Bettmann/Corbis

Man has a native equipment of low fighting caliber. His untrained fists are puny; he cannot run fast or kick hard, and a projecting nose interferes with his biting proclivities. He, therefore, early supplemented his native equipment with artificial weapons, and poisons played a large part in early controversies, as in the poisoning of arrows and spears.

Among the earliest recorded human use of noxious chemicals in war is the employment of pitch and sulphur, which were burned at the foot of the walls of the ancient cities of Belium and Platæa by the Spartans, in their wars with the Athenians, during the fifth century B.C. Later, we read of the use of stinkballs, apparently mixtures of asafetida and combustibles—little courtesies exchanged between ships fighting at close range … Even the English during the Crimean War considered seriously, for a period, the plan of smoking the Russians out of Sebastopol with burning sulphur …

As to the relative amount of suffering involved in death by gas and death by disembowelment with a bayonet, it is obvious that we can collect no scientific data, owing to the nature of the experiment. The point may, however, be safely left to the imagination. It is significant in this connection, that the American statistics show that a gas casualty has 12 times the chances of recovery of a casualty resulting from an encounter with such Christian weapons as high explosives, bullets, shrapnel, and the like. The relative chances of being maimed or disfigured for life are obvious. Observation of gassed soldiers, over a considerable period of time, by the surgeon general’s office, did not reveal any predisposition toward pulmonary trouble, which is contrary to the popular opinion.

The question of the involvement of civilian population is important, and there is here some misapprehension. The nontechnical mind looks upon a gas as something that travels stealthily, and devastates all animal and vegetable life over a large area; something that may be carried by the wind a long distance. As a matter of fact, the great problem in gas warfare is to build up a concentration, namely, to liberate on a certain objective a sufficient amount for even a very short time …

Poison gas stands in a military class by itself. It is the most efficient, most economical, and most humane, single weapon known to military science.


Originally titled "Is Prohibition of Gas Warfare Feasible?"

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.