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From plagues to nukes, no weapon too horrible, except one

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — The Tartars may have been barbarians, but they were also military innovators.

During their 1346 siege of the port city Kaffa on the Black Sea, they catapulted the plague-infested bodies of their own dead warriors over the city walls at their enemy.

The tactic was crude but effective, launching Europe's second major outbreak of the Black Death and the first successful known bio-warfare attack.


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Since then, every type of mass-destruction weapon - chemical, biological and nuclear - has been used repeatedly with devastating results, especially during the 20th century.

Despite all the carnage, human beings have never had the foresight to ban, or at least restrict, weapons of mass destruction until after they were used.

"It took the Cuban missile crisis - years after the bombs were used in World War II - just to get us to the negotiating table with the Soviets," said Rose Gottemoeller, an expert in Russian nuclear weapons at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "As military powers we're always tempted by technology."

Biological weapons

Like the Tartars, western Europeans took full advantage of available microbes.

Indeed, the smallpox epidemics brought by Spanish explorers to the Incas in the 1530s were not lost on the Europeans. British Gen. Jeffery Amherst gave blankets infected with smallpox to Indians, who were allied with the French during the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. The resulting epidemic decimated the Indians and allowed Amherst to capture what would become Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.

The imperial Japanese also saw great potential in biological agents as they sought to move into China and Manchuria before World War II.

Called "the factory of death," Japan's infamous Unit 731 produced smallpox, cholera, plague, and pathogens for other fatal diseases. The Japanese then tested them on more than 10,000 people by dropping infected insects on Chinese villages.

The town of Zhejiang is still called "rotten-leg village" because Japanese tested glanders, a flesh-eating equine disease, on humans there.

Chemical weapons

Chemical weapons came of age during World War I.

The Germans first used mustard gas at the Belgian village of Langemarck in 1915, and France and Britain promptly followed. By 1918, one in four artillery shells contained gas.

Chemical agents were the Nazis' weapons of choice against the Jews. The common insecticide Zyklon-B was dropped in crystal form into confinement chambers where it mixed with air and turned into a lethal gas.

More recently, Saddam Hussein used nerve agents to put down Shiite and Kurdish rebellions in 1991, killing more than 5,000 Iraqis.

Saddam's recently captured henchman, "Chemical Ali," derived his moniker from those massacres.

Nuclear weapons

Of all the mass-destruction weapons, atomic bombs are the most enigmatic, having arguably saved many more lives than they have taken.

President Truman believed that dropping the two bombs that ended the war in the Pacific saved thousands of American and Japanese from what would otherwise have been a colossally bloody conventional assault on Japan.

If there is any great irony in the WMD tale, it comes from the most devastating weapon ever made, the hydrogen bomb, a very different nuclear weapon than the ones dropped on Japan.

Those weapons broke apart the nuclei of heavy elements - uranium and plutonium - to release energy through fission. The hydrogen bomb fuses ultra-light hydrogen to yield explosions thousands of times more powerful than those unleashed in Japan, capable of obliterating not just cities but most of civilization if used en masse.

A World War II-era atomic bomb dropped on Washington, D.C., would destroy half of the city, and badly damage the rest with violent shock waves. A modern hydrogen bomb would leave all of Manhattan looking like the lunar surface, and send shock waves across half of New Jersey.

During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay tried to provoke a hydrogen bomb war with the Soviets by lobbying then-President Kennedy to move aggressively against Moscow. Kennedy resisted, effectively codifying "mutually assured destruction" as an international policy to prevent nuclear war.

"If John Kennedy had followed LeMay's advice," historian Richard Rhodes wrote in his book "The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb," "ours would have been the historic omnicide."

For more than half a century, the apocalyptic horror of the hydrogen bomb rendered it unusable. Because of that, one of the great scourges of modern humanity - world war - became unthinkable.