Syria, “Credibility” and Historical Amnesia

My grandfather, who helped raise me, was not a weepy guy. That almost goes without saying for men of his age and background: second-generation German, a butcher’s son, who grew up during the Great Depression in a tiny, remote town near the Canadian border.

But I did see him cry a few times and one of those times comes to mind now.

I must’ve been about seven or eight years old. I asked my grandfather what he did during World War II.

He told me. Then he started to cry.

Paul F. Pein worked as a pharmacist until his death and as such had been trained in chemistry. He told me that after his entry into the service, the U.S. military moved him, his wife and his young daughter (my aunt) from Washington State to California.

There, in a factory, he made poison gas that went into shells.

I remember I had to ask him what a shell was. I imagined oversized bullets marked with skulls and crossbones rolling along an assembly line. I am pretty sure he said the gas was mustard gas.

I remember feeling disappointed. I suppose I had hoped he would open a hidden chest and show me the glittering dagger he had plundered from the corpse of a Nazi colonel slain in hand-to-hand combat.

It was many years before I began to understand what my grandfather had told me and why the memory so upset him. To this day I am still not sure that I have allowed myself to process all the implications of this buried history, so far is it from the myth of the Good War.

It seems the U.S. chemical warfare complex was no great secret back then. Approximately “250 sites in 40 states, the District of Columbia, and 3 territories are known or suspected to have buried chemical warfare materiel” dating to WWII, according to a National Academy of Sciences report published last year.

The Army is still cleaning it all up, slowly.

Then as now poison gas was always portrayed as a weapon of the enemy. Sure, we may have stockpiled the stuff in depots from sea to shining sea, but that was just in case the bad guys used it first.

One country’s atrocity was another’s just defense.

I wonder if one of the munitions my grandfather made might’ve been aboard the Liberty ship SS John Harvey.

No doubt he wondered the same thing.

The John Harvey was involved in what historians describe as the only known release of chemical weapons during the war. (Clearly that accounting sets aside the Zyklon B used in the German concentration camps.)

This is what happened:

“In 1943 there was a possibility that the Germans just might use poison gas. … Hitler, it was said, was not a great advocate of chemical warfare, perhaps because the Führer himself had been gassed during World War I. He was, however, ruthless and might be persuaded to use gas if he believed it would redress the strategic balance in his favor. Intelligence reports suggested that the Germans were stocking chemical weapons, including a new chemical agent called Tabun.

“American President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a policy statement condemning the use of gas by any civilized nation, but he pledged that the United States would reply in kind if the enemy dared to use such weapons first. John Harvey was selected to convey a shipment of poison gas to Italy to be held in reserve should such a situation occur.”

A Luftwaffe raid sank the John Harvey while the ship was in port in an Italian city under British control. Everyone on board died in a great explosion.

The crew had not known about the cargo: 2,000 mustard bombs. The poison spread rapidliy through the water and air.

“Ensign K.K. Vesole, commander of [the nearby SSJohn Bascom’s armed guard detachment, was having difficulty breathing. Many of the other men were gasping, but it was Vesole who noted something strange about the smoke. ‘I smell garlic,’ he said, without realizing the implications of his remark. A garlic odor was a telltale sign of mustard gas. The gas had become liberally intermixed with the oil that floated in the harbor and lurked in the smoke that permeated the area.

“Mustard gas-laced oil now coated the bodies of Allied seamen as they struggled in the water, and many swallowed the noxious mixture. Even those not in the water inhaled liberal doses of gas, as did hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Italian civilians.”

The hospitals overflowed as doctors and nurses struggled to treat the “mysterious malady” afflicting so many sailors and civilians.

The story gets worse:

“British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill was particularly adamant that this aspect of the tragedy remain a secret. … Churchill believed that publicizing the fiasco would hand the Germans a propaganda coup.

“Although the gas was mentioned in official American records, Churchill insisted British medical records be purged and mustard gas deaths listed as the result of ‘burns due to enemy action.’ Churchill’s attempts at secrecy may have caused more deaths, because had the word gone out, more victims, especially Italian civilians, might have sought proper treatment.”

