An Air That Kills: A Familiar History of Poison Gas
A paper given at the Death By Technology conference, Birkbeck College, 30 May 2003
War provides a grisly, parodic counterpoint to the growth of civilisation and the growth of technology. Wars both punctuate technological time, and accelerate it. Many advances in technology are produced under the threat of war, or as a result of the increased impetus permitted by high rates of investment and coordination of production in times of war.
The idea of using poisonous or noisome gases, vapours and smokes to defeat or incapacitate one’s enemy is recorded from classical times. For centuries, the favoured substances were pitch and sulphur, or brimstone. Thucydides recorded that the Spartans used arsenic smoke during the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC. Leonardo made plans for smoke weapons formed of sulphur and arsenic dust. The first stink bombs or stench bombs were indeed weapons employed for military purposes. One Fioravanti of Bonomia made stench bombs from an oil brewed from a mixture of turpentine, sulphur, asafoetida, human faeces and blood. (Wachtel 21).
This lineage seems appropriate, for there is something archaic in the very nature of poison gas. Bad or lethal air has usually been thought of as emanating from nature, rather than as the result of human device. The word ‘influenza’ preserves the belief in the malign influence of the stars, transmitted in the form of mephitic fluid or vapour. The fascinators or bewitchers of the medieval and early modern imagination were believed to have the power to blast and wither crops and cattle with their breath, often working in conjunction with the power of the evil eye. The basilisk, which could both immobilise its victims with its eye and destroy them with its mephitic breath, is the mythical embodiment of this belief. Hell, or the underworld is regarded in many cultural traditions as a stinking or smoky place.
If there is something archaic about poison gas, it is also true that it is a preeminently modern weapon, because of its association with technological development and industrial production. Siegfried Sassoon was one of those who experienced the First World War as the passing away of a Romantic ideal of bravery amid the processes of mechanised death, writing of how, by the winter of 1916-1917, ‘the war had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman’ (Sassoon 1930, 147). He may have had in mind the massification of men and the use of aircraft and tanks, though perhaps gas played a considerable part in this mechanisation too. Cultures who have developed techniques for smelting and other industrial processes requiring combustion are all familiar with the noxious or toxic byproducts of these processes. Mining and cave exploration brought acquaintance with the two ways in which air can be lethal, explosion and asphyxiation. The lesson of the First World War was that only countries with advanced chemical industries are able to deploy gas in a systematic way in combat. There is a particularly long and close association between the dyeing industry and the production of gas. Partly because of the use they made, well into the seventeenth century, of human products, like earwax and urine, dyeworks were renowned as extremely smelly places and during the medieval period were often, like tanneries, banished to the outskirts of towns. The principal use for chlorine, the gas that was first used during the First World War, was as a bleaching agent. Ironically, bleaching powder would turn out to be the most effective neutraliser of mustard gas. In 1934, F.N. Pickett, who had been involved in clearing the large dumps of German chemical weapons left over after the First`World War, and who thought that gas was certain to be employed in any future war, warned that ‘Our dye industries, and therefore our poison gas manufacturing facilities, are not among the great industries of the world’ (18). German poison gas production during the First World War was driven by a conglomerate of 8 chemical combines in Ruhr, known as Interessen Gemeinschaft, or IG, who had a world monopoly on production of dyes (Harris and Paxman 8). IG Farben would be associated with Zyklon B, the most notorious of the gases employed during the Second World War.
Because of its notorious fickleness and the difficulty of deploying it reliably in battlefield situations, or even, as the disastrous outcome of the Moscow theatre siege in October 2002 demonstrated, in enclosed circumstances, the use of gas requires great technical skill and precision. Until recently, the production of chemical weapons such as gas required considerable industrial effort and coordination, with advanced techniques of mass production, storage and distribution, reinforced by well-established scientific infrastructure. It is for this reason that, despite its archaic nature, and its recent associations with small groups or countries attempting to equalise a military disadvantage, gas has tended to be used by countries enjoying industrial superiority over their adversaries.
