Weapons of mass destruction
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Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) generally include nuclear, biological, chemical and, increasingly, radiological weapons. The term first arose in 1937 in reference to the mass destruction of Guernica, Spain, by aerial bombardment. Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and progressing through the Cold War, the term came to refer more to non-conventional weapons. The terms ABC, NBC, and CBRN have been used synonymously with WMD, although nuclear weapons have the greatest capacity to cause mass destruction. The phrase entered popular usage in relation to the U.S.-led multinational forces' 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Because of their indiscriminate impacts, fear of WMD has shaped political policies and campaigns, fostered social movements, and has been the central theme of many films. Support for different levels of WMD development and control varies nationally and internationally. Yet understanding of the nature of the threats is not high, in part because of imprecise usage of the term by politicians and the media.
Historic use of the term WMD
- "Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?"
This was in reference to blanket bombing of Guernica, during which 70% of the town was destroyed. Nuclear weapons did not exist at this time, but biological weapons were being researched by Japan (), (see Unit 731), and chemical weapons had seen wide use.
In 1946, soon after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United Nations issued its first resolution. It was to create the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)), and used the wording:
- "...atomic weapons and of all other weapons adaptable to mass destruction".
Since then, "WMD" was used widely in the arms control community. The terms Atomic, Biological and Chemical (ABC) weapon, and then Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) weapon were introduced over time. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 explicitly includes biological and chemical weapons within the WMD framework:
- "Convinced of the importance and urgency of eliminating from the arsenals of States, through effective measures, such dangerous weapons of mass destruction as those using chemical or bacteriological (biological) agents".
The phrase had fallen out of use since the early Cold War era (when it primarily meant nuclear weapons) in 1990. Then, and during the 1991 Gulf War, it was resurrected and used prolifically by politicians and the media, despite having a fairly antique aura. The subject it was used to discuss was Iraq and it continued to be used throughout the 1990's regarding the need for continued sanctions and military containment of Iraq. This usage, which conflated very different categories of weaponry (chem-bio vs. nuclear), was essentially a political rather than a military one, and it might be argued that the resurrection and use of the term from 1990 – 2003 was expressly for political ends. This usage reached a crescendo with the 2002 Iraq disarmament crisis and the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that became the primary justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Because of its prolific use, the American Dialect Society voted WMD the word of the year in 2002 (), and in 2003 Lake Superior State University added WMD to its list of terms banished for "Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessness" ().
Today, the term WMD means different things to different people. The most widely used definition is that of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons (NBC). http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/treaties/mtcr_anx.html]), although there is no treaty or customary international law that contains an authoritative definition. Instead, international law has been used with respect to the specific categories of weapons within WMD, and not to WMD as a whole.
The acronym NBC is used with regards to battlefield protection systems for armoured vehicles, because all 3 involve insidious toxins that can be carried through the air and can be protected against with vehicle air filtration systems. However, there is a persuasive argument that nuclear weapons do not belong in the same category as chemical, biological, or radiological weapons, which have limited destructive potential (and close to none, as far as property is concerned), whereas nuclear weapons are famously colossally destructive and belong in a class by themselves.
The NBC definition has also been used in official US documents, by the US President (, ), the US Central Intelligence Agency (), the US Department of Defense (, ), and the US General Accounting Office ().
- Weapons that are capable of a high order of destruction and/or of being used in such a manner as to destroy large numbers of people. Weapons of mass destruction can be high explosives or nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons, but exclude the means of transporting or propelling the weapon where such means is a separable and divisible part of the weapon.()
While in US civil defense, the category is now Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive (CBRNE), which defines WMD as:
- (1) Any explosive, incendiary, poison gas, bomb, grenade, or rocket having a propellant charge of more than four ounces [113 g], missile having an explosive or incendiary charge of more than one-quarter ounce [7 g], or mine or device similar to the above. (2) Poison gas. (3) Any weapon involving a disease organism. (4) Any weapon that is designed to release radiation at a level dangerous to human life. This definition derives from US law, 18 U.S.C. Section 2332a and the referenced 18 USC 921. Indictments and convictions for possession and use of WMD such as truck bombs, pipe bombs, shoe bombs, cactus needles coated with botulin toxin, etc. have been obtained under 18 USC 2332a.
The US FBI also considers conventional weapons (i.e. bombs) as WMD: "A weapon crosses the WMD threshold when the consequences of its release overwhelm local responders". Gustavo Bell Lemus, the Vice President of Colombia, called small arms WMD because bullet fatalities "dwarf that of all other weapons systems - and in most years greatly exceed the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki".
