Monday, June 18, 2007

Jonathan Tucker's "War of Nerves"

Jonathan B. Tucker is the author of War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to the book and reported the following:
War of Nerves is a detailed history of the nerve agents, the most deadly class of chemical weapons. In 1936, an industrial chemist named Gerhard Schrader, who was developing pesticides at the IG Farben company in Germany, accidentally synthesized the first nerve agent. Even in tiny doses, the new compound produced a cluster of disturbing symptoms in Schrader and his assistant, including a marked dimming and blurring of vision, headache, runny nose, and shortness of breath. When the compound was tested in animals at higher doses, it caused convulsions and rapid death by respiratory paralysis. The reason for this extraordinary toxicity later turned out to be the ability of the new chemical to inhibit a key enzyme involved in nerve transmission, thereby disrupting the functioning of the central and peripheral nervous systems. Although Schrader’s compound was clearly too dangerous to use as a pesticide, the German Army decided to turn it into a chemical weapon. Because its toxicity was almost too strong to be acceptable, Army officials dubbed it “Tabun,” after the German word for “taboo” (Tabu).

War of Nerves describes the mass-production of Tabun by the Nazi regime during World War II, the development by Germany of two even more lethal nerve agents (Sarin and Soman), the inconclusive debates within the Nazi inner circle over whether or not to initiate chemical warfare, the post-war competition among the victorious Allies for the secrets of the German nerve agents, the chemical arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the proliferation of nerve agents to the Third World and their extensive use in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, the secret development by the Soviet Union of a new class of nerve agents called the novichoks (the Russian word for “newcomer”), and finally the emerging threat of chemical terrorism, as indicated by the 1995 Sarin attack on the Tokyo subway and the efforts by Al-Qaeda to acquire chemical weapons.

The book also chronicles the twenty-year process of negotiating an international treaty to ban chemical weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in April 1997 and now has 182 member-states. Because not all state possessors of chemical weapons have joined the CWC, however, the goal of eliminating this entire class of weaponry has yet to be achieved. As a reviewer in the New York Times Book Review incisively observed, War of Nerves is “a history of the race between the advance of this taboo technology and the political efforts to abolish it.”

Page 99 of the book discusses the IG Farben Trial at Nuremberg in 1947-48 and the particular case of Otto Ambros, the company official responsible for the production of Tabun and Sarin during World War II. Ambros was arrested by the U.S. occupation forces in Germany and indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the used of forced labor at a synthetic rubber plant at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The wily Ambros tried to argue in his defense that during a meeting in 1943 at Hitler’s eastern military headquarters, known as “Wolf’s Lair,” he had persuaded the F├╝hrer not to use his stockpile of chemical weapons, and that he should therefore be aquitted of war crimes. An excerpt from page 99 follows:

On May 1, 1947, in a sworn deposition in this own defense, Ambros argued that his briefing at Wolf’s Lair on May 15, 1943, had aroused doubt in Hitler’s mind about whether the Allies had independently discovered nerve agents. “I believe,” Ambros said, “through my objective description of the production situation and above all through my objective reference to the possibilities of the enemy side, I significantly contributed to the fact that Germany did not make any use of chemical weapons.” This self-serving interpretation conveniently sidestepped the fact that Ambros’s negative depiction of Germany’s chemical warfare capabilities had been intended to persuade Hitler to expand the production capacity for Tabun and Sarin and thereby ensure a qualitative advantage over the Allies. Indeed, after the meeting at Wolf’s Lair, Hitler had increased funding for nerve agent production. As historian Peter Hayes later wrote about Ambros and his fellow executives, “Lacking the courage of moral conviction almost as a condition for their professional success, they shut off their consciences, which was tantamount, in this instance, to having no consciences at all.”

The judges at Nuremberg found Ambros guilty of using forced labor at the Auschwitz plant and sentenced him to eight years in prison, minus time already served. But all the other charges against him were dropped, including the planning, preparation, and execution of offensive war, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Ambros did not even serve his full sentence but was released early for cooperating with U.S. intelligence. He then began a successful career as a consultant to the German and American chemical industries. Ultimately, the interest of the Allied powers in learning the secrets of the German nerve agents led them to recruit many former Nazi scientists for their respective chemical weapons programs.
Read Jonathan Tucker's professional biography at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies; learn more about War of Nerves -- and read an excerpt -- at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue