By DAVID BOOKSTABER
The incredulous response of the media and others to conflicting reports on the use of nerve gas in the Vietnam War is a symptom of a much more hazardous attitude permeating our country today. Questions regarding the use of sarin by the U.S. military may never be resolved. But I for one would be happy to learn that, in spite of all of the strategic blunders it made during that war, the government was willing to use an ignominious weapon like nerve gas to win a battle and save lives that it put in jeopardy.
The American public, perhaps from watching too many movies or too much primetime news, seems caught in a surreal void between reality and idealism. It wants America flexing its arm of democracy around the world and crushing oppression at whatever level the media can expose it. But when push comes to shove, it changes its mind. It doesn't want to see houses blown up or people crying and bleeding, and much less so as a result of American military operations. In other words, it picks a fight and then asks the military to pull its punches.
But in war, the enemy doesn't pull punches. Servicemen's lives are in danger in even the smallest conflict, against what appears to be even the weakest enemy. A government that sends its soldiers abroad has the obligation of taking every step possible to secure their safety. If it is unwilling to do this, it shouldn't put them at risk at all.
Perhaps in this most recent scandal, people have forgotten what the problem was with nerve gas to begin with. Let's dispense with the Geneva convention for a moment--our enemies always have.
Nerve gas derives its stigma from the fact that it can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. The problem with WMDs is that they can be used on a large scale to kill indiscriminately. The fear is that a terrorist or "unethical" military armed with WMDs can wipe out entire cities, killing thousands of civilians.
Civilian death has always been a side effect of war, but the sentiment has been that WMDs risk too much too fast, and just seem to set a bad example. However, in the alleged case of nerve gas in Vietnam this was not a problem. The transient toxin was supposedely deployed on such a small scale that Americans, some without any protection against it, watched as it overtook the enemy soldiers.
Was that use worse than other methods of fighting and killing? If they had brought in a squadron of planes armed with conventional 500 pound iron bombs to blow up the enemy would that have been more ethical? Would Americans feel more comfortable hearing a story of how the 16 American soldiers withstood the enemy divisions alone, detonating hand grenades, shooting them with low caliber bullets, and stabbing them to death?
The American arsenal still includes chemical and nuclear arms. They aren't all, however, weapons of mass destruction. There are nukes and gasses that can be launched against an enemy with extreme precision, in low yields, from both air and ground vehicles. Their use by the military would probably cause no more indiscriminate death than a conventional attack, but would do the same work at a lower cost and risk to American lives and hardware. Once America decides to fight a war, it should be in it to win. If it wants enemy soldiers killed and enemy strategic capabilities destroyed, it should simply name the goal and stand back while the military does its job.