Ungagged: America

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I was asked to do a podcast by Ungagged! and because I know how easily I can ramble off-topic I thought it would be easier to write it first.

Their podcasts are really good; wide-ranging and informative and you’ll only have to listen to my babbling for a short while so I would recommend you give it a listen – link here.

This podcast’s theme is America, which is something I don’t usually blog about however one piece of news this week got me doing some research.

On Tuesday Sean Spicer, Trump’s ill-equipped Press Secretary when talking about Assad & Syria said:

We didn’t use chemical weapons in World War 2. Someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.

He then attempted to clarify it with:

I think when you come to sarin gas, [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing,

He brought them into, um, the Holocaust center — I understand that. But I’m saying in the way Assad used them where he went into towns, dropped them down into the middle of towns, it was brought — the use of it.

Holocaust centers – that’s an interesting way to describe the gas chambers.

Honestly, I’m trying hard not to be crass here, but it sounds like it somewhere you ring on a freephone number, followed by “Press 1 for…”

This man is the spokesperson for the President of the United States, now I know he can’t be an expert in everything but surely he’s briefed before facing the press.

So I thought I’d see what could I find out. This is a fraction of the information I found in minutes after a quick search on Google. I’m guessing/hoping the US intelligence services have better resources.

Firstly the Holocaust:

It has been calculated that six million Jews were killed, over a million died in ghettos and camps, similar numbers in mass executions and 3,652,000 in the gas chambers.

Even if you do discount the majority of Jewish victims as “not being his people,” which is frankly a ridiculous excuse, it is estimated that 180,000 German Jews were killed.

To that there were 250,000 mentally or physically disabled German children and adults.

All children under three who were suffering from illnesses or disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy or ‘suspected idiocy’ were initially targeted. They were taken away “for treatment” and their parents later told that they had died of pneumonia and that their bodies had been cremated to stop the spread of disease.

This program was then expanded to include adults with disabilities, chronic illnesses and mental health problems.

It is thought that in total the number of civilian deaths was around 11 million, the victims included political activists, gay people, priests, communists, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, Poles, Roma, other Slavic peoples, black people and resistance fighters.

I’m not listing these deaths to excuse Assad. There are no “good guys” in Syria, just varying shades of darkness. But you can’t start a sentence with “Even Hitler didn’t…”

Now for sarin/chemical weapons:

It was invented by German scientist Gerhard Schrader. His original work at Bayer was with organophosphates to make insecticides, in particular for aphids during which time he synthesised the compound tabun. He and his assistant became very dizzy with severe difficulty seeing and breathing after they had both became accidentally exposed to one drop spilt on a lab table. It took them 3 weeks to fully recover.

They had discovered the first nerve gas and he was transferred to the German chemical weapons program. Over 12,000 tonnes of tabun were manufactured during the war. When the factories were captured by the soviets the tabun was poured it into the Oder River, the factories dismantled and sent back to the USSR for their chemical weapons program.

During the next few years other nerve gases were produced including sarin & soman. Sarin was named after its descoverers Schrader, Otto Ambros, Gerhard Ritter, and von der Linde. 

It  works as an “off-switch” for the body’s glands and muscles, with victims dying because they are no longer able to breathe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls Sarin “the most volatile of the nerve agents” as it kills within seconds. It is thought the Germans had produced 7,000 tons during the war.

So why didn’t Hitler order its use? German soldiers were ordered to fight to the last man and there was no compunction against using carbon monoxide or Zyklon B in the gas chambers.

It appears that it was the horror of mustard gas in the First World War that held back both sides from deploying in the second. But at the same time the major players were stockpiling chemical/biological agents for retributive strikes.

In December of 1943, an American supply ship, the SS John Harvey,  carrying 2,000 mustard gas shells was damaged in an air raid off Bari, Italy. More than 600 American personnel were exposed to the gas, 60 of whom died. An unknown number of Italian civilians also perished but Allied commanders suppressed the story in case the Germans resorted to chemical weapons in response.

And of course there is the infamous Gruinard Island which was contaminated with anthrax spores in 1942 by teams from Porton Down, after which it was concluded that it would take decades to decontaminate German cities if used. It was only after Operation Dark Harvest in 1981, which threatened to leave Guinard soil samples “at appropriate points” did the a serious work towards decontamination begin. The island was finally given the all clear on 24 April 1990 after 48 years of quarantine.

The British government also tried to recruit Gerhard Schrader in 1947, but he had gone back to Bayer and declined saying

I am glad to be fully engaged again in the field of plant protection. My work during the war in the field of toxic substances never complied with my wishes.

I should like to assist in improving nutrition, but not in inflicting new wounds.”

Hitler’s chief chemical weapons engineer, Otto Ambros, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremburg in 1948 and sentenced to only 8 years in prison. He was held for 3 of these before moving to the United States to advice the US Army on its own sarin chemical weapons program.

Sarin was adopted by NATO as a standard chemical weapon in the 1950s. Regular production of it ceased in the US in 1957 although existing stocks  were re-distilled until 1970.

In 1953, 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, a Royal Air Force engineer died in human testing of sarin at the Porton Down.  The initial inquest recorded misadventure, but when reopened in 2004 the jury ruled that he had been unlawfully killed by the “application of a nerve agent in a non-therapeutic experiment”

The 1993 United Nations Chemical Weapons Convention was signed by 162 member countries, banning the production and stockpiling of many chemical weapons. It went into effect on April 29, 1997, and called for the complete destruction of all specified stockpiles of chemical weapons by April 2007. When the convention entered force, the parties declared worldwide stockpiles of 15,047 tonnes of sarin.

Sarin has be used in both conflict and on civilian populations, in Halabja, Iraq, al-Faw Peninsula, Matsumoto & Tokyo in Japan, Rif Dimashq, Syria and this week allegedly in Idlib Province, Syria.

The lack of knowledge and or briefing provided for the White House Press Secretary at such a time is not just disappointing but frighting and unfortunately quite typical of this administration.

Since that outstanding PR disaster, the US has dropped of a GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) bomb. It is is the biggest non-nuclear bomb the US possess.
I imagine arms manufacturers are delighted.
Image by: Red Raiph
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