Currently reading the book Greek File, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs by Adrienne Mayor, detailing the use of unconventional (i.e., chemical and biological) weapons in the ancient world.
In addition to detailing the use of poison, disease, and other such weapons in the ancient world, the author also surveys the ambiguous attitude and reluctance that the ancients felt toward the use of those weapons, with interesting parallels to today’s modern world.
While biological and chemical weapons can and have been successful in turning the tide of battle or winning a siege, many arguments and misgivings have existed from the very beginning against their use. Not the least of which are that they are often difficult to control (i.e., causing death/injury by friendly fire), they cause horrific and needless pain and suffering, they can be used to indiscriminately target civilians and non-combatants, can degrade the honor of those that use them, in addition to many other reasons.
They also make a lasting peace difficult. Let’s assume the war is done and the battle won. What of the defeated? With conventional weapons, their loss – while a bitter pill to swallow – can be rationalized as a lack of numbers, skill, courage, or other such variable. But with biological and chemical weapons, skill or valor or even greater numbers had nothing to do with it. Victory was gained simply by the presence and willingness to use a technology, a weaponizing of the forces of nature as Adrienne Mayor notes, which resulted in the victory. A victory that was won with horrible suffering of combatants and non-combatants alike.
Importantly, such a “victory” breeds more conflict. Imagine being defeated by biological and chemical tactics – seeing friends, family and colleagues suffer from poisoning or chemical burns; perhaps suffering oneself; or having the old or infirm suffocate in their beds; not to mention the children also affected. These tactics breed a desire for revenge, perhaps even a willingness to use these same non-conventional weapons on the victors.
This particular consequence is often missing in modern day debates regarding chemical and biological weapons. A future peace is the ostensible justification for most wars. Since the use of chemical and biological weapons makes that future peace more precarious, governments and combatants alike should be persuaded against their production and use.
In fact, one might suspect that the only ones that would really be in favor for the use of biological and chemical weapons would be those that profit from continued, unending conflict.