Although the outcomes of war are determined by such cultural-technological differences, war is also by its nature traditionally supposed to create a kind of mirroring or mutual acknowledgement in the adversary relationship. Gas has a unique reputation for being perfidious, for setting aside the relations of mutual respect and recognition which are supposed to hold even in the most savage and unbridled conflict. An Austrian chemist Veit Wulff von Senfftenberg wrote in 1573 about an early example of the stink bomb: ‘It is a terrible thing. Christians should not use it against Christians, but it may be used against the Turks and other unbelievers to harm them’ (quoted, Poison Gas 8). When a French General Peleesieu used a cloud of smoke generated by green wood to suffocate a tribe of Kabyis in 1845 in Ouled Ria, he was recalled for what was regarded as an offence against codes of military honour. Lord Dundonald recommended the use of gas against the French in 1811 and again during the Siege of Sebastopol in 1845. A committee of enquiry rejected the idea as dishonourable. Gas appears to have been used against Afghan rebels in the 1920s and certainly was used by Mussolini during his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The use of gas shells was condemned by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. It appears that the French had employed gas grenades during 1915, though to little effect. This example of first use may have emboldened the Germans to the politically risky act of retaliation in kind, though their first two experiments in firing gas-filled shells, against the British and Russians, had such insignificant results that neither adversary even realised that gas had been used against them. But then, on 22 April 1915, German troops massed around Langemark in Belgium opened cylinders of chlorine gas which had been carefully placed in their trenches. Wind and weather were kind, and the gas formed a thick greenish cloud which drifted slowly towards the Allied lines. The result was catastrophic for the British and Canadian troops, around 5000 of whom were killed and many more incapacitated by the choking gas within minutes. Doctors had no idea how to treat casualties: one death was diagnosed as due to ‘air hunger’ (Harris and Paxman 3). Chlorine attacks the inner lining of the lungs, causing the victims of most serious poisoning eventually to drown in their own exuded fluids. It is the effects of chlorine which leads Wilfred Owen to the apprehension of ‘the old lie’ in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est':
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – an ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer (Owen, 79)
Even though the Germans vehemently denied the first use of gas in the First World War, and insisted that their actions had not been in breach of the Hague Convention of 1907, which only prohibited the use of gas-filled projectiles, which they had not on this occasion used, their attack was condemned as an unfair and treacherous assault upon an unprepared opponent, though it is hard to see why this really differs from the introduction of new forms of artillery or high explosive, or new methods of delivering weapons, such as balloons or aircraft.
To begin with, the Allied troops seemed utterly defenceless against this new weapon. With no other form of protection available, soldiers were advised to breathe through socks soaked in their urine, or even to bury their mouths and noses in earth and use that as a protective filter. However, within weeks, the British and French had begun to develop protection against gas. If the dominant German chemical industry gave them a conspicuous lead in the production of gas, the long experience of mining in industrial Britain gave them invaluable experience in protecting against dangerous gases. (It is the conjunction of explosion and asphyxiation, the two effects of poison gas which enables Owen to make a striking connection between mining and soldiering in the poem ‘Miners’, in which the sinister hiss of the coals on his fire make him think that
the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writing for air (Owen, 87)
Within months, the British and French not only had respirators to protect against gas, but had stocks of gas of their own ready to employ. Thereafter, gas was used extensively on both sides. Defence and attack leapfrogged over each other (Haber 275). The first respirators, simple breathing pads secured by tape, were rendered useless by the German introduction, at Ypres on 19 Dec 1915, of the much more deadly gas phosgene. This gas, which had been discovered by Humphrey Davy in 1812, was a mixture of chlorine and carbon monoxide, which was even more noxious than chlorine and dispersed less easily. This led in turn to improved respirators, in the form of gas helmets and hoods. The balance shifted again with the German introduction of mustard gas in mid 1917. Mustard gas, or dichlorodiethyl sulphide is, like many of the chemical compounds of this period, somewhat misnamed, for it is a liquid at normal temperatures and is dispersed in the form of an aerosol. It is a vesicant or blistering gas, which acts not just on the lungs, but on any exposed areas of skin, causing intense blistering, especially around the eyes. Sargent’s painting Gassed, showing blinded men being led in a line away from the battlefield shows victims of mustard gas. The deployment of mustard gas led to improved vigilance and what was called ‘gas discipline’. By the end of the war, the shortage of supplies and the development of new arsenical compounds, such as the American gas Lewisite, in which arsenic was mixed with mustard gas in order to poison the wounds caused by the blistering, had shifted the advantage to the Allies, who were seriously planning the first gas attacks by aircraft on civilians in cities.
