Rowman and Littlefield International

Chemical Weapons and Social Control


Published on Tuesday 20 Nov 2018 by Alex Mankoo and Brian Rappert

When President Donald Trump spoke on the evening of 6 April 2017 regarding his decision to bomb a Syrian airfield, his brief statement raised many themes commonly associated with chemical weapons today. He began:

“My fellow Americans, on Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians using a deadly nerve agent. Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many — even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

With these words, definite markers were given for what happened and how it should be understood: a user was named (Bashar al-Assad), characterized (as a ‘dictator’) and deemed directly responsible (‘Assad choked out the lives’).  The weaponry involved was classified (a ‘deadly nerve agent’), its severe effects depicted (choking, ‘a slow and brutal death’), and the victimhood standing of the groups targeted forwarded (‘innocent civilians’, ‘beautiful babies’ and ‘helpless men, women, and children’). 

Just as the condemnation given typified the moral charge so often associated with chemical weapons, the intense international debate about the Trump Administration’s actions epitomized the various ways in which violence can be contested.  It was asked at the time: Were the images shared around the world of people dying genuine? Were the attacks carried out by the Syrian military under instruction from the President? Was it really the images of beautiful babies suffering that led Trump to strike or were ulterior geopolitical, domestic or personal motivations in play? Since many beautiful babies had died as part of the long-running Syrian conflict, why were these singled out as justifying a US military response? Would this attack serve to escalate violence or help turn warring factions toward some kind of resolution? If the Syrian men, women, and children were so blameless, why was the Trump Administration simultaneously seeking an outright ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States?

“Was it really the images of beautiful babies suffering that led Trump to strike or were ulterior geopolitical, domestic or personal motivations in play? Since many beautiful babies had died as part of the long-running Syrian conflict, why were these singled out as justifying a US military response? If the Syrian men, women, and children were so blameless, why was the Trump Administration simultaneously seeking an outright ban on Syrian refugees entering the United States?”

Chemical weapons breach bodies. They can permeate and convert our outer skin in ways held with revulsion; they can disrupt our internal physiological functions, they can make our immediate environment unliveable, rendering the very air we breathe toxic. For many, the horrific nature of these effects is reason enough for the international prohibitions of the use of chemical weapons in warfare. However, despite the prohibitions agreed from the start of the twentieth century, forms of chemical weaponry have since appeared in a plethora of contexts across the world, continuing to do so to this day. Military forces have put them to use on and off the battlefield, sometimes to international condemnation, at other times in circumstances of secrecy and ambiguity. Scientific professionals within national research and development programs have experimented with numerous chemical agents, in some cases upon the bodies of unknowing human subjects. Police forces across the world have adopted teargases and chemical sprays as means for riot control and apprehending suspects.

“Chemical weapons breach bodies. They can permeate and convert our outer skin in ways held with revulsion; they can disrupt our internal physiological functions, they can make our immediate environment unliveable, rendering the very air we breathe toxic.”

The uses of these chemical weapons have often constituted attempts at political, social, or scientific control. But it is not merely use that is a form of control; the different legal and conceptual ways of distinguishing, categorising, and regulating chemical weapons have involved attempts to control - defining who can use which chemicals in what context, who counts as a legitimate target, what counts as military and what counts as domestic, and what warrants attention, alarm, and condemnation.

In Chemical Bodies, we take these relations as our points of investigative focus. Across ten chapters contributed by authors from a range of disciplines, Chemical Bodies takes as its topic how chemical agents have been justified and resisted as instruments of coercion across time and space.  What chemical agents ‘are’ emerges with how they are situated in relation to individuals, environments, institutions, and expertise; these notions are produced in tandem with particular values and ideals that shape the role they then perform in those contexts. Thus, attempts to order and control chemicals are at once attempts to order and control bodies; knowledge about chemicals is contingent upon knowledge about bodies, and vice versa.

“What chemical agents ‘are’ emerges with how they are situated in relation to individuals, environments, institutions, and expertise; these notions are produced in tandem with particular values and ideals that shape the role they then perform in those contexts.”

In examining these issues, Chemical Bodies speaks to how the geopolitical is bound up with the use of chemicals to control the body – how it directs and has been directed by the distinctions that are used to assess and define chemical weapons, how it pervades the contexts, technologies and types of expertise in which they are situated, as well as how it has directed and is directed by attempts to experiment with bodies and boundaries. In seeking to understand how chemical agents are made to matter in space and time, we explore how certain instances of force gain prominence or fade into obscurity, how some individuals speak and others get spoken for, how definitions of what counts as ‘success’ and ‘failure’ are advanced, and how the normative rights and wrongs of violence are justified.

About the Authors

Alex Mankoo is a PhD candidate in the Science and Technology Studies Department at University College London and a Visiting Fellow in the Science, Technology and Society Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (Spring 2018). His research interests include the history of chemical and biological weapons, intersections between science and security, and the sociology of security technologies more generally. His PhD research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), focuses on the technological trajectory of teargas in mid-20th century Britain and the types of legitimacy it gained during this period.

Brian Rappert is a Professor of Science, Technology and Public Affairs at the University of Exeter. His long-term interest has been the examination of the strategic management of information; particularly in the relation to armed conflict. His books include Controlling the Weapons of War: Politics, Persuasion, and the Prohibition of Inhumanity; Biotechnology, Security and the Search for Limits; and Education and Ethics in the Life Science. More recently he has been interested in the social, ethical, and political issues associated with researching and writing about secrets, as in his books Experimental Secrets (2009), How to Look Good in a War (2012) and Dis-eases of Secrecy (2017). For more information see http://brianrappert.net/.