There was a time the US could claim to have at its disposal 30,000 tons of liquefied death, disfiguration, and agony, held at the ready in explosive metal canisters in storage facilities around the world.
Today that figure is officially zero. On July 7, 2023, one last M55 rocket containing the nerve agent Sarin was punctured, drained, and incinerated, bringing an official end to humanity’s use of chemical weapons.
“This is the first time an international body has verified destruction of an entire category of declared weapons of mass destruction – reinforcing the United States’ commitment to creating a world free of chemical weapons,” Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William A. LaPlante stated in a media release.
It’s been more than thirty years since US president George Bush and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev bilaterally agreed to ending the production of all chemical weapons and destroying their respective stockpiles.
Perversely, it’s been nearly a century since the establishment of the Geneva Protocol, a treaty banning the use of chemical and biological weapons in conflict.
The horrors of the First World War drove home the pure inhumanity of using agents that prioritize enemy suffering.
Chlorine gas was among the first to be deployed at scale, irritating the eyes and throat of any unfortunate enough to find themselves unprotected in its pale green fog.
Mustard gas caused blisters to appear wherever it collected on exposed skin. Phosgene quietly destroyed the lungs, leading to an agonizing death days later.
Though reluctant to make use of them, the US and other world powers continued to invest in the development and production of ever more poisonous weapons.
In the 1950s, nerve agents like VX and Sarin were produced and incorporated into explosive dispersal systems. Lethal in the smallest concentrations, the compounds block critical nervous pathways causing muscle paralysis that leads to asphyxiation.
Though the US has never claimed to have used agents covered under the Chemical Weapons Convention in a deliberate act of causing human harm, the option remained over the decades, should they themselves ever be targeted.
The practicalities of dismantling an aging stockpile of chemical weapons are almost as challenging as the politics of negotiating an international convention.
Intended to explode and wreak havoc on our tissues, few thought it wise to load them onto boats, send them out to sea, and then “cut holes and sink ’em”.
Even with the destruction process at an end, the clean-up at facilities will continue on for years.
“This includes disposal of secondary wastes, decontamination and decommissioning of facilities and equipment, disposition of property, demolition of some facilities, and close-out of contracts and environmental permits,” says US Department of Defense, Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives Program Executive Officer, Michael S. Abaie.
“During closure, the safety of the workforce, the public and the environment will remain the program’s top priority.”
With processing facilities in place, the US finally fell into line with the rest of the world, using robots to handle what humans shouldn’t, bacteria to break down what chemistry couldn’t, and furnaces to quickly reduce contaminated metal to slag and ash.
The UK announced the destruction of the last of its declared agents in 2007. For India, the day came two years later in 2009. In 2017, Russia officially destroyed the last of a 40,000 ton stockpile that rivaled America’s. Whether any official decree is a true reflection of reality is a whole other question.
There’s little doubt that the nature of war is changing, potentially making chemical weapons less effective. If they ever were in the first place.
Whether for moral or strategic intentions, there are now far fewer weapons on Earth tasked with delivering a torturous death. It’s a moment worth celebrating.
Source: Science Alert