The experience of the First World War, and the expectation of gas attack from the air in the early years of the Second World War meant that Britain gave serious thought to its first use. Sir John Dill, Chief of Imperial General Staff, proposed using mustard gas on an invading German army, 15 June 1940. His idea was vetoed, on the grounds that it would provoke retaliation and mean a loss of moral authority, especially among Americans. (Harris and Paxman 100-101). A member of Dill’s own staff, one Major General Henderson, wrote that ‘[s]uch a departure from our principles and traditions would have the most deplorable effects not only on our own people but even on the fighting services. Some of us would begin to wonder whether it really mattered which side won’ (quoted, Harris and Paxman 111). As hostilities intensified, Churchill, who had been involved in planning gas attacks in the First World War, seemed to abandon whatever restraint he had about first use, writing in a minute to his Chiefs of Staff of 6 July 1944:
It may be several weeks or even months before I shall ask you to drench Germany with poison gas, and if we do it let us do it one hundred per cent. In the meanwhile, I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set of psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there. (Quoted, Harris and Paxman 108).
So poison gas is at once modern and archaic, at once an instrument of war, and a betrayal of it. What we call modern warfare is an example of that intensified swirling together of the new and the old which is actually the leading characteristic of what we have perhaps for too long been too content to call modernity. It may be that the particular kind of apostasy represented by poison gas has to do with the way it embodies the fundamental ambivalence in our relations to air, which all of us, at every moment, are at once breathing in and expelling. Air is both life-giving and noxious. The goodness and the badness of air are intimate opposites, which meet and invert in the intoxications of tobacco, opium and other inhaled drugs. It had become apparent from the early seventeenth century that the dangerous gas produced by the burning of coal and charcoal, and the fermentation of wine, known as carbonic acid gas, or fixed air – a substance that, as we will see, in fact led to the invention of the word gas – was produced within the body, as what one late eighteenth-century medical writer called the ‘fecal matter of the vascular system’ (Bache 45). The same writer reported that the dangers of fixed air could be demonstrated by the fact that ‘[I]f in the morning a lighted candle is placed under the cloaths of a bed in which a person has lain all night, so great is the accumulation of this gas, that the flame is immediately extinguished’ (Bache 46). During the 1930s, an anti-war organisation called World Peaceways placed an advertisement in various magazines, showing a fiendish looking boffin, at work upon an annihilating supergas. The caption threatened that, in the next war, ‘Planes will zoom over cities and towns, children will fall down strangling from one breath of air that a second ago had seemed pure and sweet’ (quoted, Kendall 74). Poison gas is air betrayed, not the enemy of life, but life turning on itself.
I have called this talk a ‘familiar history’ as a reminder of the fact that the technologies of war enter into the fantasies and lived realities of populations, especially perhaps in modern warfare, in which communications and military technology are so closely combined. Poison gas, or the idea of it, is both unthinkable and insidiously familiar. In the interwar years in particular, the idea of gas took on a kind of political and phantasmal reality which has not yet diffused, and serves as a point of reference for more contemporary concerns and debates. One might equally think of the history of gas as an ‘imaginary history’, since it is the history of the idea or dream of gas as much as its reality. Just as the old and the new are not easily to be distinguished, so too the idea and the reality of gas form together an unstable yet indissoluble compound. The accounts of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds and the fear of gas attack and attack by chemical weapons during the first and second Gulf Wars have reactivated many of these fears.
L.F. Haber’s detailed and almost pathologically sober account of the use of gas in the First World War includes a few discussions of the representation of gas by artists and writers. He is bewildered by the fact that so many should have come to see gas as the ultimate weapon and the ultimate atrocity during and especially after the war, since his view is that gas was a peripheral and, in the end, rather a feeble weapon, the effects of which were hugely enlarged by rumour, fantasy and imagination. And yet the psychological component of gas was widely recognised and formed part of the reality of its effect. Gas is a mass weapon in two senses. First of all, it seems to be aimed at mass destruction; but it is also a weapon that is implicated in the epidemic processes of mass media and communications. It is not just the fact, but also the idea of gas, which tends towards a condition of saturation.
