As 1997 drew to a close, an ominous news item went largely unnoticed by most of the world: The U.S. Defense Department announced that it would vaccinate its entire 2.4 million-man force of troops and drilling reservists against anthrax, a devastatingly deadly bacterium being developed as a biological weapon in various nations.
Meanwhile, a heated war of words continued over the standoff in Iraq, with the United States, Britain and other countries ready to attack suspected Iraqi biological- and chemical-weapon production and storage sites.
Why are these weapons a matter of such deep concern?
Such grotesque munitions are not new to late-20th-century military engagements. The first serious, widespread use of chemical warfare dates back to World War I. That war was considered so terrible that it was thought that it would-by its sheer destructiveness and millions of casualties-expunge any future prospects of war. Tragically, this was not to be.
World War I and chemical weapons
Roger Harris and Jeremy Paxman describe the introduction of chemical warfare in World War I. "The 22nd of April, 1915, had been a warm and sunny day, but towards the end of the afternoon a breeze sprang up. To them [French reservists and Algerians] the fresh wind must have seemed a good omen, for a few seconds later, as if on cue, the German guns-which had been bombarding them all day-suddenly stopped firing.
"An abrupt silence descended over the front. The wind had changed. At five o'clock, three red rockets streaked into the sky, signaling the start of a deafening artillery barrage. At the same time, two greenish-yellow clouds rose from the enemy's lines, caught the wind, and billowed forward, gradually merging to form a single bank of blue-white mist: out of sight, German pioneers were opening the valves of 6,000 cylinders spread out along a four mile front. The cylinders contained liquid chlorine-the instant the pressure was released and it came into contact with the air it vaporized and hissed out to form a dense cloud.
"At thirty parts per million of air, chlorine gas produces a rasping cough. At concentrations of one part per thousand it is fatal. The breeze stirred again, and one hundred and sixty tons of it, five feet high and hugging the ground, began to roll towards the Allied trenches. Chemical warfare had begun" (A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret Story of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Hill and Wang, New York, 1982, p. 1).
Never before had any army encountered an invisible and such a seemingly harmless enemy. "The wave broke over the first line within a minute, enveloping tens of thousands of troops in an acrid green cloud so thick they could no longer see their neighbors in the trench. Seconds later they were clutching at the air and at their throats, fighting for breath" (ibid., pp. 1-2).
Chlorine doesn't suffocate its victims. It poisons them, stripping the lining of the bronchial tubes and lungs. The inflammation that quickly follows produces an incredible amount of fluid. The fluid blocks the windpipe and fills the lungs.
"In an attempt to escape the effects, some men tried to bury their mouths and nostrils in the earth; others panicked and ran. But any exertion or effort to outdistance the cloud only resulted in deeper breaths and more acute poisoning. As the tide of gas washed over the struggling men, their faces turned blue from the strain of trying to breathe; some coughed so violently they ruptured their lungs. Each man, as the British casualty report was later to put it, was being drowned in his own [bodily fluids]" (ibid., p. 2).
On that fateful day, according to German records, this hideous experiment cost the Allies 5,000 men dead and 10,000 wounded. By the time "the war to end all wars" ended several years later, 25 varieties of poison gas had killed some 92,000 soldiers and civilians and produced another 1.3 million casualties.
The horrific sight of recovering gassed soldiers during and after the war led many nations to sign the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing use of poison gas and biological weapons. However, research and development of chemical and biological warfare agents continued.
Several nations experimented with such weapons in World War II, although they were not used on a massive scale as in the First World War. However, scientists researching chemical warfare stumbled onto an entirely new class of weapons-nerve gas.
Exactly what are these weapons, and how widespread are they?
Biological weapons are derived from disease-causing bacteria and viruses or their byproducts. They are designed for one purpose: to create immediate and highly lethal epidemics, disabling and killing armies or populations on a massive scale.
Some of the most deadly biological weapons are anthrax, capable of killing those infected in as little as a week, and botulinum toxin, which can kill in a few days. When inhaled, anthrax spores kill some 90 percent of those infected. As one U.S. military commander put it, "if you inhale spores, you're going to die."
Pound for pound, biological weapons are the most lethal munitions man has ever created. It takes less than a millionth of an ounce to kill a person. Under the right weather conditions, as little as 40 gallons of anthrax or botulinum toxin launched against a city could kill up to a million people. And most people would not know they had even been attacked until symptoms appeared-by which time it is too late for effective treatment.
