Markos wrote a thought provoking diary about the fact that chemical weapons are not that different than conventional weapons, since the end result is the same.
The basic cold logic of the argument is this:
Premise: Civilian death is bad.
fact: A causes massive civilian death.
fact: B causes massive civilian death.
Conclusion: Therefore A equals B.
While one may argue that this argument has a fallacy of incomplete comparison, since we are not given enough information about A or B - we just measure end result.
I would like to give a contrary point of view to explain why I think the usage of chemical weapons is not equivalent to conventional weapons.
What surprised me most in Kos' diary was the fact that it was written by a former member of the unformed services. I assume that in part his training included defense against NBC weapons (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical).
I myself was also a member of a uniformed service, albeit that of a different country.
I was enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces, and my demobilization date was March 15th 1991. Why is this date important? Gulf War I. From January 1991 to March 1991 Israel was attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles. That really screwed up my discharge plans.
While the Scuds themselves did not cause major damage (actually, post war analysis concluded that the PAC missiles caused more...) the sheer terror of the population was very palpable - the fear that one of this missiles might carry a chemical warhead.
On the second week of that war my unit was mobilized to the eastern border anticipating an Iraqi invasion of Jordan. The night we moved out was the most terrifying night of my life (and I take into account nights when I was under direct mortar fire).
It was not the huge volume of ammo that we took out of the warehouse. It was not the brand new .50's we put on our APCs. It was not the massive convoy of vehicles that was more than a mile long with sleep deprived people running around making sure everything is ready.
The most memorable moment (to me) was when they started distributing the vacuum sealed plastic bags through which you could see the green color of the hazmat suits.
Until then, during training we used, well, used hazmat suits and gas masks. Sometimes you could still smell the sweat of the previous soldier who used it. They were never vacuum sealed and they were in terrible shape (holes, tears, you name it). But that was training. The worst we trained with was CS gas. Other than wanting to gauge your eyes out and salivating like a mad dog it was pretty harmless.
So when you get your own shiny suit and a new shiny mask with the filter still capped, you know this shit is for real.
Now, for most of us the idea of a death from a conventional weapon is that it is quite fast. You get a bullet to the head, shrapnel rips through the guts, a ricochet slices a major artery. Losing blood, losing consciences, sleep and death.
Of course, as anybody who had to hear a friend screaming for a medic knows, this image is bullshit. No death is sterile and clean.
This being said, as part of our training in chemical warfare we were forced to watch old films (mostly American) depicting chemical weapons experiments and their effects on animals. I don't think any one in my platoon could hold his food down after seeing this. It was horrifying. It was pure terror. They wanted to scare the bejesus out of us.
They were magnificently successful in this endeavor.
In discussions afterwards we all agreed that a bullet to the head is 1000 times better way to go than to be exposed to VX or Sarin.
So you understand why I almost pissed in my pants when I was handed this nice green suit and shiny black mask on that night. This was not an exercise anymore. This shit is for real and I might be on the receiving end of a little bomblet, filled with odorless, colorless, (literally) gut churning gas.
Well, that was only the beginning. We were deployed and our position was on one of the mountains facing Jordan. We had a great view of the coastal plane of Israel. One of these lights flickering in the night was my home, where my parents and siblings lived.
Almost every night we saw a Scud missile warhead falling, you would see the two patriots missiles rushing to meet the threat, you would see them missing completely and then the big explosion of the Scud's 500kg warhead followed by two more explosions as the patriots came back down.
The absurd was that a big explosion was a good thing. It means it was a conventional warhead. When a chemical warhead falls all you hear is a thud and that's it. Big explosion meant that I could "sleep well" knowing no chemical attack took place.
After all 500kg bomb levels a building, two at most. Chemical warhead? A whole different ball park.
I then looked at my nice new suit and my shiny new black gas mask and realized that my family back home did not have them.
Sure, they had gas masks, but in order to be protected from the gas they were told to put plastic sheets on the windows and damp cloth underneath the door. That was the extent of the protection awarded to them - in other words they were completely exposed. this put my little fears in perspective real fast. It was not me I was worried about anymore. It was about my parents, brothers and sister and even that dumb one-eyed cat who believed he could fly.
So what is my point in this little personal story? Chemical weapons are not like conventional weapons.
Yes, they both kill people and both kill civilians.
But there is a major difference- Today armies are well equipped to protect their soldiers against chemical weapons. Soldiers get the newest hazmat suits and the best gas masks, for the simple reason that the army will do its utmost to make sure they continue fighting effectively. If you are well equipped, your chances of surviving gas attack are actually pretty high. Doesn't negate the psychological effects and the discomfort (try running with full gear wearing a suit and berating through a filter) , but still - if you have access to the right stuff you'll be fine.
Civilians on the other hand have no way to protect themselves against this. They will be lucky to even know what hit them (remember, no explosion - just a thud).
They cannot find sanctuary from this. If with conventional weapon you can at least try to get to some shelter. you can try to avoid the alley where snipers are taking shots. You hear the planes and you run into a ditch.
With that quiet hiss of the gas there is no shelter for you. Run away and the gas will get you. Go down the stairs to a basement and the gas will only find you quicker.
In short - chemical weapons are the weapons of a coward: Their target is almost exclusively civilians who do not have the means to protect themselves - and the coward knows it.
No military strategist thinks that Chemical weapons have serious tactical effect on the battlefield, but it is the method of choice to terrorize a whole populations in a very short time.
So Markos, I respectfully disagree with you on the difference between usage of Chemical weapons and Conventional weapons. That is not to say I disagree with you on the need to intervene in the current crisis.
1:40 PM PT: This is not a diary as what we should or shouldn't do in Syria. The issue is slightly more complicated than yes or no. One can argue that CW are horrific and their usage is different than conventional weapons and still oppose any intervention in the Syrian civil war (as I do).
This diary is just to counter the argument of equivalency between conventional and chemical weapons.
P.S. Thanks for the Rec. List. Wherever you stand on the issue and whatever your personal opinion on Syria is, I'm sure we can all agree that war is hell and one civilian death is one death too many.