One of the virtues of the arsenic-based compounds which began to be introduced in the later years of the First World War was that they included distinct psychotropic effects, inducing depression and panic in addition to the demoralising fear naturally provoked by the idea of gas. F.N. Pickett wrote that
The writer has probably been through more gas clouds than any other individual living, and is not ashamed to confess that he has and always has had a dread of poison gas, even though he might know that the gas was not in a dangerous concentration.
This dread is entirely psychological, and a recognition of this dread which almost amounts to hysteria is the first step in defeating gas. (Pickett 12).
This advice comes from a book that is meant to be reassuring, but seems unlikely to have been. Gas seems to have gathered a reputation for having the power not just to injure the body, but to destroy the moral fabric of the person: indeed, its reputation is part of this power. One anti-war pamphlet from the 1930s claimed that ‘The mental distress caused by [gas] poisoning is often sufficiently serious to drive the sufferer actually temporarily insane’ (Poison Gas 22). It goes on to evoke
those tragic human wrecks whose nervous systems have been completely disorganised – and who fill the nervous hospitals. These shadows of what they were are startled, frightened creatures – sleepless and apprehensive – unable to concentrate – often completely losing their memory for a while – at times suicidal, at times unable to walk or move or in any way help themselves’ (Poison Gas 28)
During the 1960s, the psychotropic possibilities of gas were investigated from the other end, with military experiments on hallucinogens like LSD. A report of 16 August 1963 in the Wall Street Journalquoted one US government scientist as saying ‘Ideally we’d like something we could spray out of a small atomizer that would cause the enemy to come to our lines with his hands behind his back, whistling the Star-Spangled Banner. I don’t think we’ll achieve that effect. But we may come close’ (quoted Harris and Paxman 189)
Bruno Latour has suggested that the great founding error in the formation of what he calls the ‘Modern Constitution’, is the idea that modernity creates an absolute gap between natural existence and human artifice. In fact, modernity, with its host of techniques of technical transformation, does not make the natural world over into the cultural, but rather gives rise to an ever-expanding middle ground of what Latour, borrowing the term from Michel Serres, calls ‘quasi-objects’. The principal example which Latour offers for this is in fact gaseous, for it is the vacuum procured by means of Boyle’s air-pump. A vacuum is a natural fact, and yet also entirely an artefact of the laboratory. A gas is similarly ambivalent. Many of the gases produced during the First World War and beyond are in fact to some degree naturally occurring and all of them are natural, even as they are clearly human fabrications. As a kind of ‘second nature’, as artefacts that are nevertheless never entirely controllable, they are quasi-objects par excellence.
What is gas? The word was coined by Joannes Baptista Van Helmont (1579-1644). The word did not catch on until the nineteenth century – Boyle and his followers, for example, preferring the traditional word ‘air’. Part of the threat and the beauty of the ‘wild spirit’ that Van Helmont saw being ‘belched’ out of coal when it was burned (Helmont 106) lay in its ambivalence, as a nothing that was a something. It was a substance that existed within all other substances, but in an infinitely rarefied form, the word gas being formed from the Greek chaos, meaning void. And gas is never pure, never just one thing. Indeed, few of the weapons described as gases in the history of this particular form of warfare in fact exist as gases at normal temperatures: chlorine and phosgene are the exceptions. Other so-called gases are dispersed in the form of smokes, liquids, powders and aerosols. It is for this reason that the area of technical speciality devoted to this form of warfare quickly became known, as it is still known today, as ‘chemical warfare’. And yet, terms like ‘gas’ and ‘gassing’ survive, for example in accounts of Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurds. What all these forms of offensive military operation have in common is the fact that they are airborne, carried in, or transmitted in the air.
