Sunday, September 01, 2013

Ignorance, Rhetoric, or Am I Missing Something?

"Bashar al-Assad now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein who have used these weapons in time of war," Kerry said.
(multiple news stories)
It is unclear from the stories whether Kerry's reference was specifically to Sarin gas, which is what Assad's forces apparently used, or to poison gas more generally. If the latter, his list ought to have included Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Kaiser Wilhelm, since mustard gas was used by both sides in World War I. It was not, however, used by either side in WWII.

If Kerry was referring to Sarin gas in particular, there is a different problem. As best I can tell, Hitler's government manufactured Sarin gas during WWII but never used it. After the end of the war it was also manufactured (but not used) by both the U.S. and the USSR. It is possible that Kerry is aware of some use of Sarin by the Nazis that my web search on the subject missed. But my guess is that he simply did not bother to check his historical facts before giving in to the temptation to link Assad to Hitler.

P.S. Some commenters point out that Kerry might have been referring, not to the use of poison gas in warfare, but to the use of poison gas to kill people while a war was going on, something of which Hitler was guilty. One problem with that interpretation, aside from the use of gas in warfare in WWI, is that the U.S. has used gas for executions since the 1920's. So if that was his point, his list should have included FDR, Truman and Eisenhower, as well as the heads of state of a considerable number of other countries.

What I find disturbing about this incident is not that Kerry was demonstrating either historical ignorance or deliberate dishonesty but that practically nobody seems to have noticed.


Hansjörg Walther said...

There seems to have been one incident in the Crimea where poison gas was used:

Anonymous said...

The Germans used poison gas to exterminate Jews and others whom they hated. They used Zyklon B.

RKN said...

Of the three rhetoric comes the closest, but I'm not sure even that's the right word to describe this.

Qua SoS, since your goal is to justify punishing Assad you want to make him look as bad as possible. Associating his action with the same action used by historical bad guys, while omitting any references to the same action used by good guys, does that.

Seems obvious to me.

Anonymous said...

Clinton and Reno killed 76 Branch Davidians using CS gas. The US used white phosphorus in Fallujah. The US's use of napalm in Vietnam is well-known. And just yesterday the story broke that there is now proof that Saddam got his poison gas from none other than Donald Rumsfeld and the US of A.

Obama and Kerry's hypocrisy on this issue is overwhelming. Not that anybody seems to care.

Anonymous said...

are you crazy? the germans used gas to kill red army soldiers during the battle of Sevastopol! as a russian and as someone whose grandfather fought during the Great Patriotic War, I take great offence at your stupid american ignorance.

you probably think that WW2 was won by Tom Hanks too!

David Friedman said...

Several commenters seem to be ignoring the distinction I made between "gas" and "Sarin gas." If Kerry's reference was to the use of gas in warfare, his list ought to have included a President of the U.S. and a Prime Minister of England.

If the reference is specifically to Sarin, then the fact that the Nazis used Carbon Monoxide and Cyanide gas to murder Jews is irrelevant.

The link offered for poison gas in the Crimea does not say what sort of gas was used, nor does Anonymous say what gas was used in the battle of Sevastopol. Is there any evidence that either incident, assuming it did involve poison gas, used Sarin?

Tibor said...

David: I think the confusion stems from the fact that you mentioned in the first paragraph, that if it is supposed to be about gas in general, it should include the British PM and US president. Then you mentioned mustard gas and noted that it was not used in WW2. So a reader that is not very careful will read it as a claim that no gas at all was used during WW2.
Personally, I know of no use of gas in battle conditions. Of course, zyklon B is another story, but that was not used in battle. I am also keen to find any evidence about the use of gas at Sevastopol.

I actually read a short article by one historian whose conjecture about why the Nazis have not used gas in military operations was that it was not practical. The enemies had huge stockpiles of gas as well and would use it if provoked by a first strike. Also, I am no military strategist, but it seems to me that the use of gas is not very compatible with Blitzkrieg strategy as it was used by third reich. If you spread it over some area, you will kill most everyone there, but your troops cannot advance for some time. Also, there is another nasty disadvantage of gas usage when your troops are nearby - the wind can turn the other way.

It does not answer why they did not mount gas capsules to V2 rockets (the fear of a similar retaliation as suggested by that historian might answer that partially) which they used for shelling of London and other places in England...perhaps there are some technical difficulties with that (for example that the gas would spread prematurely during flight, or that it would be burned by the explosion of the rocket on impact...although I suppose you could make V2 rockets without an explosive charge and once the rocket fuel burns, there is nothing more to explode).

