COMMENTARY: Toxic legacy of mustard gas still apparent

The First World War saw extensive use of several new weapons. For instance, although both submarines and machine guns were briefly deployed during the American Civil War, these tools proved invaluable for killing in the 20th Century. The tank saw its first action in World War I, as did aircraft with human flyers. Perhaps most controversial was the initial employment of chemical weapons in the form of chorine and mustard gas, which violated two previous international agreements and were responsible for over 1 million casualties on both sides.

Following World War I, the Chemical Weapons Service became part of the Department of War in the United States. American officials did not ratify the Geneva Protocol of 1925 banning biological and chemical weapons until decades later. Aware that Germany, Italy, and Japan had chemical war programs, the United States conducted experiments on the impact of chemical weapons using animals until 1940, but switched to human experimentation during World War II.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Those participating in mustard gas experiments indicated several reasons for taking part, including patriotism, extra pay, leave privileges, boredom, or to avoid combat assignments, but all agreed there was insufficient warning of risks and no follow-up care. That some of the studies investigated the relation between race and mustard gas exposure continued a historical pattern of racial discrimination by the military.

After World War II, the American military dumped chemical weapons in the world’s oceans dozens of times between 1945 and 1970, of which 32,000 tons comprised mustard gas and nerve agents. The United States was hardly alone in such a practice, for as much as half of the 500,000 tons of chemical weapons produced by World War II participants was similarly disposed of.

While the U.S. Congress took action to limit ocean dumping of discarded chemical weapons, international agreements prohibiting ocean dumping of these toxins were passed in 1972 and 1993.

Meanwhile, veterans exposed to mustard gas experimentation fought for recognition, treatment and benefits. However, they faced many obstacles. First, victims were forced to uphold an oath of secrecy about the procedure until the 1990s. Next, victims had to prove their inclusion in the experiments, but much of the paperwork verifying their status was destroyed or remained classified.

Further, the federal government has been slow to acknowledge the link between the mustard gas experiments and a variety of medical ailments. Finally, unlike Britain, the United States has actually compensated very few servicemen to date.

In 2016, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced the Arla Harrell Act, named after a Missouri veteran who was one of 60,000 subjected to the mustard gas experiments. The act would require the Veterans Administration to review claims it had previously denied and eliminate hurdles imposed on veterans to receive benefits.

Although the legislation has the support of groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, and Vietnam Veterans of America, it has yet to attract any cosponsors in the House of Representatives.

As we commemorate the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, we should strive not to repeat the legacy of its brutality. One way to do that is to accelerate destruction of remaining chemical weapons by safe means, as the U.S. government promised to do two decades ago when the Chemical Weapons Convention went into force.

Another is to quickly respond to punish those nations which employ chemical weapons as a tool of war, as President Donald Trump did with Syria in early 2017. Lastly, we should expeditiously uncover the truth about the Pentagon’s mustard gas program and minimize the means whereby science is militarized during times of national peril.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. His grandfather, Samuel H. Hoff, was a first lieutenant in World War I who trained troops stateside in Pennsylvania. He is a previous recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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