As such, they belong to a no-man’s land. Gas is not so much a weapon, as a form of communication. Weapons are designed to establish in the most unambivalent of terms the difference between subjects and objects. A subject who employs a weapon against another subject makes that subject simply and utterly the object of his attack. The spear is the stereotypical form of the weapon in this. At one end, there is a handle or grip; at the other, the business end, is the sharpened tip. Ships, shells and bombs continue to approximate to this shape. At one end, in other words, there is the sphere of the subject, at the other, the place of the object, the object you become by being in this place. In fact, this is not quite right, since the concentration of the point at the sharp end is meant to indicate not the location of the aggressor, but his potential omnipresence, along with the reduction to space, to the X which marks the spot, of the enemy. You defend yourself under such conditions, either by repelling the spear, or by avoiding it, which is to say, by giving yourself the invulnerability of your adversary. Much of the mythology of gas derives from the improbable piece of meteorological good fortune that allowed the cloud of chlorine released by the Germans on April 22 1915 to proceed gently downhill and in an easterly direction towards the British troops. Thereafter, the efforts of First World War combatants were directed towards making gas behave as a projectile, not with much success.
A fist, spear, shell or missile cleave through the air, overcoming its resistance, just as gravity is temporarily set aside. The parabola is the perfect form of the compromise between nature and culture. Freud would famously derive the principle of transcendence from the male capacity to generate transcending arcs of urine, as compared with the inchoate immanence of the female, forced by the absence of a focussing or sighting organ, to gush where she squatted. He might have appreciated the ballistic finesse of the joke about the drunk who is preparing to relieve himself by a wall when he is restrained by a policeman who tells him ‘You can’t do that here’. ‘I’m not going to do it here’, replies the drunk. ‘I’m going to do it Right, Over, THERE!’
Gas, by contrast, does not have a sharp end, cutting edge or, as we say, ‘front line’. Gas does not penetrate, but rather diffuses or infiltrates. The nature of all gases is to expand, uniformly, in all directions. The big problem for engineers of gas attacks was how to balance the need for the gas to diffuse over a wide area, like a slow bomb, while also keeping it sufficiently concentrated for its toxicity not to decline. How does one do battle – in either sense, as attacker or defender – with a cloud rather than a spear? Peter Bamm, a German doctor who published novels and reminiscences under the pseudonym of Kurt Emmerich, wrote that it was impossible to be brave against gas (Bamm 320, quoted Haber, 237). With gas warfare, the trigonometry which had governed military theory in an unbroken continuity since the days of Roman siege-catapults, gave way to a fiendishly complex multi-parameter calculus, in which the simple variants of propulsive force, air resistance, gravity and distance were complicated by the addition of wind-direction and speed, air-pressure, humidity and temperature, all of which affected the rate of expansion of gases. Neither the meteorology nor the mathematics of the combatants was adequate to the task.
It became apparent both to the Germans and the Allies that if the use of gas-clouds were to continue, the advantage would be sure in the end to lie with the Allies, for the ludicrously simple reason that the prevailing winds in Northern France do not blow from east to west, but from west to east. This is not to mention the dangers of blowback, which meant that no army could be sure that a sudden change in the direction of the wind would not turn their weapon back on them. Even if the wind behaved properly, there was the problem for the forces following up the gas attack of themselves having to advance through a gas cloud, or take possession of terrain that had been contaminated. Gas was not only dependent on the weather, it was itself a kind of climate.
Bruno Latour distinguishes between an intermediary and a mediator. An intermediary is an object that connects two subjects by moving between them. It simply ‘transports, transfers, transmits energy’ (Latour 77). A mediator is a third thing, which forms an environment within which the two subjects it connects. It is ‘an original event which creates what it translates as well as the entities between which it plays the mediating role’. (Latour 78). It is an atmosphere and not an object. As the metaphor I have just used would imply, gas is this kind of mediator. Rather than a missive or a missile, it is what Michel Serres calls a ‘milieu’.
Gas became the archetypal weapon of the First World War because it instituted the ghastly economics of exchange between the combatants. Though gas was in no way decisive in the war, it seems clear that it would have been, had the Germans been able to limp on into 1919, at which point the British, assisted by the newly-arrived Americans who had poured a great deal of resources into the development of gas weapons, would have had clear gas superiority for the first time. The Germans had already had to replace the rubber of their respirators with treated leather, and would not have been able to maintain supplied with these materials. The design of their respirators – all in one snout respirators attached to the face rather than the British design of hood respirators attached by a tube to a separate box containing the filter mechanism, meant that they would not have been able easily to be adapted to cope with the arsenical compounds, especially Lewisite, which the British and Americans had been developing Even more banal and most telling of all was the shortage of fabrics, which meant that the Germans would not have been able to replace uniforms and boots contaminated by burning droplets of mustard gas, which had replaced chlorine and phosgene as the most successful form of chemical warfare during 1916 and 1917. The British considered and rejected the idea of a gas attack on a German city, partly because of the threat of reprisal, partly, no doubt, in order to maintain the propaganda advantage given to them by the Germans’ seeming first use of gas in 1915.
