What is nerve gas? Has it been used in warfare?
Upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1919, Fritz Haber, the German chemist considered the father of chemical weapons, prophesied that “In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.” The development of chemical weapons in the early 20th Century, and their use by the Germans and British during World War One, would seem to have provided early validation of Professor Haber’s thesis regarding the future threat such weapons would pose for the foreseeable future. The use of chemical weapons during World War One represented one of the most alarming developments in the long history of warfare, although their close cousin, biological weapons, have been used for hundreds of years, albeit in fairly crude forms, as when the carcasses of dead livestock were dropped down the enemy village’s drinking well for the purpose of contaminating the water supply and spreading disease. Chemical weapons, however, are different from biological weapons, which essentially adapt known germs for military purposes. Chemical weapons, unsurprisingly, are an outgrowth of the development of chemical industries, especially in industrialized countries. Their more dangerous heirs, nerve agents, represented the refinement of chemical warfare as technology and knowledge of chemical compounds advanced.
German scientists were the main developers of nerve agents, although the British would not be far behind, nor, eventually, the Americans. It was a German scientist named Gerhard Schrader who accidentally invented nerve agents when his 1936 work on improved insecticides proved far more successful than he had imagined. As described in one history of chemical weapons, Schrader’s accidental exposure to an insecticide on which he was working revealed very serious reactions:
“The slightest drop of the substance spilt on the laboratory bench caused the pupils of his eyes to contract to pin-points, and he suffered acute difficulty in breathing. . . Inadvertently, they [Schrader and his assistant] had discovered, and become the first victims of, the world’s most powerful chemical weapon, the original ‘nerve gas’: tabun.” [See Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman, A Higher Form of Killing, 1982]
From this would follow ever-more sophisticated types of nerve agents, most prominently sarin, also developed by Schrader, working in the interest of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. While Germany would be effectively deterred from using chemical weapons against the Allies during World War II (it should be noted that the Italians used chemical weapons against Ethiopian tribes in 1936), though, a number of conflicts around the world in the years since have witnessed their use, most prominently, or infamously, by the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who ordered the use of nerve agents, as well as mustard gas, against Iraq’s Kurdish population in the town of Halabja in 1988, and against Iranian forces during the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war. Egyptian military forces intervening in a civil war in Yemen in 1963 used chemical weapons, including nerve agents, against Yemini royalist forces. Most recently, the Syrian Government used sarin against its own population during the ongoing civil war in that country. In 1995, a Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, placed sarin in Tokyo’s subway system, resulting in 13 deaths and hundreds sickened.
Chemical weapons, including nerve agents, have been banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention.