Rational Inquiry -Volume 8 Number 1
What Weapons of Mass Destruction?
By Elie A. Shneour
Sadam Hussein possesses weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and he has been using them. So has the United States and Great Britain. To justify these astonishing assertions, the profligate use of the term of art WMD urgently needs to be revisited. Mass destruction means the vast slaughter of human lives coupled with the devastating demolitions of buildings and physical infrastructures. Chemical and biological weapons are not WMD. Nuclear, high explosives and incendiaries are the only weapons thus far devised that can cause mass destruction. Weight for weight, high explosives and incendiaries are cheaper, more effective, much more reliable, far easier to manufacture, to conceal and to deliver than any of the other classes of weapons. That is why both governments and terrorists universally use them.
High explosives and incendiaries, some dating back to World War I, have written a long and blood-spattered chapter during World War II: the bombings of Rotterdam, Coventry, London, the firestorms of Hamburg, Tokyo and Dresden attest to their effectiveness. It was mainly the incendiary impact of 11 September 2001 in New York and Washington that achieved its grotesque outcome. Nuclear weapons are a class apart. They are, by far, the most ferocious WMD. To put them in the same class as chemical and biological weapons is unjustified. Although chemical and biological weapons have the potential to cause large numbers of casualties, they do not destroy anything. It is often possible to avoid their effect in open places by walking upwind. It is also frequently possible to wash away these agents with soap and water or to neutralize them.
Toxic chemicals have been used as weapons of mass terror and of area denial rather than of mass destruction. The widespread use of chemical agents in World War I caused hideous casualties but they did not affect the outcome of that war. Except for isolated incidents, chemical weapons were not used in World War II because they were broadly recognized to be counterproductive. Chemical and biological weapons are not all that easy to manufacture, to handle, to weaponize, to deliver and to disseminate compared to high explosives and incendiaries. With a few exceptions, among them anthrax spores, they are quite perishable. This is also true of nuclear weapons where the radioactive disintegration of their components affects their potential explosive power to say nothing of the degrading of their electronic controls by radiation.
To international opprobrium Sadam Hussein used vesicant and nerve agents (they are liquids, not gases) against the Kurds and the Iranians. These despicable deeds involved the use of low flying aircraft spraying the victims with repeated passes. There also exists a number of theoretical scenarios, such as the ones suggested in a 1970 report by the World Health Organization. An aircraft spraying 50 kilograms of anthrax spores along a two kilometers path upwind of a population of 500,000 on a clear sunny day could incapacitate 125,000 and kill 98,000. By contrast, this report suggests that the aerial release of 1,000 kilograms of sarin nerve agent under the same conditions would cause only (sic) several hundred casualties. These are highly unlikely scenarios.
The U.S. has undertaken to vaccinate a large active population against smallpox, especially the health first responders. I would hope that the primary goal would be to avoid needing many first responders. Smallpox is a deadly, disfiguring and highly infectious disease that was eradicated from the planet by1977. The Russians and perhaps others are claimed to having access to substantial stores of this virus. Perhaps so, but I doubt it. Even if true, the propagation of this scourge would inevitably boomerang with a vengeance on the disseminators. The notion of a few infected persons circulating in the U.S. to spread the disease is unrealistic. Smallpox is not infectious until the symptoms suddenly appear. From that moment on, the infected person is so obviously ill as to be all but incapable of moving around.
It is unnecessarily risky to vaccinate the U.S. population until there is incontrovertible evidence that smallpox has been propagating again. Once warned, the nation would have adequate time to take preventative measures. When smallpox was rampant in the world, vaccination was an essential life-saving precaution worth the risk. Finally, there are a whole zoo of other dangerous bacteria, parasites and viruses that could theoretically be used as biological weapons. It is also possible that some highly virulent and countermeasure resistant microorganisms will emerge in the future. Anything is possible, of course. But to worry about the possible is a life-paralyzing agent that is worse than any biological or chemical weapon. It is a sane reaction to be concerned about what is probable in our unsettled world. What is most probable for the vast majority of us, however, is that we will not have to face a WMD.
Professor Elie A. Shneour heads the Biosystems Research Institute in San Diego, CA. He has been involved at the policy-making level from international to regional aspects of NBC counter-terrorism for several decades. For details, please refer to American Men and Women of Science or to Who's Who In America. He is a member of professional scientific societies. He can be reached by e-mail via or by telephone at 619-233-3636 or by mail at Biosystems Research Institute, 700 Front Street, San Diego CA 92101-6085.