University of Kent
Justifying Chemical Warfare: The Origins and Ethics of Britain’s Chemical Warfare Programme, 1915-1945
From the moment chemical weapons entered the stage of armed conflict, Just War theorists opposed the use of this new weapon and campaigned for an internationally-enforced legal ban. Chemical weapons, they argued, violated the requirement of non-combatant immunity because they killed and injured children, women and the elderly indiscriminately. As the paper suggests, however, military and political exigencies forced the advocates of the Just War Tradition to construct new principles and arguments which would make this type of war morally and militarily acceptable. The talk highlights the readiness of Just War theorists to condemn the inhumanity of armed conflict, whilst simultaneously accepting the need for this type of warfare in certain circumstances. By examining the ways in which military strategists, scientists, diplomats and government officials attempted to justify the development, possession and use of chemical weapons through different means and methods of propaganda, and by contextualizing Britain’s delicate balancing act between deterrence and disarmament in the post-war period, this chapter contributes to the discourse. It examines the changing criteria under which military force was seen to be justified, jus ad bellum; explores conflicting expert opinions with regard to acceptable conduct of war, jus in bello; and provides a hitherto neglected perspective to debates about war crimes, peace-building and reconciliation after the end of the First World War, jus post bellum. In attempting to justify multiple objectives simultaneously, though not necessarily in concert and often in secret, and by avoiding public scrutiny on the sensitive subject of chemical warfare, the British government pursued a pragmatic political approach that was aimed at positioning the country diplomatically and militarily in a highly volatile international environment, and prepared itself for yet another major conflict on the European continent.