The author of this historical essay, Eric Niderost, concludes that it was “a tragedy made worse by the perceived exigencies of wartime secrecy.” Thus the imperatives of propaganda–the Allies’ need to be seen as the unambiguous good guy–multiplied the harm to the innocent.

Maybe there are lessons in this history.

Maybe YouTube videos by anonymous partisans don’t tell us everything we need to know about chemical warfare in Syria.

Maybe the imminent U.S. bombing campaign there has less to do with the use of chemical weapons than it does with global power politics and other “perceived exigencies” deemed unfit for public discussion.

Maybe Barack Obama’s “red line” is rhetorical cover for a fait accompli, as was George W. Bush’s last-minute ultimatum to Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Or maybe–more likely, I think–Obama is making it up as he goes along, as are his entourage of the “best and brightest” and the hawkish lifers in the military and intelligence establishment, always rushing in where there are no exits. The administration’s decision after to consult Congress after indicating that it would not is another sign that the White House is winging it.

The first casualty of war is truth

Make no mistake: Most of what you’ve been seeing and reading about Syria today is propaganda. The style and medium are different. But in subject and approach it is not much different than the propaganda directed at my grandfather’s generation and at his father’s generation during two successive world wars.

I’m not saying atrocities haven’t taken place in Syria–they almost certainly have, although the circumstances are unclear and will probably remain that way forever. The best propaganda begins with a truth. The atrocities in Syria are being magnified and exploited to further a political program which will certainly to result in more death, but which presents few clear positive outcomes.

That sort of exploitation has been the constant role of atrocity stories since World War I and long before.

The ongoing Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library features many fine exhibits, one of which is a copy of a 1916 book published in the United States with British backing. The book is called German Barbarism: A Neutral’s Indictment. It’s available for free online.

The book contains a full chapter on “German use of prohibited implements of war.” The chapter dwells largely upon the grievous wounds inflicted by “dum-dum” bullets, but Germany’s chemical arsenal also makes an appearance:

“Moreover, the German missiles used against the Russian troops often gave off poisonous gases which caused the death of the wounded, and which were expressly forbidden by the Hague Conventions (1899) ‘of which is to spread asphyxiating or noxious gases.’”

Such horrors, surely, could not soon be forgotten. But they were. The same generation of Americans so shocked by Germany’s use of poison gas on the European battlefield would order the production of huge stockpiles of mustard gas and nerve agents. Just in case.

That is the magic of propaganda: Correctly applied it can justify any action no matter how hypocritical. Americans killed by American mustard gas become the victims of “burns due to enemy action.” Nanking was an atrocity. Nagasaki was a necessity. Al Qaeda is our mortal enemy, except when it’s our ally. War crimes must be punished. But our comrade who ate that poor fellow’s heart, he must have been just a little over-enthusiastic.

The very day that Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “cowardly…obscene” chemical attack by the Syrian government, documents emerged finally proving that the CIA had cooperated with Iraq in its 1988 chemical attacks on Iran. The documents were “tantamount to an official American admission of complicity in some of the most gruesome chemical weapons attacks ever launched,” Foreign Policy reported.

All this doublethink takes on a cumulative effect. As a consequence, most Americans are unable to form a valid opinion about the wisdom of further expanding the country’s military presence in the Middle East. (Not that the public will be seriously consulted.) The problem is compounded by a near-absence of independent reporting in Syria. The story of the civil war there is being told by the combatants, who have countless reasons to mislead, exaggerate and fabricate.

The combined result is a situation much like the prelude to WWI, when the public was clueless about the deals their leaders had cut with one another, and the leaders made epic misjudgments thanks to bad information and their own overconfidence. It was a set of circumstances in which “crucial decisions led from an isolated act of terrorism to the outbreak of a world war,” as the late historian James Joll writes in The Origins of The First World War.

Consider this passage on the crisis of July 1914, which followed the assassination by Serb and Croat nationalists of the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand:

“The Austrians had believed that vigorous action against Serbia and a promise of German support would deter Russia: the Russians had believed that a show of strength against Austria would both check the Austrians and deter Germany. In both cases the bluff [was] called, and the three countries were faced with the military consequences of their actions.”

Sixteen million people died in that war.

One hundred years later our international order remains defined by secret diplomacy, veiled motives, spheres of influence and domino theories.

