Weapons of mass distortion, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Guardian, May 2, 2003
concept of WMD is dishonest. When they are in friendly hands we call them
If the first casualty of war is truth, then language itself sustains the heaviest collateral damage, as Orwell used to point out (before "collateral damage" proved his point by entering the vocabulary of poisonous euphemism). The Iraq war has produced its own rich crop of Newspeak, but the choicest of all is the phrase "weapons of mass destruction".
Even the most
credulous supporters of Tony Blair's war are beginning to see they were sold a
pup. MPs angrily demand evidence of the WMDs, which they, in their innocence,
believed were the reason for the war, rather than its flimsy pretext, while the
prime minister insists that WMDs will be found.
But what are
they anyway? The very phrase "weapons of mass destruction" is of
recent coinage, and a specious one. It replaced "ABC weapons", for
atomic, biological and chemical, which was neater, although already misleading
as it conflated types of weaponry quite different in kind and in destructive
capacity. WMD is even more empty and dishonest as a concept.
atomic and hydrogen bombs cause mass destruction. Ever since they were first
built and used in war (by the US, in case anyone has forgotten), they have cast
a peculiar thrall of horror, although this is not entirely logical. The
quarter-million dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been preceded by nearly a
million German and Japanese civilians killed by "conventional" bombing,
whose conventionality was small consolation for the victims.
that nuclear weapons are uniquely horrible, the Iraq war and its aftermath have
only served to confirm what Hans Blix learned, and what the International
Institute for Strategic Studies said last summer: that Saddam had no fissile
material to build atomic warheads. Nor did he have (for all the shockingly
mendacious propaganda) the wherewithal for acquiring such material. Had he
possessed warheads, he never had the means of striking London, let alone New
York. And if he had ever been tempted to lob one at Israel, he would have been
constrained by the certain knowledge that Baghdad would have been nuked minutes
possessed the biological and chemical material in ABC, although here again the
"W" in WMD is notably misleading: "weaponised" was just what
this material was not, a fact which makes the pretext for war even more phoney.
And certainly Saddam had used biological and chemical weapons against Iran as
well as the Kurds. Very nasty they are, but that does not make them
mass-destructive in the same sense as nuclear warheads.
A height of
absurdity was reached with the claim that one of Saddam's WMDs was mustard gas -
a weapon we were using in 1917, and which British politicians at the time
defended as comparatively humane beside high-explosive artillery and machine-gun
isn't always more dangerous because of access to toxic substances, and doesn't
need a dictator like Saddam to provide them anyway. Robert Harris and Jeremy
Paxman have written about biological and chemical weapons in their book, A
Higher Form of Killing. Harris has pointed out that "a reasonably competent
chemist could produce nerve agent on a kitchen table".
In 1995, a
terrorist religious cult in Japan did just that, thereby providing an
illuminating comparison. Those cultists released sarin nerve gas - another of
Saddam's alleged WMDs - into the Tokyo metro during rush hour. Last February in
the South Korean city of Daegu, an underground train was attacked, with a milk
carton containing inflammable liquid. Twelve people died in the "WMD"
attack; old-fashioned arson killed 120.
September 11, a number of letters containing anthrax spores were posted in
America. In the overwrought climate of the moment, it was claimed that this
batch of "WMD" could kill the American population many times over, and
that may have been true according to some abstract calculation. In the event,
five people died.
is murderous, it mostly remains technologically primitive. Three people were
killed in Tel Aviv on Tuesday by a suicide bomber's belt of explosive and metal
scraps, and the IRA have shown how bloodthirsty "spectaculars" can be
mounted with nothing more than fertiliser, sugar, and condoms for the timers.
As for the
greatest spectacular of all, Blair has repeatedly linked September 11 with the
threat of WMDs. But the 3,000 victims in New York weren't killed by WMDs of any
kind, they were murdered by a dozen fanatics armed with box cutters. Although it
has been irritating subsequently to have the contents of one's sponge bag
confiscated at the airport in the name of security, that scarcely makes a pair
of nail scissors a WMD.
The truth is
that "weapons of mass destruction" is a concept defined by the person
using it. "I like a drink, you are a drunk, he is an alcoholic," runs
the old conjugation. Now there's another: "We have defence forces, you have
dangerous arms, he has weapons of mass destruction." As usual, it depends
who you are.
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