Category Archives: Military Ethics

Chemical Weapons and Birth Defects: The Unknowns of War

The Telegraph is reporting that, a little over nine months after the sarin attack at Ghouta in Syria, high numbers of children in the region are being born with birth defects. These abnormalities, according to activists,

are the result of the chemical weapons used by the Syrian regime last August, said Mr Shaikhani. “Fatma was born congenitally deformed because of exposure to toxic gases and chemicals many times. She is the first case to be registered in the region since the beginning of the revolution. She died few hours after her birth.”

This is troubling news if true.

The big problem is that we have almost no evidence. Not simply that there’s no positive evidence for the claim; that there’s almost no evidence one way or the other.

The National Academies, for example, published a report on the Gulf War and health in 2000, including sarin in their analysis. They found that no evidence existed of reproductive toxicity in animal studies, nor were there any mutagenic effects from sarin exposure. They relied, however, on a small number of studies; the evidence doesn’t point in the right direction, but we also don’t have a lot of evidence to begin with.

Some organophosphates—of which sarin is one—can cause fetal abnormalities. A study conducted after the Iraq-Iran war, for example, found a significant increase in birth defects from victims of chemical attacks. The rub here, however, is that the study couldn’t reliably attribute which chemical weapon was used on whom. It isn’t certain that it is the organophosphate doing the work, some other chemical weapon, both, or something else entirely.

The terrible reality of chemical weapons is that little unclassified research exists about the types of harms—especially long term—that these weapons can inflict. Part of the reason is that they aren’t used very often. But another reason is that it isn’t in the interest of state programs to know about the long-term consequences of chemical weapons. Especially for noncombatants, which include disproportionate numbers of women, children, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, and so on.

More data would be excellent. It would provide better evidence to use against regimes, and—more importantly, I think—hopefully help us provide better care after a chemical attack. Of course, it is a logistical nightmare and an ethical minefield The utmost care would have to be taken in collecting such data from such vulnerable people, and medical aid would be needed so that they can receive benefit.

I’ll update this as more comes to light.

If you’re a CW person who has more information, please get in touch.


Remember the dead; care for the living.


[A monument to the dead of World War One, Adelaide, Australia. Upon a great plinth, frame by an arch, three soldiers look up to an angel grasping a sword. The inscription on the plinth reads “ALL HONOR GIVE TO THOSE WHO NOBLY STRIVING, NOBLY FELL THAT WE MIGHT LIVE” ]

It was through an old teacher of mine, Shi De Chuan—may I honour his legacy—that I first encountered military ethics. De Chuan was a sociologist of war; his area of specialty was the experiences of soldiers in combat over history, with a particular focus on the Second World War. One of his passions, however, was the idea of remembering and honouring those who serve. It was this passion, and the long conversations I was privileged to have with him on this idea, that guided me towards one of my areas of research—how we understand the profession of arms.

On ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day, a day of remembrance for Australians and New Zealanders, it is fitting to remind ourselves about remembering.

One of the papers of De Chuan’s (published under his birth name, Phillip D’Alton) I remember best is “Prayers to Broken Stones: War and Death in Australia.” In “Prayers to Broken Stones,” De Chuan examines the role of the war memorials that dot the Australian landscape. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, often listing the names of the dead in Australia’s military engagement. Memorials like this are part of Australian culture, and each and every ANZAC day they draw crowds of veterans, families, and citizens who stand and pay their respects to those who died in the service of the armed forces.

[A Cenotaph—an “empty tomb”—located in Martin Place, the business centre of Sydney, Australia. The Cenotaph sits as a large block of granite emblazoned with the words “LEST WE FORGET” (unseen, the other side reads “TO OUR GLORIOUS DEAD.” In the foreground stands the statue of a World War One-era Australian midshipman. In the background stands a World War One-era Australian infantryman. Both figures are cast in bronze; they both stand “at ease.”]

De Chuan was focussed, however, on what we forget in using the stones as a reminder. The stones, De Chuan writes, help us remember the dead, without remembering the dying, the injured, and the maimed. Memorials rarely seek to remind us of the crime of war; memorials do not tell of the pain of those who carry on. A memorial, he wrote, “sanitizes” war, leaving something that is less burdensome to remember.

The forgetting that most pained my teacher was that of the wounded. The official records hold that 27,073 Australians died during World War Two. Yet another 22,264 soldiers were held and eventually found their way out (through escape, release, or repatriation) of Prisoner of War camps (the majority of these in the Pacific Theatre, with all that entails). Another 23,477 service personnel were wounded in action.

[A memorial found on the cliffs at Flinders, Victoria. Two plaques adorn the monument, which looks like a great headstone. The upper plaque lists the names of the dead from Flinders who served in World War One; the lower plaque does the same for World War Two. The monument would be substantially bigger if it remembered the wounded, the tortured, and the scarred.]

