Callinicus: A Defense of Chemical Warfare

by J. B. S. Haldane

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Ironically, considering current Middle East problems, it was a Syrian named Callinicus who allegedly was the first to use chemical warfare. Born in AD 673, he combined naphtha, pitch, sulfur, saltpeter and other toxins to produce Greek fire, a sort of Byzantine smoke bomb.

 A product of the Dragon School and of Eton and Oxford, Haldane saw combat in World War I and observed little difference in dying from gangrene in a field hospital, being blinded and rendered deaf by an explosion, or dying from poison gas.  Why one horrible death or incapacitation should be preferable to another was highly debatable to him when he wrote his book and remains contentious today.

 When the book first appeared in 1925, a troubled reviewer in The Spectator remarked, “He asks us to consider a war with armies of the present size in which the opposing sides were drawn up ten deep and were engaged in hacking at each other with swords. The casualties and the agonies of pain would be far heavier than with our modern weapons.”  Certainly given all the current discussion of chemical warfare, Haldane’s point is worth considering.