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Beyond narcissism and evil: The decision to use chemical weapons

By Jacob Darwin Hamblin


With all eyes on chemical and nuclear weapons in the Middle East, it might seem natural to speculate about the ethical and moral positions of world leaders, or even to apply psychological analyses to them. We ask ourselves whether the Iranian leaders are psychotic enough to attack Israel with nuclear weapons, or we wonder which of the Syrian leaders would be monstrous enough to use chemical weapons. After all, Saddam Hussein allegedly was a malignant narcissist, incapable of empathy, and proved it by using chemical weapons “against his own people,” a phrase that returned to public discourse when Secretary of State John Kerry used it to describe Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s similar actions in Syria. These inquiries often end up with some permutation of the question, “who would do such a thing?”

We are so tied up in the rhetoric of evil and narcissism that we cannot see straight. The Soviet Union was Ronald Reagan’s so-called evil empire, and Iraq, Iran, and North Korea were parts of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin — actions by all of these people are explained away by saying their mental health was in question. You can Google “malignant narcissism” with either “George W. Bush” or “Barack Obama” and get plenty of hits too. It will come as no surprise that Iranian and Syrian leaders are currently being perceived as malignant narcissists.

Using such language may be politically useful, but scholars, policymakers, and thinking people everywhere need to avoid drinking the Kool-Aid. We will never solve the problems associated with war atrocities by managing the psychological profiles of world leaders. We can only do so by assessing the causes of conflict and trying to address them.

When trying to imagine why world leaders might use something as terrible as chemical weapons, we should leave morality out of it and start with two simple questions. First, do they think it would serve their interests? And second, equally important, do they think they can get away with it? You can add psychology and notions of good and evil on top of that if you must, but only after the basic questions have been answered.

An English gas bomb from World War I, 1915.  Private collection of Christoph Herrmann via Wikimedia Commons.
An English gas bomb from World War I, 1915. Private collection of Christoph Herrmann. Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

In case anyone is tempted to say that democracy has something to do with it, let me point out that the United States pioneered—as in, led the way—in research and manufacture of biological weapons in the early Cold War era. Why? Because American military leaders believed that they were going to fight another world war with the Soviet Union sometime in the near future. Neither the US Department of Defense nor the US Joint Chiefs of Staff perceived such weapons as morally outrageous. After all, they had just finished a war with Japan and Germany in which they used statisticians to help strategic bombers maximize human death in cities. Their bombs created firestorms, a term used to describe the rush of air from the uptake of oxygen in flames, creating storm-force winds amidst the inferno. Then they dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American leaders had already crossed the line toward targeting civilians and committing horrifying deeds in wartime, and they knew it.

The United States developed not only biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, but they worked on radiological ones (dirty bombs), weather control, crop destruction, and even considered using hydrogen bombs to create tsunamis and raise sea levels. Military leaders figured that the Soviets were doing the same. These ideas seem insane, perhaps even evil, to us now. Ironically, much of this work has informed our own sense of vulnerability to environmental threats, because war planners had to imagine how successful an enemy might be if they used such weapons.

In the case of the United States, the government was armed to the teeth in the most extraordinary weapons during the Cold War and did not use them. Correspondence between the Army, Navy, and Air Force in the early 1950s (during the Korean War) attests that the political cost of using them would simply be too high. Actually the North Koreans and Chinese claimed that the Americans had waged secret biological warfare, but the United States managed that crisis and persuaded most of the world that they hadn’t. The international uproar taught the US government that, had it been true, the political cost would have been exceptionally high. In those days, some politicians said that using atomic bombs in Korea would be just fine. And yet the United States didn’t do it. Not because of goodness or moral righteousness, or psychological soundness, but because the United States could not get away with it.

Since the heyday of biological and chemical weapons research, circa 1940s-1960s, the political winds have shifted so dramatically, and the moral weight of opinion in the United States and the West generally has changed so fully, that we associate these weapons with evil. And maybe they are. But more importantly, politicians and military officers in the United States know that there are almost no situations in which they could get away with using them. In the late 1960s, President Nixon renounced biological weapons, and in the 1970s, the United States even ratified the Geneva Protocol, half a century after signing it in the first place. They didn’t give up on nukes, though, because the political context for retaining such (immoral? psychotic? evil?) weapons was alive and well in the 1970s. Only now, with the Cold War over, is there meaningful discussion about reducing nuclear weapons.

Any person, and any government, is capable of using these horrific weapons. They will not use them if there is a range of better, viable alternatives, and if the court of public opinion matters to them. When we call a government evil or call a leader a psychopath we are not only taking the lazy way out, we are endangering human lives, committing ourselves to a position that ties our hands and theirs at the same time, leaving no room for maneuver or compromise. It encourages the most desperate kinds of actions by leaders who see few paths available to them. We should never put someone who possesses biological and chemical weapons, or a potential for nuclear weapons, into a situation in which he has nothing to lose.

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is an associate professor of history at Oregon State University and is the author of Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. You can follow him on Twitter @jdhamblin.

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Recent Comments

  1. Richard Cheeseman

    This kind of analysis applied to the US claims of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government shows them to be highly unlikely, even implausible.

    There is no way that the minuscule military benefits the Syrian government would derive from using sarin gas (even the US claims only a few dozen people were gassed) could ever outweigh the enormous moral losses the Syrian government would sustain from such use, particularly given the context that any chemical weapons use had already been promoted as a “red line” — i.e. a trigger for armed intervention — by the US.

    That means there is no way that using chemical weapons in the civil conflict could have served Syrian government interests. Therefore the Syrian government wouldn’t have wanted to use the weapons and therefore did not do so.

    What is really happening here is the use of “weapons of mass deception” by the US empire, i.e. the manufacture by US secret services of a false story to justify a planned war and the subsequent dissemination of that warmongering fakery through tame media.

    The rogue US empire has used similar weapons of mass deception before to promote its criminal wars of aggression. The US aggression against Iraq, justified with a similar faked WMD scare story, is a recent case in point.

  2. [...] resort to obscure psychological diagnoses or demonization when more sensible causes are at hand?  Read the full blog post here.  Comments welcome, here or there.  And as a nod to my colleagues who have taken this as a call to [...]

  3. Linda Richards

    This is, in fact the crux of the matter.

    Simply saying certain actions or people are “evil” is another way of saying “we don’t have understand it, and can’t explain it”… but maybe we do, just a bit, when we know the history of our own US military and US scientists that led the way in the development of the most heinous weapons. Was the purpose, in so many words, to “defend our way of life?” What way of life are we really living? What does this mean about our national priorities? How and why did our “way of life” become built on making and selling weapons and the conception of total war? Security is in fact, the number one American export.

    I wish I had more answers but I am clear that it is important to delve into the questions raised by Prof Hamblin’s book.

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