Chemical weapons expert Gert G. Harigel considers only nuclear weapons true weapons of mass destruction, because "only nuclear weapons are completely indiscriminate by their explosive power, heat radiation and radioactivity, and only they should therefore be called a weapon of mass destruction". He prefers to call chemical and biological weapons "weapons of terror" when aimed against civilians and "weapons of intimidation" for soldiers. Testimony of one such soldier expresses the same viewpoint (). For a period of several months in the winter of 2002-2003, US Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz frequently used the term "weapons of mass terror," apparently also recognizing the distinction between the psychological and the physical effects of many things currently falling into the WMD category.
An additional condition often implicitly applied to WMD is that the use of the weapons must be strategic. In other words, they would be designed to "have consequences far outweighing the size and effectiveness of the weapons themselves" ().
The Washington Post reported on 3/30/2006 :"Jurors asked the judge in the death penalty trial of Zacarias Moussaoui today to define the term "weapons of mass destruction" and were told it includes airplanes used as missiles". Moussaoui was indicted and tried for the use of airplanes as WMD under 18 USC 2332a (see above).
Differences among WMD types
While politicians and the media generally treat all WMD types together in terms of threats, they each differ in their ease of development, ability to cause damage, and in the nature of such damage. While dangerous, chemical weapons have been less deadly than conventional weapons; biological weapons have rarely done harm. Atomic weapons by far outweigh the potential impacts by the other types of WMD. These distinctions are important in assessing potential casualties (), and it is the differences in these potential casualties that prompts criticism of biological and chemical weapons being considered WMD ().
For further information, see:
WMD use and control
- See also Arms control
The development and use of WMD is governed by international conventions and treaties, although not all countries have signed and ratified them:
- Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT)
- Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
- Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)
- Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC)
- Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
In 1996 the International Court of Justice provided an advisory opinion regarding the use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. The statement is an authoritative legal pronouncement but not legally binding. It stated that any threat of the use of force, or the use of force, by means of nuclear weapons that is contrary to Article 2, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Charter or that fails to meet all the requirements of Article 51 would be unlawful.
Adopted by the UN Security Council on April 28, 2004, UN Resolution 1540 recognizes the threat posed to international peace and security by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as their means of delivery. It calls upon greater effort by nations to limit proliferation of such weapons.
Weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, are rarely used because their use is essentially an "invitation" for a WMD retaliation, which in turn could escalate into a war so destructive it could easily destroy huge segments of the world's population. During the Cold War, this understanding became known as mutually assured destruction and was largely the reason war never broke out between the WMD-armed United States and Soviet Union.
Weapons of mass destruction are used to justify the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against "rogue states" thought to be in danger of possessing or developing them. Opponents of this strategy note that the United States is the country that possesses one of the greatest arsenals of WMD on earth, and the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons in its attacks (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), whereas others argue that the strategy is aimed solely at those whose intentions may be dangerous and that the current nuclear powers have all shown an unwillingness to use their WMD outside extreme circumstances, whereas the US has no similar guarantees with nations like North Korea.
WMD Use, Possession and Access
The only country to have used a nuclear weapon against an opponent is the United States. There are eight countries that are known to possess nuclear weapons, only five of which are members of the NPT. The eight include: China; France; India; Israel; Pakistan; Russia; the United Kingdom; and the United States of America. North Korea is suspected of possessing, and has claimed to possess, nuclear weapons, while Iran is suspected of seeking nuclear weapons, a claim that it denies. States that formerly possessed nuclear capabilities include: South Africa, as well as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine following the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Countries with access to nuclear weapons through nuclear sharing agreements include: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.
For a regularly updated resource of countries' WMD capabilities see the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI).
Fear of WMD, or of threats diminished by the possession of WMD, has long been used to catalyse public support for various WMD policies. They include mobilization of pro- and anti-WMD campaigners alike, and generation of popular political support. The term WMD may be used as a powerful buzzword (), or to generate a culture of fear (). It is also used ambiguously, particularly by not distinguishing among the different types of WMD ().
More recently, fear of potential Iraqi WMD has been seen by many as a disingenuous ploy by George W. Bush to generate public support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (, , ). Reference to Iraqi WMD in general, rather than the less dangerous weapons systems thought to exist (biological and chemical), was seen as an element of Bush's arguments (). As a result, WMD became synonymous with "weapons of mass deception" within the anti-war movement.
