President Obama is right to voice outrage at the use of chemical weapons in Syria. While the concept of rules in warfare is a bit ironic, maintaining an international consensus against the use of these weapons, which kill civilians so indiscriminately, is a good thing. However, for the rest of the world, this sudden outrage is both amusing and frustrating, exposing the US government’s selective memory over time. For Native Americans, the use of chemical weapons brings memories of past uses of biological weapons.
In the bubble of the US media, one would think this is the first use of chemical weapons since the notorious trenches of World War I. For the rest of the world, however, their memories are different.
They remember that the previous most recent use of chemical weapons was just four years ago (in 2009), in Gaza, by Israel against the Palestinians. In that incident, Israel used white phosphorus, ostensibly to create smokescreens. However, there were extensive reports of white phosphorus landing among heavily populated areas, burning through flesh on contact, sometimes to the bone. A United Nations office was hit and burned. As in Syria, a UN investigation and report followed. As in Syria, it was denounced by the perpetrator. The US stood by Israel, criticized the UN report, and the whole issue quickly fell out favor in the local media. Most Americans are probably not aware of it. Likewise, few Americans realize that US forces admitted targeting personnel with white phosphorus in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004.
It has been reported that the Syria attack is the largest use of chemical weapons since 1988, when Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja, a Kurdish minority town. Chemical weapons were widely used in the Iran-Iraq War. The Halabja incident, however, was the single largest, and stood out because it targeted an ethnic minority within Iraq by Iraqi government forces. As many as 5,000 people were killed, making it the largest chemical weapons attack in history. While George W. Bush widely used this example in his arguments against Hussein (saying he used weapons of mass destruction “against his own people”), the rest of the world remembers that, at the time, Iraq was a US ally and the US said little in the aftermath of this event. US diplomats were instructed to spread the blame to Iran as well. A UN resolution, seven weeks after the incident, condemned both countries for their use of chemical weapons and made no specific mention of Halabja.
The rest of the world also remembers the widespread use of napalm by the US during the Vietnam War. Although it was designed as a defoliant, images of burned children fleeing their flaming villages are now iconic. Most Americans have seen this. But what the US media scarcely covers is the ongoing legacy of napalm residue in the water supply of some villages and their ongoing impacts to public health. These sites are now known for some of the most grotesque fetal deformities ever documented. And, just to be complete, the rest of the world remains quite cognizant that the US is the only country to have ever used that other weapon of mass destruction, an atom bomb, against a civilian population.
For Native Americans, all of this recalls biological warfare, primarily the deliberate spread of smallpox. To this day, there exists only one well-documented instance of Europeans deliberately attempting to infect Native Americans with smallpox. The incident occurred in 1763 at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. English General Jeffrey Amherst recommended it: “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” (He now has a town and a prestigious college named after him.) Colonel Henry Bouquet agreed to implement the plan: “I will try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands.” But, unbeknownst to them, Captain Simeon Ecuyer had already done it on his own: “We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital.”
In addition to this incident, there are many more stories from tribes who have similar suspicions. Elizabeth Fenn has documented the use of smallpox as a potential weapon during the Revolutionary War. During this time period the vaccination had not yet been developed. But individuals could be “inoculated” by deliberately injecting the smallpox virus into open wounds or thru other methods. They would then come down with a mild version of smallpox (with only a 2% mortality rate), but would gain lifelong immunity just the same as any survivor of the disease. More interestingly, during their period of mild infection, they were just as contagious as any victim of the disease and could pass on the full regular version of the virus (with a 30% mortality rate among Europeans, and up to 90% among Native Americans). Furthermore, they had twelve days before they would show any symptoms. For the military general, these mildly infected inoculated people were weapons. They could be sent among enemies, be they French, American colonists, or Native Americans, and spread the contagion with little notice. Furthermore, it would be very difficult to prove.
Thus, Barack Obama is far from the first president to address this issue. In the midst of the Revolutionary War in 1775, General George Washington wrote to John Hancock, “The information I received that the enemy intended Spreading the Small pox amongst us, I coud not Suppose them Capable of – I now must give Some Credit to it, as it has made its appearance in Severall of those who Last Came out of Boston.”
History shows that the use of these weapons of mass destruction, be they chemical or biological, have most often been used not in international wars, but in close quarters, in domestic civil wars, typically characterized by ethnic conflict. Such is the case in Syria, and that was the case in Gaza, Iraq, Vietnam, and colonial America. Often, the perpetrators were a powerful ethnic minority and the victims were an ethnic majority. Native Americans can easily sympathize with the victims and applaud Obama’s outrage regarding Syria. What to do about it is an open question and one for the whole world, because the rest of the world knows that the US has limited moral high ground on this issue.