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History repeats itself

Notions of “arms control” have been in existence for over 3,000 years. The idea of disarming Iraq of its nuclear, biological and chemical weaponry is just the latest of such actions.

In 1100 B.C., between the Bronze and Iron ages, the Philistines restricted the use of iron by the Israelites to prevent them from making certain weapons. In 546 B.C. the first recorded arms control conference ended 72 years of hostilities in China’s Yangtze River Valley.

In the fourth century B.C. Athens and Sparta agreed to dismantle fortifications and demobilize part of their fleets after the Peloponnesian War. Plato’s “Republic” quotes Socrates as forbidding the use of poisoned weapons or poisoned water. India’s third-century B.C. “Book of Man” forbade weapons with poisoned points.

An arms control agreement was negotiated between Rome and Carthage in 202 B.C. The treaty required the Carthaginians to surrender all of their war elephants and all but 10 of their much-feared triremes (battleships of the day).

In 1139, the Second Lateran Council prohibited the use of crossbows. It must be noted, however, that these weapons were only prohibited for use against Christians. It was still OK to use them against the “infidels” during the Crusades.

In 1625, the book “On the Law of War and Peace” recommended banning the use of poison and deliberately polluting drinking water.

Between 1899 and 1907, the Hague Peace Conference banned the use of poison gas, and “other new methods of warfare of a similar nature,” but I guess the combatants of WWI forgot to take note.

In August 1918, American artist John Singer Sargent observed a field dressing station near Arras, France, where victims of mustard gas were being taken. His evocative painting of the scene, “Gassed,” has been described in part as follows:

“Under a sky whose color is reminiscent of the gas, a line of blindfolded soldiers staggers toward the tent on the right. Yet it is the central tableau of nine sightless men, still carrying their gear and their guns, that rivets our attention. They are being helped along by two orderlies, one of whom warns of a small step, and in response the third soldier, in a gesture that marks this as a moment frozen in time, lifts his foot to exaggerated height to avoid tripping S” No other work of art conveys more powerfully the horror of chemical warfare.

Due to the tremendous casualties from chemical weapons in World War I, the 1922 Washington Treaty re-emphasized The Hague Conference’s ban on the use of “noxious gases.” In 1925, the Geneva Convention banned the use of all chemical weapons. In addition, between 1920 and 1926 the International Commission of Control, created by the Treaty of Versailles, conducted a series of surprise inspections at Germany’s armament factories prior to World War II – inspections weren’t too effective back then, either.

In 1940, a plague epidemic in China and Manchuria followed Japanese overflights with planes dropping plague-infected fleas. Japanese troops also deposited cholera and typhoid cultures in wells and ponds. Perhaps as many 200,000 Chinese died of bubonic plague, cholera, anthrax and other diseases during the war.

Today Saddam Hussein has the capability to unleash chemicals and viruses, including the botulism toxin, perhaps nature’s deadliest poison, which could easily eclipse the death tolls in China during WWII. If he does, I suspect we’ll be hearing claims that the U.S. supplied Saddam with these weapons during the Reagan era.

But that’s spinning the facts. What actually transpired was that the American Type Culture Collection, of Manassas, Va., made shipments of biomaterial to Iraq in the 1980s and these shipments included anthrax, botulism toxin and gangrene. However, the ATCC is a nonprofit organization that makes research cultures and products available around the world.

So to leap from a private enterprise selling research material to Iraq to the notion that the U.S. government assisted the Iraqi bio-weapons program is ridiculous. Assistance implies doing something consciously, and there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the U.S. government did anything to assist Saddam in developing NBC weaponry on a knowledgeable basis.

On the other hand, an example of assisting a potential enemy would be the manner in which the U.S. and Great Britain armed and supported Josef Stalin during WWII in our fight against the Nazis. Politics has always made for strange bedfellows, and government approval of sending research material to Iraq in the ’80s was understandable vis-a-vis the dynamics of the region at the time.

But back to the point of this commentary: The issue is not so much a matter of how Iraq achieved its weapons programs, but what to do about it now. As history tells us, we are not in an unprecedented situation. But the stakes have become much higher.

Butch Mazzuca of Singletree can be reached at bmazz@centurytel.net


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