A curious effect of gas was that, although it turned out to be a fairly simple matter to protect against it, the very measures which should have provided the solidest reassurance in fact intensified the fear. Although most the troops at the front did not experience gas bombardment on a regular basis, the necessity of regular drilling in order to ensure adequate gas discipline kept the dread of gas alive. Mass technological warfare requires the maintaining of a difficult affective mixture: there are the traditional daring and conviction required for exposure to shot and shell and the patient, meticulous attention to detail of the operative keeping his machinery in good order. Gas required a terrifyingly continuous attention to one’s safety, as focussed upon the state of one’s equipment, which may in the end have been psychologically draining. The need for inspection is only one form of the way in which gas turns the combatant or other potential victim in on itself, making death or injury one’s own responsibility. The respirator on which one’s life depends also isolates and disorientates, making communication and the aiming of weapons difficult, as well as cutting one off from what is often the most important of the senses, that of hearing. Saddam Hussein was far from the first to learn the lesson that the very means of defending against gas can become a form of assault. As the destructive limitations of gas became apparent, it started to be used as an instrument of attrition. The fact that gas did not kill as many men as high explosive could be a positive advantage, Twenty percent of men killed leaves eighty per cent able to fight. Twenty per cent injured will absorb the resources of perhaps a further ten or twenty percent in evacuating and treating them. On one occasion, a particularly intense British gas bombardment of seven and a half hours duration caused a German withdrawal, not because the gas succeeded in penetrating the German respirators, but simply because the stress and fatigue of wearing them became too much to bear. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ evokes the shared predicament of the gassed man and the masked man:
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning (Owen 79)
The striking thing about the poem is the interchange it effects between the victim, drowning in the green cloud of chlorine, and the strange, dreamy, submarine sensation of the one inside the mask. It is safety that seems suffocating.
This strange principle, that the strength of the weapon is borrowed from the means employed to thwart it, came to the fore after the First World War, when governments had to consider how to instil gas discipline in the civilian populations they assumed would be the target of gas attack in future hostilities. Although it is the use of gas in the trenches of the First World War which has been most mythologised, it was during the 1930s, during the long build-up to war, that the threat of gas became the focus of the most intense debate and widely disseminated fears. The focus on the likely use of gas against civilian populations and the means necessary to protect them helped both to amplify and, so to speak, retune the fear and horror of gas. It is this period which transmitted the gas phantasm to the late twentieth century.
It is not possible to consider the effects of gas without considering the place of the mask, on which so much depended. In the run-up to the Second World War, when it was assumed that gas would be dropped from aeroplanes on civilian populations, the gas mask became the most familiar reminder that there was no longer a clear and distinct ‘front line’ for military conflict. Thirty million gas masks were distributed to the population during the Munich Crisis of 1938. When war was declared, gas masks were provided for almost everyone in urban areas, along with detailed instructions for their use.
One cannot understand the peculiarly intimate nature of the threat posed by gas unless one takes into account the extreme familiarity of the technologies of gas, for cooking, heating and still, at the outbreak of the Second World War, for lighting. Gas was, and is, in almost everybody’s home. Most remarkably, gas had been introduced in the United States as a humane form of execution. The ‘Humane Death Bill’, which abolished all other forms of execution in the State of Nevada, was signed by the governor on March 28 1921 (previously the condemned man had been given a choice between hanging and shooting). The first use of gas for execution in US was on February 8, 1924. The victim was Gee Jon, a Chinaman convicted of killing a rival tong man. The New York Times reported that ‘the Chinaman lapsed into unconsciousness after his first breath of the vaporized acid’ (‘Gas Kills Convict Almost Instantly’, New York Times, Feb 9, 1924, p. 15, quoted Vila and Morris, 78). It has been claimed that the experience of the lethal effects of gas in the First World War suggested the introduction of this method, along with the popularity of gas asphyxiation as a method of home suicide. Though one court in California has decreed this method of execution to be cruel and unusual, five US states still authorise its use: Arizona, California, Maryland, Missouri and Wyoming. It has been used 31 times, 11 since 1976.
