A timely account of germ warfare
Germany was a signatory to the Hague Declaration of 1889, a decision that helped to establish the principle that some kinds of wartime combat were "uncivilized." Among those types of combat was the use of "deleterious gases." In April 1915, Germany violated its pledge, and chemical warfare as we know it was born.
In A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare, authors Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman present a general history of gas and germ warfare. The book was first published in 1982, but in this updated paperback edition, the authors have added new material covering recent developments. Compelling, timely and important, the book is even more relevant today than when it first appeared.
Despite concerted efforts around the world to outlaw chemical and biological warfare, the threat still looms large. In this well-researched, briskly written account, the authors focus on the scientific and military aspects of the subject, as well as governmental and diplomatic issues. They also look at the effects of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the black market in weaponry that resulted. Recent terrorist attacks and attempts by Third World countries to establish arsenals are also given thorough coverage.
Because the research and development of these weapons has been done clandestinely, the authors use the term "secret history" in their title. The book takes us behind the secrecy to reveal the stories of victims who suffered and died, some by design, others by accident. And we learn of such figures as the Japanese army major, Shiro Ishii, who was given government permission to build the world's first biological warfare installation in 1937, thus starting the biological arms race.
Of particular interest is the reluctance of both sides to use biological or chemical weapons during World War II. Although either side might have deployed them under certain circumstances, both FDR and Hitler were opposed to their use. FDR regarded poison gas as "barbaric and inhumane" and rejected all proposals to use it. Hitler had been wounded by mustard gas in World War I and, the authors say, "was known to have a marked aversion to using chemical weapons." Top Nazi leaders repeatedly advised Hitler to use them but to no avail. Churchill, on the other hand, strongly promoted the production and possible use of gas. The British were the first, in 1940, to prepare serious plans for using it. As late as July 1944, Churchill, proposed in an extraordinary memo, which the authors quote in full, that his service chiefs seriously calculate again the pros and cons of such use.
Robert Harris is known for best-selling fiction thrillers like Fatherland, Enigma and Archangel. Jeremy Paxman is a prominent news anchorman in Great Britain whose distinguished career has taken him to the Middle East, Africa and Central America, among other places. As the two point out, "Proliferation of chemical and biological weapons is now perhaps the most urgent problem facing Western military planners." Their exploration of this grim but important subject helps us to understand it in a wider historical perspective.
Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.