Fred Mangels said...

I get your point but I reject the idea that Assad used any chemical weapons in the first place. This seems an obvious false flag operation to me.

Even if Assad is a complete madman, he'd have to be really, really stupid to use chemical weapons with the west looking for any excuse to attack him. He'd have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Not so the rebels of who the opposite could be said: They'd have everything to gain and nothing to lose by staging an attack to make it look as if government forces did it.

It just makes sense, never mind it's very hard to believe Assad would allow U.N. inspectors into the country then launch a large chemical attack a day or so later right near them.

The scariest part of all this is how the mainstream media just echoes the White House line, not questioning any of their allegations and sweeping under the rug anyone who does.

The next scariest part is how many people are buying the White House/ MSM line hook, line and sinker.

David Friedman said...


I'm not sure Assad has to be a madman to use gas. There are two other possibilities:

1. He thinks western countries are bluffing--as may well turn out to be the case.

2. He doesn't think the U.S. or other countries will be willing to get sufficiently involved to make a large difference, and having the U.S. attack him is a benefit to him in terms of PR in the Arab world.

It's also possible that Sarin was used by his forces but not under his orders--I don't know how good his control over his own people is. Consider, for a possible analogy, the Mai Lai massacre during the Vietname war, done by U.S. troops but not as deliberate U.S. policy.

Fred Mangels said...

I highly doubt he's going to assume the western powers would not attack him. You don't just blow off a significant threat.

I will agree that there's a small likelihood that an agent provocateur within the Syrian military might have acted on behalf the rebels in staging an attack, although you'd think heads would roll over something like that.

Yet we've seen in Afghanistan Afghani soldiers and police turning on U.S. soldiers so it is possible some higher ranking Syrian officer is working on behalf the rebels.

There'd be no other reason for using chemicals. Why do something like that when by all accounts Syria seems to have the upper hand and is getting the best of the rebels?

Oh, and if you haven't seen it, the growing rumor now is the Saudis bought the chemicals and gave them to the rebels. I'm a bit skeptical of the story if only because there's something about the way it's written. But the scenario is correct in what I think happened, leaving out specific nationalities.

Patrick R. Sullivan said...

Gas isn't used in battles because it's not a militarily effective weapon. It's strictly a terror weapon. The trend in weaponry for several decades has been greater precision.

As for Assad fearing an attack by 'the West'...with what? Maybe when there were tens of thousands of combat troops next door in Iraq, but they have been withdrawn. The Assads have been massacring their own people for decades, and in the tens of thousands...with no responses of any consequence.

Also, the chemical weapons came from Iraq. General Mike DeLong spelled that out for this Frontline interview some time ago;

'We watched trucks come in, take the stuff out, go to another place as the U.N. inspectors would go in. By this time now, this is 12 years that Saddam has been moving his chemical weapons around. So we knew there were weapons of mass destruction. Now, how much or what kind, [we] weren't sure.

'But two days before we did go into Iraq, we watched truckloads of it go into Syria, truckloads of it. Now, these chemical weapons, you've got stuff here and stuff here that by themselves are not potent. You mix them together and you put them in the nose of an artillery shell or a bomb and you weaponize them, and it becomes a weapon.'

Fred Mangels said...

Sorry. I've never believed that Iraq to Syria weapons transfer story, either. Once again, it makes no sense.

Why would Saddam send strategic weapons out of the country where he had no control over it?

If I bought a gun because I was worried about someone breaking in my home, would it make sense to ship to gun to another state for safekeeping? Nope.

If he was going to do anything to hide them he'd bury them, as apparently he did with a few fighter aircraft.

Fred Mangels said...

For what it's worth, here's the first story that broke on the Saudi/Syria chemical weapons connection. I'm a bit skeptical with the story but I can't put my finger on exactly why. The scenario is along the lines of what I think happened, setting aside the countries that might be involved:

Interesting that the mainstream media is ignoring this. You'd think they'd want to run it if only for debunking purposes. Yet not a word that I've read in any of the big news outfits. Maybe that's yet to come?

Hansjörg Walther said...

I was aware of the distinction, but since I don't know what was used, I just called it "poison gas" as in the reference.

In the German Wikipedia I have found the claim (no references, my translation): "In July of 1944, 30 metric tons of sarin were produced in German test factories, but never used in combat."

