Sun Jun 22, 2003

WMD

The ongoing search for WMDs has yielded a few things in the general vicinity of the acronym, such as Paperwork of Mass Destruction, Weapons of Mass Disappearance, Whitehouses of Major Dubiousness and the like. But no Weapons of Mass Destruction. In fact, there are signs that the category itself might be coming apart at the seams, and rightly so. For instance, Josh Marshall comments that

There were really two WMD debates. One was about chemical and low-end biological weapons. The other was about smallpox, nukes, al Qaeda and pretty much everything else under the sun.

Not much, but it’s a start. As I’ve argued before, Weapons of Mass Destruction is a gerrymandered category. Although it lends itself to a snappy acronym, its elements do not belong together. In reality, there are only (a) Very nasty chemical and biological weapons that, on a good day, can kill about as many people as and cause more panic than regular bombs; and (b) Thermonuclear weapons, a different proposition altogether. Pre-war arguments about the imminent threat Iraq posed to the United States should be evaluated with this in mind.

Update: Eric Rescorla makes some more refined distinctions. I think I’d go along with most of what he says. (The point about communicable vs non-communicable biological weapons is important.) He also suggests that

If a weapon can be used to kill large numbers of American civilians, then we should be very concerned about its existence. If it’s just usable in battlefield conditions, we should still take it seriously, but it doesn’t seem to me that it’s a matter of overriding concern.

This raises a related issue about ‘defining down’ the severity of nuclear weapons. A couple of months ago the Pentagon flew a kite about restarting the development of mini-nukes for tactical use. My gut reaction is that anything that makes talk of using any sort of nuclear weapon a normal part of tactical planning is bad news.