[A memorial found on the cliffs at Flinders, Victoria. Two plaques adorn the monument, which looks like a great headstone. The upper plaque lists the names of the dead from Flinders who served in World War One; the lower plaque does the same for World War Two.
The monument would be substantially bigger if it remembered the wounded, the tortured, and the scarred.]

Yet that only covers those physically injured in combat. A further 1,165 died, and 33,396 were injured in operation areas, but out of combat. 2,051 died, and 121,800 were injured outside of operational areas.

This, in a time before Posttraumatic Stress Disorder was recognised.

This was De Chuan’s message—the stones tell us a small fraction of the horrors of war. Today, they won’t tell you of the million veterans in the United States who have sought medical care since 2002: 146 veterans for every one killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn combined. The stones can’t tell you, moreover, of those who suffer in silence.

So today—every day—remember the dead, but care for the living. Honour both. Do so by supporting the veterans, giving them the space to speak on their terms, and giving them assistance when they need it. Demand of your government that it only use the armed forces in times of dire need, or for the assistance of those who require and request it. And always, question the policies of an administration that undermine the stability of your region, and your world. Don’t create veterans from wars that could have been avoided.

Remember the dead; care for the living.

If you are in Australia, a veteran, and need assistance, please call the Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service on 1800 011 046. I’m not yet familiar with the best places to call for those of you in the States, but from my reading this is a good set of places with which to start.


David Morrison and Professionalism in the Military

I was going to write tonight about the “slippery slope” argument, but that got derailed by some quality television

Tonight, on SBS’ The Observer Effect,, the most excellent Ellen Fanning interviewed Lieutenant General David Morrison. Morrison is the Chief of the Australian Army, and has recently achieved a modicum of fame for his brutal video in which he speaks out against the systemic culture of violence against women in the Australian Armed Forces:

On all operations, female soldiers and officers have proven themselves worthy of the best traditions of the Australian Army. They are vital to us maintaining our capability, now and into the future. If that does not suit you, then get out.

The interview was an excellent piece of work by Fanning, and a great way to experience Morrison in a way that carries though his outrage and no-holds barred fury, and commitment to change.

Three of Morrison’s responses, I thought, were really significant.[1] First, Morrison demonstrated, by way of actually attending to the experiences of female service members, that he had abandoned the time-honoured explanation that the systemic mistreatment service members by those in positions of privilege, be that by virtue of their rank, race, or gender. Though holding one’s breath for radical change is unwise, it is certainly heartening to hear a senior official that this isn’t simply a matter of disciplining offenders. This is a systemic issue, and one that needs to be dealt with in a systemic manner.

I taught at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) in the fallout of the 2011 Skype Scandal, and encountered a widespread belief among the students at ADFA that violence against women was only about individuals, rather than being an issue of culture. It was a frustrating experience; that Morrison talks about violence against women in the ADF as a systemic issue is great to see.

Next, Morrison critiqued the “ANZAC myth,” noting that the image of the Australian soldier as a white, male, ocker larrikin is outdated. In a speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference (written by Lt Col Cate McGregor), Morrison stated:

…the Anzac legend – as admirable as it is – has become something of a double-edged sword. Many Australians have an idealised image of the Australian soldier as a rough hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms. This is a pantomime caricature. Every soldier is Mel Gibson in Gallipoli and frankly it undermines our recruitment from some segments of society and breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is. [2]

It is a powerful reminder that the modern Australian military is sophisticated, professional, and diverse, with an increasingly sensitive set of operational goals. Our armed forces—including the Reserves—are engaged in operations as much humanitarian and policing as they are soldiering. Our service simply cannot rely on its old image, born of a time when being an Australian soldier meant dying for a far away power’s strategic desires.

This dovetails into the point Morrison makes most forcefully—in the interview and  the video—that eradicating violence against women[3] is a matter of institutional integrity. Any professional institution that seeks to represent, as the military does, the interests of a nation must fulfil that role or be deemed deficient as an institution. Morrison made it clear that being unable to treat any member of Australian society with respect is against the national interest. He also spoke about rape as a weapon of war, and made it clear that there was no place for sexual assault of any kind, in any capacity, in the ADF.

Making that connection is significant, because Morrison is stating that if you perpetuate or condone sexual violence against women as a member of the ADF, you are not just a reprehensible human being. You are deficient as a soldier. Respect is and ought to be a hallmark of the military profession, and anyone who can’t manage that is a failed professional. That’s a gutsy claim for Morrison to be mounting, but I’m glad to see it made, and by someone in his position.

It’s a great interview, I’m hoping it makes curriculum this coming semester. Let’s hope the words turn to actions, and some changes get made.

  1. These aren’t in order they appeared, but as I’m remembering them.  ↩
  2. Speech at the UN International Women’s Day Conference, New York, 8–9 March 2013.  ↩
  3. Morrison also mentioned violence against people of colour in his interview, though due to the content of the video that made him famous, the interview was primarily about violence against women.  ↩