Unclear whether sarin was also produced before that time in relevant quantities: If not, that might rule out use in 1942.

@Anonymous: Wow, I could not find information on use of poison gas during the battle of Sevastopol in either the German, English, Russian or Ukrainian Wikipedia (unless you mean the same incident mentioned only in the English Wikipedia as far as I can see).

So maybe we ignoramuses can be excused if we don't know this off our heads. More info appreciated, of course.

Tibor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tibor said...

Patrick: Again - I know very little about modern warfare. But it seems to me that if you want to decimate the population of an enemy city and break down morale (as Hitler surely did in Britain), mounting gas capsules on your bombs (I don't know if that is or was possible) and V2 rockets seems a very effective way to do so, provided that you have no moral problems with that and also that the enemy retaliation thus provoked is not even worse. If you want to kill as many people as possible, then you don't care about precision. So the question why Hitler has not used gas for military purposes remains open. There are some arguments for that, but no conclusive ones...and of course it is possible that nazis actually did use it somewhere sometime...but definitely not on a massive (military) scale.

Anyway, my view of the situation in Syria is that given that we take the assumption of the sarine use by government forces for granted, I still have no idea what a limited military strike can do apart from making a bit of "collateral damage" that is apart from killing a few random civilians. If the attack is not supposed to dethrone Assad, then it does not have to worry him all that much unless the costs times likelihood of a limited strike top the benefits of the sarine use, in which case he can always use the good old tanks and machineguns. And a full-scale invasion would be an even worse idea, which at least is something that even the politicians realize after two long wars (well, Afghanistan is not over yet and McCain was asking just for such an invasion, at least if the bbc news are correct). I have yet to hear about any military invasion to a country in the midst of a civil war, that brought peace and harmony. At best, it can hope for the locals to unite against a now common enemy :)

And supporting various opposing forces seems also like a stupid idea. The US armed and trained Taliban in the 1980s against the USSR and supported Saddam Hussein at one point as well. Whatever armies actually attack (American and French as it seems) might as well be helping another Taliban to get to power for all we know. Assad is a horrible dictator, but an autocratic islamist regime is at least on par with that... Generally, the problem with foreing interventions, even if we set aside the fact that some people are forced to pay taxes to fund military actions (well, all but the Amish :) ), is that you just don't have enough information and enough precision. There is no way to get rid of Assad or gas containers without killing a bunch of other people. You can't even calculate if your strike won't actually lead to more civilian deaths than if you just abstain from any action. And even if you could, I don't think killing 500 innocent people to save 1000 innocent people or something like that is something I want any part in (I don't live in France but the EU takes some of the taxes I pay here anyway, and France is part of the EU). Maybe, if the ratio was 5 to 5 million or something like that, but that it is almost surely not.

David Friedman said...

On the question of why Hitler didn't use poison gas, in particular Sarin, I have seen two explanations. One is that Hitler himself was injured by mustard gas in WWI and so hostile to the idea of introducing it into WWII. The other is the claim that an important German chemist falsely told Hitler that Sarin had been discovered considerably earlier than it actually was, that the Allies knew about it, hence would use it in retaliation if the Germans did.

Even if that story isn't true, Hitler might well have believed that once he used it the Allies would rapidly analyze it and start producing it. So it would have given him a temporary advantage, but only that. Early in the war he didn't need it, since he was winning, and later the Allies were in a much better position to bomb Germany than the Germans were to bomb allied territory--and Sarin might have been very effective delivered from bombers.

But all that is guesswork. What we know is that the Germans did have it and did not use it, at least on any scale large enough to show up in the obvious sources of information.

David Friedman said...

On the general issue of interventionist vs non-interventionist foreign policy, readers may want to look at the chapter in the second edition of my Machinery of Freedom. An interventionist foreign policy run by a sufficiently competent ruler might do more good than harm. An interventionist foreign policy run as actual governments are likely to run it is likely to do more harm than good.

Anonymous said...

I wonder whether the spokesman had mixed up Hitler with Mussolini, who reportedly used gas in his Ethiopian campaign, after the 1925 Geneva Conventions outlawing gas warfare. (It's an easy mistake to make). The 1925 date also explains why WWI use of gas in war does not appear on the list.

David Friedman said...

Mussolini didn't use Sarin, since it hadn't yet been invented. And Kerry didn't say anything about using gas after it had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention, so I don't see why the WWI mustard gas wouldn't count if he was referring to gas warfare in general.

affenkopf said...