This is not about the Syrian people

David Ignatius, who finally apologized for “being wrong on the overriding question” of whether the Iraq invasion “made sense,” exemplifies the dangerous arrogance of the U.S. foreign policy establishment when he argued in favor of bombing Syria in an August 28 Washington Post column.

“The main rationale for military action by the United States and its allies,” Ignatius writes, “should be restoring deterrence against the use of chemical weapons.”

Note that Ignatius does not say “the main reason.” He says “the main rationale”–a word which has another sense than “reason.” Here “rationale” can be read as “the public explanation.”

The real reason for bombing Syria, as Ignatius makes clear–and as John Kerry himself concluded in his podium performance on August 31–is maintaining “U.S. credibility.” That translates to keeping Russia and Iran in line by “remind[ing] people that U.S. military power is not to be taken lightly.” As a casus belli that is somewhat harder to stomach than saving innocents from an evil, dictatorial war criminal. But there it is. Welcome to the moral universe of the delusional “strategists” who plague America’s op-ed pages.

Enforcing the chemical weapons taboo is entirely secondary. The safety of Syrian civilians, who have been killed by the thousands over two years of conventional war, is somewhere farther down the list. Only now, after having been gassed to death, have the Syrians become noteworthy and better yet, useful. Now they are pawns in a propaganda campaign.

In addition to obscuring the basis for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war by substituting humanitarianism for realpolitik, Beltway propagandists are minimizing the consequences of the all-but ordained aerial bombardment to come.

Obama’s war plan is being described as “limited” and “focused,” much like the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were portrayed before the fact to a gullible press corps and a public thirsty for revenge.

Too few are asking the obvious question: What happens next?

Obama promises “no boots on the ground.” How long will that policy stick once it becomes clear that bombs alone will not make Syria a safer, more stable place?

The war cheerleaders of the Beltway are spouting some remarkable absurdities. Take Ignatius’s younger colleague at the Washington Post, Ezra Klein. Summarizing Kerry’s August 26 speech on Syria, Klein (or one his equally co-opted crew) wrote the following:

“‘Military action’ doesn’t mean war, of course.”

Oh yeah. “Of course.” Until I read that Wonkblog post, I was fairly certain that military action did mean war, in fact, was the very definition of war.

I don’t pretend to have a solution for the Syrian bloodshed. Maybe there is no “solution” that can be imposed by outsiders.

If America’s goal in Syria is to minimize civilian casualties, it’s hard to see how dropping bombs furthers that goal in the short term or the long term. If the goal, however, is to preserve the perception of America as an unbeatable, ubiquitous military power, then and only then does a bombing campaign begin to make sense.

At least Ignatius, abhorrent though his case for war may be, presented that case forthrightly.

Kerry was just as cynical, although less pithy, in his August 31 speech. (Evidently Ignatius had obtained the talking points in advance.) The Secretary of State grimly clocked through a series of unverifiable assertions presented in the administration’s unclassified intelligence report claiming “high confidence” in Syrian government-backed chemical attacks on civilians. The report cites “intercepted communications” but does not provide transcripts, leaving us to take it all on faith. It cites “one hundred videos” and “thousands of social media reports,” essentially asserting that thousands of Tweeters couldn’t possibly be wrong about something so important.

After dispensing with the obligatory “evidence” portion of his speech, Kerry got to the point:

“[O]ur concern is not just about some far-off land oceans away. That’s not what this is about. Our concern…is about choices that will directly affect our role in the world and our interests in the world. …

“And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world.”

Obama, speaking after Kerry on that day, eventually tipped his hand, as well: “[N]ow is the time to show the world that America keeps our commitments,” Obama said, alluding to the “red line” he’d drawn earlier. “We do what we say.”

Obama might have been more blunt. It doesn’t matter what Americans think about this war in Syria–in fact, things will be easier for him if they go on not thinking about it. What the Syrians think matters even less. What matters is how Vladimir Putin and some Pentagon bullies will judge Obama’s manhood–excuse me, his “credibility.”

My grandfather was a troubled man in many ways but he had a sense of humor and, as I mentioned, a professional understanding of human physiology.

I think he could’ve settled this with a measuring tape.

Corey Pein is an American investigative reporter and writer living in the U.K. He can be reached through his website,, where this essay first appeared.