Chemical Warfare

Michael A. Hartmann

Chemical Warfare


Chemical Warfare


During the course of history, Chemical Warfare has been used by nations to obtain a strategic advantage over their enemies.  Chemical agents are designed to maim, kill, seriously injure, or incapacitate unprotected people.  These weapons have been used against military and civilian targets as well.  Due to the nature of these weapons, laws and treaties have been enacted to prevent the use of these weapons.  However, rouge countries continue to produce these weapons and the threat behind the use of chemical weapons is as real today as ever.  A brief history and types of chemical weapons that are used will be discussed.


The establishment of Chemical Warfare can be traced back to 673 AD.  A Syrian chemist named Kallinikos developed what was known as “Greek Fire”.  The mixture was similar to the modern Napalm formula.  The weapon was first employed by the Byzantine Navy, and the most common process of deployment was to discharge the formula through a large bronze tube onto enemy ships. Typically the concoction would be deposited in heated, pressurized barrels and launched through the tube by a pump while the operators were protected behind large iron shields. The Byzantines used Greek fire to devastate the Turks for five centuries.  During the thirteenth century, the Turks were able to develop a similar formula against the Crusaders (International Safeguards and CWC Implementation Division, 2003).

As the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods arrived, warring factions developed chemicals that targeted the biological aspects their enemies.  In the 13th century, the English Navy catapulted barrels of blinding quicklime onto French vessels. In 1456, the defenders of Belgrade produced bombs, grenades or rags set on fire with arsenic against the Turks.  The following year Berlin was churning out these chemical weapons in a newly built factory.  By the end of the 17th century, various devices based on sulfur, mercury, turpentine and even nitrates were mentioned in numerous military documents. However, these weapons were only used for limited objectives (International Safeguards and CWC Implementation Division, 2003).

During the next 200 years, numerous chemical weapon plans were not implemented because precedence was given to ballistics and cannons.  Poisoned weapons were felt to be dishonorable in a military conflict.  An English plan during the Crimean War, 1854-1855, to smoke out the Russian stronghold at Sebastopol with a toxic mixture involving 500 tons of sulfur and 200 tons of coke. The plan was never implemented.  During the American Civil War from 1861-1865, the Union developed the shells filled with chlorine to use against the Southern forces. The strategy was considered abominable and subsequently abandoned (International Safeguards and CWC Implementation Division, 2003).

Any reservations about using chlorine in weaponry dissolved by the Germans in World War I.  On April 22, 1915, the Germans unleashed 160 tons of chlorine gas against the Allies near the Belgian village of Ypres.  The chlorine hovered in massive clouds in the direction of the Allies until it permeated the Allied lines causing men to die from the effects of the chlorine gas. Soldiers died because of the large quantities of gas released caused yellowish fluid to fill in the lungs of its victim, also causing eye, nose, and throat burning before causing death by choking.  Over 5,000 allied troops died in this chemical attack.  The Allies retaliated and used chlorine gas and the more sophisticated mustard gas to terrorize the Germans.  Before the end of the war, approximately 113,000 tons of chemical weapons were used, killing roughly 92,000 soldiers and inflicting 1.3 million casualties (Burns, 1999).

After World War I governments desired to prohibit chemical weapons because of the horrifying methods by which they killed and injured victims.  The Geneva Protocol of 1925 was signed by the League of Nations.  The document, The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, forbid the use of chemical and biological weapons.  However, the modus operandi does not prohibit the manufacture or threat of use of chemical weapons. Prior to Work War II, the United States and Japan were the only major powers who refused to sign the treaty (Burns, 1999).

During World War II, Adolph Hitler, a victim of chemical strikes himself, vowed to restrain from the use of chemical warfare in battle.   Hitler kept his word, and as a result, no chemical weapons were used in combat by either side.   After the defeat of the Germans, new chemical weapons developed by the Germans were discovered.  These new chemical weapons were known as nerve agents. Russia seized the caches chemical weapons and prompted other nations to embark on their own research of these advanced chemicals.  The chemical weapons race produced deadlier and more effective means to demoralize the enemy (Burns, 1999).

The war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 until 1989 was an opportunity for the world to see the modern effects of chemical warfare.  Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian troop concentrations and launched attacks on many economic centers.  Iran documented 40 chemical attacks against Iraq during the war that was responsible for approximately 10,000 casualties.  Iraq attempted to deny using chemicals, but the evidence was overwhelming. In March 1988, Iraq was again charged with a major use of chemical warfare while retaking Halabjah, a Kurdish town in northeastern Iraq, near the Iranian border.  To avoid defeat, Iraq sought out every possible weapon. This included developing a self-sufficient ability to manufacture militarily significant amounts of chemical warfare agents. In their defensive stand, integrating chemical weapons offered a solution to the Iraqi forces (Federation of American Scientists, 1999).  The actions by Saddam Hussein lead into question if Iraq would use similar tactics when faced with a losing situation against the United States and allies during the Gulf War in 1990-1991 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Chemical Warfare Agents


Chemical warfare agents possessing military relevance are classified as nerve, blister, blood, or choking agents.  Chemical agents can be in the form of a solids, liquids, or gases. Chemical agents are further organized according to physical state, physiological action, and use.   Vapor and aerosol agents dissipate within hours rather than days, permitting the enemy to swiftly use captured areas and equipment.  Solid and liquid agents may persist for hours, days, or months depending on the agent, weather conditions, and other factors, making them well suited for slowing down an enemy’s operations (Department of the Air Force, 1999).

