Chemical warfare is the use as military weapons of chemicals, capable of damaging, injuring or killing living things. Chemical compounds for chemical warfare are also referred to as «military chemical agents» and are usually classified into types or categories according to their effect on victims. Often the agents are called generically «poisonous gases«, although they can actually be found and act in the three material states: solid, liquid and gaseous.

Classification, history and military characteristics of chemical warfare agents.

The universal chemical nomenclature seeks to describe in the name of a product, all its active radicals and sub molecules, without doubt about its quality, number and position in the designate molecule. This makes its use difficult for non-specialists, mainly in the case of organic products or carbon derivatives. Every year tens of thousands of new compounds are synthesized or «created» every year, which are mostly organic. Therefore, military chemical agents are usually named by simple codes or symbols, within a «sui generis», acceptable, «light» and commonly accepted nomenclature.

Nerve agents prevent the nervous system from functioning properly by inhibiting the action of enzymes responsible for the degradation of excess acetylcholine. This is a vital nerve transmitter, which acts on dendrites and axons. These are, respectively, inputs and outputs of nerve impulses to the neurons nucleus. The acetylcholine, due to the effect of the military agent, accumulates in excess in these nerve endings and the normal functions of them are impossible, eventually leading to general paralysis and death by dry drowning. The first symptoms of its action are muscle spasms, myosis or pointing of the pupils, runny nose and drooling. Agents of this type are all from the organophosphate or organophosphorus family (the difference is the valence or chemical «capacity» with which the phosphorus attached to the agent molecule acts). In 1932 its toxicity was first observed and they began to be used as pesticides, for pest control. This commercial use continues today. During World War II, the Germans synthesized and manufactured in large quantities the three agents first indicated in the table, although they were never used militarily. This led to the development of new products of the family, by the Americans, who obtained in 1958 the VX, and by the Soviets, who soon synthesized a very similar compound, the VR-55.

Respiratory agents prevent the body from using oxygen in its intracellular combustions. This causes the cell respiration (which is the true one, where the inspired oxygen is consumed) to cease. And, therefore, its production of vital energy, which will lead to death. The characteristics of their performance make them one of the fastest known poisons. The use of arsenic and cyanide as killer poisons has a long history in criminology. His military employment was studied during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and by the British during the Crimean War against the Russians (1853-1856). Its use on the battlefield was perfected during World War I. Hydrogen cyanide was the chemical agent of selection of the Germans in their concentration camps during World War II.

Suffocating agents concentrate their damage on the eyes and on the entire respiratory tract (nose, throat, bronchi, lungs). They produce swelling (pathological swelling) of the affected tissues, which makes breathing progressively difficult and leads to a dry drowning of the victim. During World War I extensive use was made of these agents, which by being gaseous are difficult to control with variable results. This led to their military replacement by vesicant agents.

Vesicant agents cause wounds in contact with tissues, similar to those caused by burns. The first agent of this type used was iperite or mustard gas, which owes the latter name to its smell reminiscent of that seasoning species. Although it is known as mustard gas, its military use is in liquid form or in aerosols, which form small droplets carried by an inert gas. A mixture of iperite with lewisite produces an agent called HL, which has a greater range of active temperatures, without freezing when the iperite already does and disperses poorly. Vesicant agents have a high persistence in the affected areas, usually weeks. Although their presence has even been recorded for months and years after its use. Of course, when decontamination measures had not been used. These agents can cause death by drowning, as fluid accumulates in the lungs, derived from the humors secreted by vesicant wounds produced in the respiratory system. Iperite was used extensively in World War I, seeking its ability to thwart necessary routine military operations. By 1930 the British, the Americans, the Japanese, the Spanish, the Italians, the French and the Soviets had factories for their production with very different capacities. In the inter-war period, these agents were employed by the Italians in Ethiopia and by the French and the Spanish in the Moroccan rebellions. Although during World War II these agents were kept in large quantities in military chemical arsenals, their use was virtually nil, except for one case of mass employment in China by the Japanese.

These uses against massive enemy forces of much inferior military quality, recall those of Saddam Hussein against his northern Kurds and against the fanatical hordes of Iranian «mujahedeen», the Basijs. The Shiite ayatollahs sent these religious «sans-culottes» in frontal attacks against fortified Iraqi positions, deployed in depth, to get rid of their already uncontrollable and uncomfortable presence, in the 1980s. Good results led to the inclusion of his use in battle in Iraqi military doctrine.

Incidentally, his possession was one of the Americans’ arguments against his regime in 2003. But did Saddam have the vectors, the effective means of dispersing the agents? That are the ones who truly make them effective in chemical warfare.

Vomiting agents were developed by the British during World War I. These are various arsenic compounds, which produce extreme nausea, leading to continuous and uncontrollable vomiting. During the Russian Civil War, in 1919, the British employed vomiting agents against the Red Army in northern Russia. Since 1920 there are no records of his use in chemical warfare. As its toxicity ranges from low to moderate, its real interest is police: for the control of riots and fusses and the softening of armed criminals in protected positions, prior to their assault by law enforcement. Let us remember that the police, unlike the military, are not obliged to die in their trade. And hence its doctrine and tendency to act in its operations with overwhelming superiority of means. During the 1930s they were used like this, but then Western nations have banned their use against civilians under any circumstances. As if a hollow or fragile bullet wound were more human, after going a few cm. of resistance in the «target», than the other type.

The tear agents irritate the skin and cause a great profusion of tears in those affected. Its effects are immediate, but transient and not lethal, unless used in closed places, where they can reach lethal critical concentration. This makes them useful in police and training jobs, where prolonged disability of their victims would be unacceptable. Agent CN was synthesized in Germany in 1871 and proposed as a chemical agent by the US in 1917. It was already too late to use it in World War I, although it has since been widely used in such jobs, including in some portable sprays for individual protection.

Herbicide agents destroy vegetation and are commercially important for weed control. Its use with military interests seeks to limit or destroy enemy crops and to strip plants from jungle areas, to prevent the concealment in them of enemy forces, especially the irregular military rebels. During the Vietnam War, the Americans used Agent Blue to prevent the formation of grain in the supposedly enemy rice fields. Agent Orange, a mixture of two herbicides with synergistic effects, 2.4-D and 2.4.5-T, was used in the war to defoliate entire forests. The final product was contaminated by a dioxin (a poison, worse than hydrogen cyanide!!), which originates as a by-product during the manufacture of the 2 components. This dioxin is to be attributed the undesirable and unforeseen effects suffered by the Americans manipulators of the agent and its vectors and by the inhabitants of the areas punished with their use.

Incapacitating agents seek that enemies exposed to them stop fighting, but without causing them harm, injury or death. This would be achieved by provoking psychological or mental effects that temporarily alter their perceptions or judgments, so that they are unable to perform their military duties. So far, no chemical agent has been found to meet these supposedly ideal effects for «clean» chemical warfare militarily and satisfactorily. The US has tested the hallucinogenic agent BZ in this category and manufactured it for a while. The practical results obtained with it were variable and unpredictable, which diminished its military value.


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