On August 9, 2005 Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa forbidding the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. The full text of the fatwa was released in an official statement at the meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. 
WMD fear also notably increases when potential for development is initiated by administrators that do not have intrinsic links to the Global economy. This global dislocation is a more rational approach to the definition of 'rogue' state.
Media coverage of WMD
In 2004 the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) released a report () examining the media’s coverage of WMD issues during three separate periods: India’s nuclear weapons tests in May 1998; the US announcement of evidence of a North Korean nuclear weapons program in October 2002; and revelations about Iran's nuclear program in May 2003. The CISSM report notes that poor coverage resulted less from political bias among the media than from tired journalistic conventions. The report’s major findings were that:
- Most media outlets represented WMD as a monolithic menace, failing to adequately distinguish between weapons programs and actual weapons or to address the real differences among chemical, biological, nuclear, and radiological weapons.
- Most journalists accepted the Bush administration’s formulation of the “War on Terror” as a campaign against WMD, in contrast to coverage during the Clinton era, when many journalists made careful distinctions between acts of terrorism and the acquisition and use of WMD.
- Many stories stenographically reported the incumbent administration’s perspective on WMD, giving too little critical examination of the way officials framed the events, issues, threats, and policy options.
- Too few stories proffered alternative perspectives to official line, a problem exacerbated by the journalistic prioritizing of breaking-news stories and the “inverted pyramid” style of storytelling.
Retired military weapons, munitions, and training expert, SFC Red Thomas, attributes poor public understanding of weapons of mass destruction to the media and entertainment:
- "Forget everything you've ever seen on TV, in the movies, or read in a novel about this stuff, it was all a lie." ()
Thomas explains the differences between different types of weapons considered to be WMD because of perceived ignorance among the media.
In a separate study published in 2005 (), a group of researchers assessed the effects reports and retractions in the media had on people’s memory regarding the search for WMD in Iraq during the 2003 Iraq War. The study focused on populations in two coalition countries (Australia and USA) and one opposed to the war (Germany). Results showed that US citizens generally did not correct initial misconceptions regarding WMD, even following disconfirmation; Australian and German citizens were more responsive to retractions. Dependence on the initial source of information led to a substantial minority of Americans exhibiting false memory that WMD were indeed discovered, while they were not. This led to three conclusions:
- The repetition of tentative news stories, even if they are subsequently disconfirmed, can assist in the creation of false memories in a substantial proportion of people.
- Once information is published, its subsequent correction does not alter people's beliefs unless they are suspicious about the motives underlying the events the news stories are about.
- When people ignore corrections, they do so irrespective of how certain they are that the corrections occurred.
Between June and September of 2003, a survey of US citizens asked whether they thought WMD had been discovered in Iraq since the war ended. They were also asked which media sources they relied upon. Those who incorrectly believed WMD had been discovered were three times more likely to obtain their news primarily from Fox News than from PBS and NPR.
|Media source||Respondents believing WMD had been found in Iraq since the war ended|
Based on a series of polls taken from June-September 2003. Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War, PIPA, October 2, 2003.
Public perceptions of WMD
Awareness and opinions of WMD have varied during the course of their history. Their threat is a source of unease, security and pride to different people. The anti-WMD movement is embodied most in nuclear disarmament, and led to the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
In 1998 University of New Mexico's Institute for Public Policy released their third report () on US perceptions - including the general public, politicians and scientists - of nuclear weapons since the break up of the Soviet Union. Risks of nuclear conflict (particularly with China), proliferation, and terrorism were seen as substantial. While maintenance of a nuclear US arsenal was considered above average in importance, there was widespread support for a reduction in the stockpile, and very little support for developing and testing new nuclear weapons.
Also in 1998, but after the UNM survey was conducted, nuclear weapons became an issue in India's election of March (), in relation to political tensions with neighboring Pakistan. Prior to the election the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced it would “declare India a nuclear weapon state” after coming to power. BJP won the elections, and on May 14, three days after India tested nuclear weapons for the second time, a public opinion poll reported that a majority of Indians favored the country’s nuclear build-up.
On April 15, 2004, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) reported () that US citizens showed high levels of concern regarding WMD, and that preventing the spread of nuclear weapons should be a very important US foreign policy goal, accomplished through multilateral arms control rather than the use of military threats. A majority also believed the US should be more forthcoming with its biological research and its NPT commitment of nuclear arms reduction, and incorrectly thought the US was a party to various non-proliferation treaties.