The Economist has an article on the history of chemical weapon use in war that also touches on Hitler's non-use of the:

Hansjörg Walther said...

Wikipedia has one more explanation:

According to Göring, poison gas was not used because the German army depended on horses, and had not been able to develop gas masks for them.

That can't be the whole explanation, though. I guess there were many situations where that would not have mattered and where using poison gas would have been a choice to terrorize the population or as a last resort. Apart perhaps from very few incidents that did not happen.

The Nazis were squeamish about committing crimes in the open. E. g. as far as I know they took some care not to bomb civilian targets at first. Only when it happened by accident, and the UK retaliated, the gloves came off. Or how they tried to keep the Holocaust secret.

Maybe they thought there could be a post-war order where they would play a role even after defeat (e. g. in a new coalition against the Soviet Union), but that that would depend on some explanation how they had stayed within civilized bounds or least as much as everybody else.

Will McLean said...

If you read Kerry's full remarks, he is talking about the use of poison gas in violation of post 1925 international law and norms. WWI use is not relevant to his argument.

Patrick Sullivan said...

'If you want to kill as many people as possible, then you don't care about precision.'

Sure you do. What good is it if your weapons don't hit anything of value? This is an opportunity cost question.

'The US armed and trained Taliban in the 1980s against the USSR...'

That's a canard.

...and supported Saddam Hussein at one point as well.'

Only to the extent of helping him stave off defeat by Iran. Saddam was a Soviet client.

Tibor said...


Precision is an issue if your weapon affects a small area. That is not the case of poison gas. If your aim is to kill as many people in London as possible, you don't care precision very much.

Taliban - ok, you may be right, I don't really know much about it, I'm only basing it on hearsay and what "everyone knows".

Hussein - well, ok. But if you know you're going to fight a war against someone in a few years, you don't usually help him with anything.

susupply said...

Tibor, the more precise your weapons, the fewer you need to use. Which isn't the case with gas--how do you know which way the wind is going to be blowing when it hits?

Btw, how did we know that we'd be fighting with Saddam a few years later?

Tibor said...

Patrick Sullivan:

Of course a precise gas is a better than less precise gas if it does not cost anything. More generally, you want to reach the best (death+shock)/cost, I have to sound like Machiavelli right now...anyway :) I think that if yo uhave large stockpiles of gas already made and can (if that is possible) shell London with them, then it surpasses the effect of the explosive V2 charges. But I could be wrong of course.

In today's newspaper I read about gas and sarin use actually. There was an article basically about "why do we think killing people with machineguns is better than killing them with gas anyway?" and the author also asked why Hitler has not used it. He has basically used some of the arguments mentioned by various people here (although not all of them).

What was more interesting - was that he mentioned the US use of agressive herbicides in the Vietnam war - that is after the Geneva treaty - against both local plants (obviously) and local human population. He did not mention any sources, so I don't know if that is true. Maybe you and David, since you are Americans and at least David (I don't know how old you are) has already been alive during the Vietnam war, might know more about that. Anyway, if it is true, then Kerry is quite a hypocrite (as long as he did not only refer to sarine, in which case he might still be "just" ignorant).

Hussein - Well, nobody knew that and that is the point. It is hard to predict these things. And if you advocate the intrusive foreign politics by its efficiency, it does not seem to have a that much stellar record, really. I suppose, as David mentions, that if you had a genius foreing minister (and with proper motivation too), he might be able to do it well. But then, in a society of all-knowing angels, any system would work well.

David Friedman said...


I get an error when I try the link you gave, but I found the relevant quote elsewhere. It's true that Kerry says:

"I don't believe that my former colleagues in the United States Senate and the House will turn their backs on all of our interests, on the credibility of our country, on the norm with respect to the enforcement of the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, which has been in place since 1925,"

But he also says:

"Bashar Assad now joins the list of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein [who] have used these weapons in time of war,"

So the Hitler reference isn't qualified by something that changed in 1925, and in any case, Hitler does not seem to have used poison gas in warfare at all.

David Friedman said...

It occurs to me that Kerry deserves some sort of a prize--he may be the first person in history who succeeded in slandering Adolf Hitler.

Tibor said...

Looking at the quote closely (and this is much more what a lawyer would do - nitpicking words to change the obvious meaning to something much less likely), it seems to me, he is not slandering Hitler (which really made me laugh by the way), but stating that he used it in a time of war, not necessarily in warfare itself. If I kill someone in his home in Berlin during WW2, I also kill him in a time of war, but not in warfare. And so the jews argument would apply (as long as he was not talking about sarine exclusively).

