighting but not completely all out war. The tensions are very high between the Middle Eastern countries and the U.S and the Western Allies. If the chemical warfare is used on a soldier from the U.S. or the Western Allies, it could very well lead to another World War (which the U.S. as a country is in no condition to fight in). Also, when the western nations used the chemical and nuclear weapons in WWI and WWII, there was no law permitting that kind of warfare, because it had never been witnessed before (chemical warfare in WWI and nuclear warfare in WWII). Now, there is a law (created in 1925) prohibiting chemical warfare, and everyone is aware of its horrors.

    Pertaining to the second question: “If chemical weapons were used in Syria, do you think that would provide justification for the US and western allies to intervene in the Syrian conflict?”, I would say that if Syria used chemical warfare, then the U.S. should not intervene. I say this mainly because through our deployment in the Middle Eastern countries (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan), America has spent trillions of dollars putting our nation further into debt. There is so much talk today in the political atmosphere about ways to cut the deficit, and sending troops to Syria sure as Hell wont help cut the deficit. The only time I believe U.S. soldiers should be sent to Syria is if the chemical warfare got to a point where the whole world could be in threat or or allies or our country. Gosh, and we wonder why so many countries hate us. We always have to stick our noses into other peoples business and be the “Policeman of the World”.

  14. I think that a “red line” was crossed in Syria and that the western countries can criticize the government for their use of chemical weapons. The reason I think that is the case is because the circumstances between that time and current day are very different. In WW1, gas was used by both sides. The Germans, French, and British all used gas in WW1. In Syria, the government is using gas against the rebels that don’t have those kinds of weapons. The rebels have no way to combat the gas and can’t fight back with their own chemical weapons. Chemical weapons shouldn’t be used in war, especially when only 1 side has that capability. Another reason that the chemical weapons in Syria are bad is that the Syrian government is using weapons on their own people. Using chemical weapons is not how you restore peace in a country. The western countries that used chemical weapons have every right to criticize Syria for their actions.

  15. The use of chemical warfare was a new thing in 1915 during the battle of Ypres. the chemicals used were primarily used to injure and kill soldiers in trenches, because of the small and narrow trenches the gas was most affective when thrown into the opposing trenches. The types of weapons used ranged from disabling chemicals, such as tear gas and mustard gas, to lethal gasses such as phosgene and chlorine. alothough chemical warfare seemed very affective it only accounted for 4 percent of the casulties of WWI because of defence mechanisms such as the gas mask. early gas masks were simple and proved sometime innaffective. As the war developed so did the technology, the US emplimented advanced gas masks and other remedies for protection against gasses.
    in current video games the portrayal of chemical warfare is very accurate. i have played most if not all of the world war video games an i noticed the use of tear gas, willy pete, napalm, and types of zombie gasses(implying futuristic views of world wars to come possibly) the portrayals of these chemicals are horrifically real the graphics in the game make it as real as possible. the games dont make evident the severity of the actions though. young kids playing these games dissregard killing and pay more attention to attaining “kill streaks” some elderly people reacting to modern war games find them disturbing or repulsive and other think they are cool and appealing.

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