Germany had resumed the secret production of poison gas for military purposes in the mid 1930s, drawing on the dominance in industrial chemical technology which it had never lost even after the sanctions of the Versailles Treaty. It was widely assumed in Britain and the US that, though gas was certain to be used, no new gases were likely to be discovered. In fact, Gerhard Schrader has discovered the first of the new generation of what would come to be known as nerve gases in 1936, when he found that a compound he named ‘tabun’ caused generalised muscle contraction and spasm. The discovery of sarin, a compound with similar effects, had followed in 1938. (Sarin would be the gas used in the terrorist attack on the Tokyo underground system on March 20 1995.) Hitler had himself been gassed as a soldier in the First World War, and seems to have had a certain reluctance about provoking retaliation through gas attack (it seems that his advisors wrongly assumed that the Allies must also be in possession of nerve gases).
The other major component in the perception of lethal gas is of course its use by the Nazis for the extermination of Jews and others in the concentration camps. A bizarre but insistent logic seems to lie behind this use. The use of gas as a means of extermination has a particular kind of cruelty. The very reputation which the weapon had as annihilating the humanity of the victim and sometimes also morally contaminating the user was what seemed to make it appropriate to exterminate peoples who were both regarded as subhuman and proved to be so by the very fact that gas was used on them Gas has often been used for the destruction of animal pests (the smoking out of moles, badgers and foxes, for example) and the experience of the First World War accelerated research into insecticides. One wonders whether the ancient superstition of the fetor judaicus, a particular odour supposed to be emitted by Jews, does not play a part in this grotesque act of ethnic fumigation. The cult of nudity and fresh air which characterised Nazism gave the questions of space a specifically pneumatic dimension. German Lebensraum would be guaranteed by clustering Jews together to stew in each other’s foul air in the ghetto. (Part of the reason for this attribution may be the Christian disavowal of the particular prominence of the sense of smell, and its association with the divine, in the Hebrew tradition: in Hebrew, the word for spirit, ruach, is suggestively close to the word for aroma, rayach. The God of the Hebrews is often approached through the odour of sacrifice and incense.) When the revolver and the machine gun was replaced by Zyklon B as the means of extermination, the logic seemed to be that the parasitic rats should be subject to their own asphyxiating exhalations. The particular power of gas to remove the humanity of one’s opponents survives into more recent uses. When Saddam Hussein’s forces used the nerve gas tabun at Basra on 17 March 1984, one Iraqi general said defiantly ‘If you gave me a pesticide to throw at those worms of insects, to make them breathe and become exterminated, I’d use it’ (Harris and Paxman 241).
Michel Serres, who frequently reads the episteme or metaphysics of particular eras in terms of their physics, or favoured states of matter, has suggested that we may have entered a gaseous epoch. ‘The system’s “matter” has changed “phase,” at least since Bergson. It’s more liquid than solid, more airlike than liquid, more informational than material. The global is fleeing towards the fragile, the weightless, the living, the breathing’ (Serres and Latour 1995: 121).
Gas is an embodiment of the new, disembodied, no-man’s-land condition both of our technologies and of our wars. It was assumed during the 1930s that civilian war would be a gas war, since it is in the diffusive nature of gas to extend the whole battlefield: ‘there is now no very real distinction between the fighting men and their women folk at home’ (Poison Gas 9). If conflicts like the last two Gulf Wars continue to conform to the traditional topology of wars, with enemies ranged against each other in opposing territories, and victory measured by the incursion of one party into the territory held by the other, this may be a secondary or compensating effect of the battle against inchoate furor, or war of all against all, evoked by Michel Serres. The war against terrorism is really a war against the new conditions of war, of which the drifting, infiltrating, assassinating nature of gas, always both homely and outlandish, the most intimate of adversaries, is an allegory.
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