Chemical weapons are created from artificial or natural chemicals. Many chemicals harmful or fatal to humans can be used as weapons. The most-well-known chemical weapons are the chlorine, phosgene and mustard gases that proved so devastatingly effective in World War I.
Chemical weapons attack the nose, throat, lungs, eyes, skin or other parts of the body. Some are designed to incapacitate an enemy; many are lethal within minutes. They are, in essence, highly toxic insecticides-with humans as the insects.
Nerve gas is an especially insidious type of chemical weapon. Some of the most lethal gases are sarin and tabun, which can disable and kill in a few minutes. Even deadlier is VX, which disrupts the nervous system, bringing convulsions, paralysis and death within seconds of being absorbed through any unprotected patch of skin.
These deadly substances can be spread through missiles, bombs, artillery shells and land mines and can be sprayed from aircraft, land vehicles or hand-carried canisters. In the hands of terrorists or undercover agents, such materials can be (and have been) spread through water and food supplies and through means as simple as puncturing plastic bags on a subway train, as happened in Tokyo in 1995.
Quick, easy and deadly
One factor that makes the spread of such weapons almost impossible to control is the relative ease with which they can be produced. Writes Leonard Cole, citing information from U.S. senator John Glenn: "To make these weapons, a small kitchen would do ... An ounce of biological agent in a half-gallon of growth medium ... could produce enough material" to kill or sicken up to 95 percent of the population of a city as large as Washington, D.C. (The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare, W.H. Freeman and Co., New York, 1997, pp. 157-158).
Cole cites several examples of terrorist groups that have been caught trying to acquire or develop or were actually using biological weapons (pp. 160-161).
For governments, chemical and biological weapons are attractive because of their relatively low cost. They are "the poor man's atomic bomb," write Joseph Douglass Jr. and Neil Livingstone. "A sophisticated program designed to produce a [nuclear weapon] would probably cost hundreds of millions of dollars, whereas type A botulinus toxin, which is more deadly than nerve gas, could be produced for about $400 per kilogram.
"A group of [chemical and biological weapons] experts, appearing before a UN panel ..., estimated 'for a large-scale operation against a civilian population, casualties might cost about $2,000 per square kilometer with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with nerve-gas weapons, and $1 with biological weapons'" (America the Vulnerable: The Threat of Chemical/Biological Warfare, Lexington Books, Lexington, Mass., 1987, p. 16).
U.S. intelligence sources report that they believe chemical and/or biological weapons are possessed or being manufactured not only by the world's major military powers, but by Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Pakistan, South Korea, Syria, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Mankind's tragic history shows that, no matter how destructive they are, it is only a matter of time before the horrifying weapons we create are used against our fellowman. Before World War I chemical weapons were thought to be so horrible that they would never be used-but they were. Before World War II, use of biological weapons was similarly thought to be unconscionable. But they, too, were used. Even nuclear weapons were used-against civilian populations.
Why should we think the future will be any different?
The book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, describes a series of earth-shattering events to occur before Jesus Christ's return. These visions are the stuff of nightmares.
Revelation 9 describes a massive army 200 million strong (verse 16). In this time of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval "a third of mankind [is] killed" (verse 18). But, in spite of these horrors, "the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent ..." (verse 20). In this great frenzy of destruction, it appears that man will do anything except that which would deliver him from these overwhelming problems-repent and turn to God.
But this is not all. Chapter 16 describes further plagues to come on humanity. "So the first [angel] went and poured out his bowl upon the earth, and a foul and loathsome sore came upon the men who had the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image" (verse 2).
This is followed by another plague: "Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom became full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues because of the pain. They blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds" (verses 10-11).
A world forever changed
What kind of horrifying weapons or conditions will bring such suffering? We don't know for sure. The apostle John, when he wrote the book of Revelation, in the first century, recorded what he saw in terms he understood. He knew nothing of tanks, jet aircraft, howitzers, napalm and machine guns, much less nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
But he clearly describes a terrifying world in which literally billions of people will die because they stubbornly refuse to acknowledge or obey their Creator and turn from their self-destructive ways. Conditions will be so perilous that, "if that time of troubles were not cut short, no living thing could survive" (Matthew 24:22, Revised English Bible).
However, the world will not suffer that ultimate fate. Why? Jesus Christ promises that "for the sake of God's chosen [that time] will be cut short" (verse 22, REB). Christ will return. Just when all of humanity is at the precipice, He will intervene to save us from ourselves-for the sake of those few who have remained faithful to Him.
Under His righteous rule, mankind will experience a peace we haven't known since Eden. The appalling weapons of man's evil imagination will be a thing of the past. GN