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Nerve gas -- one contamination too many?

With a minimum of debate and deliberation Congress passed a bill appropriating $22.5 million for building and equipping a nerve gas plant in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. One of the sponsors of the bill envisioned a scene in which the "masked and goggled troops of the Red Army and its satellite forece" swept through West German villages past the unmanned tanks of a gassed NATO army. That scenario -- plus the buzz phrase "We're falling behind," and a sense of "What's-a-few- token-millions-on-the-Pentagon-scale?" -- seemed sufficient to shaek out the vote, despite the opposition of Secretary of State Edmund Muskie and the opinion of Defense Secretary Harold Brown that the intiative was "primature."

As armament goes, the initial approach is low-key to the point of soothing -- nothing more horrific than a nerve agent called VX, which, it is promised, will contaminate an area for no more than a week. But after 11 years of US disavowal of chemical warfare a door has been opened. And nobody believes this first modest appropriation is more than just that -- a door-opener -- leading, according to one guess, to a $4 billion program.

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There is a special military temptation to gas. As a British microbiologist has put it, "The incredible toxicity of the nerve agents makes it feasible to attack populations." It has been estimated that about 250 tons of a sophisticated nerve gas could kill as many victims as a five-megaton nuclear bomb -- and the buildings would be left standing, even more surely than with a neutron bomb.

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the subject of military preparedness has been generally treated as one calling for urgent action rather than debate. But can we afford no tto talk about chemical warfare and its concomitant tactic, biological warfare, before we unleash these particular dogs of war to join the pack?

There are,first of all, questions of strictly military strategy. those "incapacitating compounds," as they have been euphemistically called, are unpredictable in their long-term effects and the most difficult of weapons to keep on target. Furthermore, if nerve-gas weapons are made "acceptable," they will be far simpler for a small country to build than nuclear weapons. They will abound.

But the profoundest questions -- and therefore, the ones we have least time for right now -- are moral questions, concerning ancient distinctions of war that separate the comabatants from the civilians.

In 1969 a United Nations report on chemical warfare concluded: "We these weapons ever to be used on a large scale in war, no one could predict how enduring the effects would be and how they would affect the structure of society and the environment in which we live."

In addition to the scenario of gassed NATO troops one should imagine perhaps an instant Love Canal.

Calculated pollution has a particularly evil ring these days; and there is something peculiarly repellent about the possibility of men, women, and children being killed in the same way murders are still executed in certain states.

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In our collective memory, gas is the cheap, efficient way masses were exterminated in concentration camps by executioners who regarded those masses as less than human.

Doubtless there are arguments for nerve gas -- as an economic and even "merciful" weapon. A nuclear alteranative. But the arguments should be made now. They will never be heard later. There will only be the spreading cloud.

the history of gas warfare suggests that chemicals are the problem-solvers one resorts to in moments of frustration. On April 12, 1915, during that quaint standoff of World War I known as trench warfare, German generals became frustrated enough to release chlorine gas along a four-mile front at Ypres. The British and the French -- firing 4 million shells of prussic acid -- were not slow to retaliate. Before the war ended, this primitive form of chemical warfare had claimed an estimated 1,300,000 casualties and 100,000 dead.

Just 13 years before Ypres the Hague Peace Conference could not manage to ban even the dum-dum bullet. A British general, a veteran of India and Africa, explained: "In civilized war a soldier penetrated by a small projectile is wounded, withdraws to the ambulance, and does not advance any further. It is very different with a savage. Even though pierced two or three times, he does not cease to march forward." For the civilized warriors of the conference this was a sufficient argument to justify dum-dum warfare. but they did vote a ban on asphyxiating gas.

As a token of civilization in 1980, cannot the warriors of all sides agree to manage without just this one weapon too? for at least another 13 years. It is not as if the world will go under-armed in the meantime.

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