Blister Agents

Blister agents, or mustard agents as they are typically referred, are chemical weapons agents that obtain their name due to the wounds inflicted by the agents, which resemble blisters or burns. Blistering and burning are not the only damage that mustard agents inflict. Mustard agents also impose tissue damage to the eyes, respiratory system, and internal organs (Burns, 1999).

Blister agents are tactical attacks designed to coerce enemy forces into wear protective equipment causing them to degrade their combat efficiency. Blister agents can contaminate just about anything it contacts for long periods of time. Mustards are able to make a way into cell membranes in tissues and many other materials (Burns, 1999).  The groin and armpits, which tend to be sweaty, are more susceptible to blister agents.  Blister agents may smell like garlic or have a fishy or musty odor. Blister agents can be employed as vapors, liquids, or solids.

Symptoms may be instantaneous or take up to four hours to emerge. Upon contact, a victim may have a stinging sensation. Initial effects can be red, watering eyes, blurred vision, light sensitivity, and blindness.  Some agents will violently irritate mucous membranes of eyes and nose of its victim. Blister agents may be lethal if inhaled or ingested or if direct skin contact has occurred.  Incapacitation may last for days or weeks (Department of the Air Force, 1999).

Choking Agents

Choking agents are chemical agents which attack lung tissue, primarily causing pulmonary oedema. Fluid pours from the bronchi into the lungs causing suffocation from drowning in this frothy black liquid. Another effect of choking agents that it can cause a loss of fluid into the alveoli, which help from hypoxia, is cardiac failure for an individual (Burns, 1999).

Choking agents may smell like new mown hay or green corn. Choking agents are employed only in vapor form. Choking agents are inhalation hazards only and they do not absorb through skin.  The time taken to generate casualties can vary.  Persistency can range from minutes to hours, depending on winds at your location. Initial symptoms are coughing, choking and tightness of chest, nausea, headache, watering eyes, breathing discomforts, and fatigue (Department of the Air Force, 1998).

Blood Agents

Blood agents, including cyanogen agents, are agents that are absorbed into the body through the action of breathing. Once in the body and blood stream they cause lethal damage by acting on the enzyme called cytochrome-oxidase (Burns, 1999).  Blood agents are rapid acting.  The chemicals interfere with use of oxygen by body tissues. Additionally, blood agents damage the liver and kidneys.  These chemicals are delivered in vapor or aerosol form (Department of the Air Force, 1998).

The initial symptoms of a blood agent exposure will vary depending on numerous factors, including the total dose of the poison, the route of poisoning, and the exposure time. In the initial stages of blood agent exposure causes several things to occur. An individual is fidgety and has an increased respiratory rate.  As time progresses, vomiting, convulsions, respiratory failure, and comatose may occur. If the victim has been to exposed to high levels of contamination, the victim may simply collapse and die without showing any symptoms (Burns, 1999).

Nerve Agents

Nerve agents are highly toxic chemical agents that poison the nervous system and disrupt bodily functions that are vital to an individual’s survival. A distinctive characteristic of the nerve agents is their high toxicity levels and their rapid effect on an exposed individual (Burns, 1999). Nerve agents are without a doubt the most lethal of all chemical agents (Department of the Air Force, 1999).  Nerve agents can enter the body through inhalation, through the skin, or through digestion. The time that it takes for a nerve agent to be effective is contingent on which route that the agent penetrates the body. Usually poisoning occurs more rapidly if it enters through the lungs. Nerve agents that enter through the skin may take a little longer to take affect because they have to infiltrate to the blood vessels. When an individual is exposed to a nerve agent is that upon entering the body, the nerve agent inhibits the normal actions of acetylcholinesterase; a chemical within the body whose normal function it is to break down the chemical acetylcholine, which cause muscular contraction. This causes violent muscle spasms.  Nerve agents are lethal within minutes (Burns, 1999).

Nerve agents may have a fruity smell or camphor odor.  They can be delivered in vapor, solid, or liquid form.   Persistency can range from minutes to many days, depending on weather conditions and the agent. Immediate symptoms include pinpointing of pupils, muscular twitching, dimness of vision, runny nose, difficulty in breathing, drooling, nausea, vomiting, involuntary urination and defecation, convulsions, and comatose. Intermittent, cumulative exposures to very low amounts can lead to the same ultimate effect as a single exposure to a higher amount (Department of the Air Force, 1999).


As we continue to be aware of the threat of Chemical Warfare, the United States and their allies must take constant measures to protect themselves.  The United States military has developed extensive training programs to ensure that our soldiers will not have to suffer the ramifications of chemical attacks.  Equipment such as chemical protection suits has been produced to limit the effects of chemical weapons.   Until the world discontinues the production of these vile chemicals, the United States will need to keep our soldiers oversees and at home relentlessly conscious of the dangers of a chemical attack.


Burns, M.D. (1999). Chemical weapons history.  Retrieved January 11, 2004, from
Department of the Air Force. (1998). Air Force Handbook 32-4014.
Department of the Air Force. (1999). Air Force Manual 10-100.
Federation of American Scientists. (1999). Iran-Iraq war.  Retrieved January 15, 2004, from
International Safeguards and CWC Implementation Division. (2003). A short history of chemical weapons.  Retrieved January 10, 2004, from


©2018 Michael A. Hartmann

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Usage permitted with proper citing with author and source location.