A Russian opinion poll conducted on August 5, 2005 indicated half the population believes new nuclear powers (including DPRK) have the right to possess nuclear weapons . 39% believes the Russian stockpile should be reduced, though not fully eliminated.
WMD in film, music and humor
Weapons of mass destruction and their related impacts have been a mainstay for popular culture since the beginning of the Cold War, as both political commentary and humorous outlet. Nuclear weapons have been a central theme of movies since The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); two of the most famous are Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Fail-Safe (1964). Biological weapons have also featured, as in Twelve Monkeys (1995). Several James Bond films involve a madman intending to use either nuclear or biological weapons against the world. The science fiction novel Dune dicusses atomic weapons, and Dune Messiah employs one called a Stone Burner.
Weapons of Mass Destruction is also the title of an album released by the rapper Xzibit in 2000. In 2004, Faithless released the album No Roots, containing the single "Weapons of Mass Destruction" ().
During the 2003 Iraq War, a parody () based on Internet Explorer's "404 File Not Found" message was created, poking fun at the state of international affairs, and for a time was the #1 hit for the Google search "weapons of mass destruction". Similarly, at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, February 24, 2004, George W. Bush joked about being unable to find WMD in Iraq, saying "Those weapons of mass destruction must be somewhere", while showing images of himself looking around the White House for something (; full transcript here).
The 2005 series of Doctor Who contained a double episode about an alien invasion in London, which was full of snide remarks about the rhetoric surrounding the Iraq war. In one scene, when discussing whether an attack on the aliens' space craft was warranted, politicians claimed it was necessary because the aliens had "massive weapons of destruction" which could be deployed "within forty-five seconds" — a stab esp. at Blair who had claimed that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction that could be deployed within 45 minutes.
In 2005, the Paranoia RPG published a collection of new Straight-style missions under the title "WMD". Each mission revolved around a central plot device with the initials WMD. At least one of the missions involved an actual device that might have been a WMD; but, in general they simply focussed on situations rife with a sense of stress, uncertainty and fear.
Author Hugh Cook's 1992 fantasy novel The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster satirically mentioned that the avalanche, is a terrible weapon of mass destruction, outlawed by civilised countries in the conduct of war.
In the Nextwave comic book the Beyond Corporation© is testing out "Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction" within the US. The first such weapon is Fin Fang Foom. This is all documented in the Beyond Corporation©'s marketing plan.
See also: Nuclear weapons in popular culture.
- Chemical and Biological Weapons: Use in Warfare, Impact on Society and Environment, by Gert G. Harigel, 2001.
- The Meaninglessness of Term Limits, by Gregg Easterbrook, New Republic, September 26, 2002.
Definition and origin
- WMD: Where Did the Phrase Come from?, by Will Mallon, 2003, History News Network.
- Definitions of WMD, Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies, September, 2004.
- WMD: Words of mass dissemination, BBC News, February 12, 2003.
- What makes a weapon one of mass destruction?, by Michael Evans, The Times, February 06, 2004.
- UN Resolution 687 (1991), FAS.
- Weapons of Mass Destruction and International Law, by David P. Fidler, February 2003.
- UN Security Council Resolutions
- Non-Proliferation Under Security Council Resolution 1540, by Duncan Currie, May 5, 2004
- A New U.N. Approach to International Security In An Age of Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker and Bryan Pate.
- FindLaw Forum: Weapons of mass destruction and international law's principle that civilians cannot be targeted, by Joanne Mariner, 2001.
- Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Susan D. Moeller, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 2004.
- Memory for fact, fiction, and misinformation, by Stephan Lewandowsky, Werner G.K. Stritzke, Klaus Oberauer, and Michael Morales, Psychological Science, 16(3): 190-195, 2005.
- Americans on WMD Profileration, The PIPA/Knowledge Networks Poll, April 15, 2004.
- United Nations: Disarmament
- US Department of State
- Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)
- Federation of American Scientists (FAS)
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction
- Weapon Systems - Specifications, development histories and photographs and drawings of military weapon systems on India Defence
- Avoiding Armageddon, PBS
- FAS assessment of countries that own weapons of mass destruction
- Terrorism and the Threat From Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East
- Comparison of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese translations
- Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
- Come Clean - The WMD Awareness Programmecs:Zbraň hromadného ničení
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