Will McLean said...

Leaving aside the claimed use of gas in Crimea, Kerry didn't claim that Hitler used poison gas in warfare, but in time of war. Which he did.

The fact that even Hitler only gassed people who couldn't retaliate, and only when he thought the fact wouldn't become generally known, strengthens Kerry's argument rather than contradicts it.

David Friedman said...


By that definition, the U.S. used gas in time of war too. Lethal gas has been used for executions in the U.S. since the 1920's, including during WWII and Korea.

As far as I can see, attributing Kerry's statement to historical ignorance is not only the most plausible interpretation, it's the most favorable one. On any of the other interpretations he was being deliberately dishonest--putting Hitler and Assad on a list that should also have included multiple U.S. Presidents and governors, along with a British Prime Minister and the Kaiser.

RKN said...

By that definition, the U.S. used gas in time of war too. Lethal gas has been used for executions in the U.S. since the 1920's, including during WWII and Korea.

Come now, I seriously doubt Kerry is unaware of the examples you give, or even if he was, hardly concerned that admitting them would weaken his argument about Assad.

If you accused him of historical ignorance he'd simply come back and accuse you of committing an error of moral equivalency.

Note: These remarks should not imply or in any way indicate that the commenter agrees with or endorses Kerry's positions on Syria.

Will McLean said...

The Russians and Ukrainians are convinced that the Germans used poison gas against the Adzhimushkay or Adzhimushkai quarry in 1942.

David Friedman said...

"If you accused him of historical ignorance he'd simply come back and accuse you of committing an error of moral equivalency."

Kerry didn't merely say that Assad was as bad as Hitler, he explicitly claimed that Hitler had used "these weapons" in wartime, and clearly implied that that was something special about Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Pointing out that what he says is either flatly false or highly misleading isn't an error of moral equivalency.

Will McLean said...

There was something special about Hitler and Saddam Hussein. They used poison gas to murder large numbers of their own civilians, either indiscriminately or deliberately. It's a small club. If Assad was responsible for the recent poison gas attacks in Syria he has joined it.

Will McLean said...

If you lower the bar for atrocity to include indiscriminate gas attacks against *foreign* civilians, then Tojo joins the club. But perhaps Mr. Kerry can be forgiven for missing Tojo. A surprising number of people don't know that Imperial Japan repeatedly used poison gas in China before and during WWII.

RKN said...

Pointing out that what he says is either flatly false or highly misleading isn't an error of moral equivalency.

Of course not, and that's not what I meant.

The accusation of moral equivalency would be rightly leveled at arguments that imply no distinction between good guys using poison gas to kill bad guys (e.g., execution of criminals during wartime), and bad guys who use poison gas to kill innocents (e.g., Hitler and Hussein during wartime).

My point is that if had Kerry admitted to the former, not only would it have not bolstered his argument against Assad, it would have exposed him the to the accusation of moral equivalency. Not exactly the mark of an experienced rhetorician.

David Friedman said...


There might have been various things special about Hitler, Assad and Saddam Hussein. But the question was whether what was special about them was whether they had used poison gas in wartime, which appeared to be Kerry's claim.

That aside, I find it hard to see much significance to the difference between killing large numbers of your own civilians with gas and doing it with other weapons--as Pol Pot, Stalin, and various African rulers in the post-war period did.

Judging at least by the estimates I've seen, Assad has killed considerably fewer Syrians than the Nigerians killed Biafrans in their civil war. I can't remember any proposals that the U.S. should intervene there.

Tibor said...

Will: Oh yes! I forgot to mention that. I also learned about the Japanese poison gas usage in China from that newspaper article on Wednesday. Maybe I was just ignorant, but I think you're right that most people actually don't know about that. Maybe more in Japan and China.

Will McLean said...


I'm going to go with simple ignorance at this time. His remarks to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4 indicated that he's only talking about post 1925. This is fair, because international law has changed a lot over time. But also that he believes that since then, not including Assad "only two tyrants have dared to cross the world’s brightest line" against the use of chemical weapons.

You may be encouraged to know that the Washington Post and several other sites have already pointed out that this is incorrect.

Will McLean said...

Given that Hitler used his army to gas innocent inhabitants of foreign countries then under his military occupation, many of whose legitimate governments were still at war with him, I don't find the interpretation that he used poison gas in war entirely unreasonable.