A Needless Risk for U.S.Troops
By E. R. Zumwalt Jr.
Monday, January 6 1997; Page A17
The Washington Post

It has been more than 80 years since poison gas was first used in modern warfare -- in April 1915 during the first year of World War I. It is long past time to do something about such weapons.

I am not a dove. As a young naval officer in 1945, I supported the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. As chief of naval operations two decades ago, I pressed for substantially higher military spending than the nation's political leadership was willing to grant. After retiring from the Navy, I helped lead the opposition to the SALT II treaty because I was convinced it would give the Soviet Union a strategic advantage.

Now the Senate is considering whether to approve the Chemical Weapons Convention. This is a worldwide treaty, negotiated by the Reagan administration and signed by the Bush administration. It bans the development, production, possession, transfer and use of chemical weapons. Senate opposition to ratification is led by some with whom I often agree. But in this case, I believe they do a grave disservice to America's men and women in uniform.

To a Third World leader indifferent to the health of his own troops and seeking to cause large-scale pain and death for its own sake, chemical weapons have a certain attraction. They don't require the advanced technology needed to build nuclear weapons. Nor do they require the educated populace needed to create a modern conventional military. But they cannot give an inferior force a war-winning capability. In the Persian Gulf war, the threat of our uncompromising retaliation with conventional weapons deterred Saddam Hussein from using his chemical arsenal against us.

Next time, our adversary may be more berserk than Saddam, and deterrence may fail. If that happens, our retaliation will be decisive, devastating -- and no help to the young American men and women coming home dead or bearing grievous chemical injuries. What will help is a treaty removing huge quantities of chemical weapons that could otherwise be used against us.

Militarily, this treaty will make us stronger. During the Bush administration, our nation's military and political leadership decided to retire our chemical weapons. This wise move was not made because of treaties. Rather, it was based on the fact that chemical weapons are not useful for us.

Politically and diplomatically, the barriers against their use by a First World country are massive. Militarily, they are risky and unpredictable to use, difficult and dangerous to store. They serve no purpose that can't be met by our overwhelming conventional forces.

So the United States has no deployed chemical weapons today and will have none in the future. But the same is not true of our potential adversaries. More than a score of nations now seeks or possesses chemical weapons. Some are rogue states with which we may some day clash.

This treaty is entirely about eliminating other people's weapons -- weapons that may some day be used against Americans. For the American military, U.S. ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention is high gain and low or no pain. In that light, I find it astonishing that any American opposes ratification.

Opponents argue that the treaty isn't perfect: Verification isn't absolute, forms must be filled out, not every nation will join at first and so forth. This is unpersuasive. Nothing in the real world is perfect. If the U.S. Navy had refused to buy any weapon unless it worked perfectly every time, we would have bought nothing and now would be disarmed. The question is not how this treaty compares with perfection. The question is how U.S. ratification compares with its absence.

If we refuse to ratify, some governments will use our refusal as an excuse to keep their chemical weapons. Worldwide availability of chemical weapons will be higher, and we will know less about other countries' chemical activities. The diplomatic credibility of our threat of retaliation against anyone who uses chemical weapons on our troops will be undermined by our lack of "clean hands." At the bottom line, our failure to ratify will substantially increase the risk of a chemical attack against American service personnel.

If such an attack occurs, the news reports of its victims in our military hospitals will of course produce rapid ratification of the treaty and rapid replacement of senators who enabled the horror by opposing ratification. But for the victims, it will be too late.

Every man and woman who puts on a U.S. military uniform faces possible injury or death in the national interest. They don't complain; risk is part of their job description. But it is also part of the job description of every U.S. senator to see that this risk not be increased unnecessarily.

The writer, a retired admiral, was chief of naval operations from 1970 to 1974.

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company