But are chemical weapons really uniquely horrific? Using sarin nerve gas against innocent civilians is undoubtedly evil. But chemical weapons are not exceptionally terrible in the scale of suffering. In Syria, for every civilian murdered in a chemical attack, hundreds have been killed by conventional means. Neither are chemical weapons uniquely brutal in the manner of death. Asphyxiation by gas is truly horrifying—as is being lacerated by shells or tortured to death in Bashar al-Assad’s gulag archipelago.
The focus on the means of killing, rather than the amount of killing, can seem arbitrary. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Hutu militias killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus with machetes and small arms. Let’s imagine that the militias followed this up by murdering a further 80 Tutsis in a chemical weapons attack. It would be absurd if the international community ignored the genocide, and then intervened after the chemical strike.
The core underlying reason for the U.S. air strike is rarely if ever discussed in public: upholding the norm against chemical weapons gives the United States a strategic edge, by helping the U.S. military win wars.
U.S. officials want to keep warfare limited to a traditional model where one army fights another army on a clear battlefield, and everyone wears uniforms. The reason is that the United States will almost always emerge victorious. Ask Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain, Germany, Japan, Grenada, Panama, or Iraq, what it’s like to fight a straight up conventional war against the U.S. military. Today, Washington is pouring billions of dollars into big-ticket hardware like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which further entrenches America’s advantage in conventional fighting.
The United States has an interest in shaping global norms so that tactics and technologies that fit the traditional model are viewed as “good war” or morally acceptable. This includes bombing, shelling, and shooting. Just last week, the United States dropped “the mother of all bombs,” or the 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, on an ISIS position in Afghanistan.
At first glance, drones might seem like a morally dubious technology. Hundreds of civilians have died as a result of U.S. drone strikes around the world. Insurgent groups like Hezbollah have begun to use primitive drones. Terrorists could easily employ drones to deliver bombs. One might think that Western countries would push for some kind of international convention to prohibit or limit their use. But the U.S. military finds drones extremely useful. And so, there’s barely a squeak from official Washington about the ethics of flying robots of death.
By contrast, other tactics and technologies that deviate from the conventional war template are treated as “bad war” or illegitimate. This includes anything that might level the playing field or give weaker actors a fighting chance, like terrorism or insurgency.