Nobel Gases: Peace Prizes, Chemical Weapons and the Impotence of Hope

The OPCW’s award is less of an achievement than an aspiration

Nobel Gases: Peace Prizes, Chemical Weapons and the Impotence of Hope Nobel Gases: Peace Prizes, Chemical Weapons and the Impotence of Hope

Uncategorized October 13, 2013 0

Syrians inspect a chemical rocket. Photo via Brown Moses Nobel Gases: Peace Prizes, Chemical Weapons and the Impotence of Hope The OPCW’s award is... Nobel Gases: Peace Prizes, Chemical Weapons and the Impotence of Hope
Syrians inspect a chemical rocket. Photo via Brown Moses

Nobel Gases: Peace Prizes, Chemical Weapons and the Impotence of Hope

The OPCW’s award is less of an achievement than an aspiration 


On Oct. 11, a committee in Oslo doled out its annual award for peace. The winner was the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons — or OPCW — a U.N. backed organization formed in 1997 as the enforcement agency of the Chemical Weapons Convention. When chemical weapons are to be investigated or destroyed, it’s OPCW that takes the call.

Sad, then, that this group was awarded a prize set aside for the “person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses,” in the wake of the deadliest use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein’s gassing of the Kurdish village Halabja at the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988.

The OPCW began its storied career by dismantling canisters of mustard gas in Albania. Since then, its worked with India and South Korea to destroy their stockpiles of chemical weapons. Now, it’s been tasked with eliminating these horrific weapons from Syria.

This is all commendable work. But the group’s prize is contingent on horrible circumstances. If hundreds of Syrians had not died thrashing on the ground while suffocating in their own fluids, would the OPCW have won? I think not. The Nobel committee has a history of giving out their awards after the damage has been done, with the hope that no more will come to pass.

Chemical weapons during World War I. Collier’s photo from 1918

The father of chemical warfare

At the Second Battle of Ypres during the First World War, German troops released chlorine gas onto the front. A northwestern wind pulled the pale green pineapple-smelling vapor into the trenches of the French army. The chlorine cloud mixed with the water in the soldiers’ bodies, becoming hydrochloric acid. Six thousand soldiers died in 10 minutes, drowning as fluid filled their ruined lungs. This was the birth of modern chemical warfare.

The man who weaponized chlorine — Fritz Haber — supervised the attack. He saw the consequences of chemical weapons first hand at Ypres, and he was pleased.

Haber was a brilliant scientist, who’d already earned the admiration of the German military by developing a method of synthesizing ammonia from the atmosphere. This remarkable discovery allowed Germany to prolong the war. Until then, gunpowder and explosives were primarily made from nitric acid found in guano. But ammonia is easy to convert into nitric acid, so Germany no longer needed to rely on bat and bird shit for their ammunition. They could pull it from the air.

Little more than a week after the Second Battle of Ypres, Haber returned to his home and argued with his wife, Clara Immerwahr. She stood in opposition to his use of chlorine gas in war, but Haber didn’t see the moral distinction. To him, killing was killing. That evening, Clara took Haber’s service pistol into the front yard of their home and shot herself in the heart. Undaunted, Haber traveled to the eastern front the morning after his wife’s suicide and continued supervising the use of chemical weapons.

Three years later, amidst allegations of war crimes, Fritz Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. His discovery that allowed ammonia to be pulled from the air led to a revolution in agriculture. Ammonia makes a great fertilizer and the ability to make it on demand meant larger and more plentiful crops. Within a few years, the planet could feed billions of people once destined to starve.

Arafat, Shimon and Rabin pose for peace in 1994. Saar Yaacov/Israel Government Press Office photo

A legacy of problematic choices

Teddy Roosevelt was a man for whom peace did not come easy.

He’s one the most eccentric American presidents; a man who loved hunting wild game, the study of naval battles and riding roughshod over Latin America. He won the Nobel Prize for peace in 1906 for his mediation that helped bring about the end of the Russo-Japanese War. An interesting prize to win in light of his foreign policy, described by the famous maxim: “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Henry Kissinger — then Secretary of State under Richard Nixon — won the prize in 1973. When Kissinger won, popular comedian Tom Lehrer (think of him as the Weird Al Yankovic of the 60s) declared political satire to be obsolete. An understandable reaction given that the man responsible for secret bombing campaigns in Cambodia, who pioneered the idea of mutually assured destruction and who said that depopulation of Third World countries should be the highest priority of U.S. foreign policy, had just won international recognition for his work towards creating a peaceful world.

Pres. Barack Obama was given the award in 2009. In one grand gesture the Nobel committee turned their lauded prize into the equivalent of a participation ribbon at a child’s sporting event. Obama was awarded just for showing up. He has, however, proven that he’s more than capable of living up to the reputation of his fellow laureates.

Since being elected, the president continued the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, killed more people using drones than his much vilified predecessor, force fed the inmates of Guantanamo Bay, intervened in Libya and threatened intervention in Syria. Ain’t hope grand?

Because that’s what the Nobel prize is about: hope. Hope with a capital H. Big dumb stupid hope that we cling to in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Obama received the prize because the world hoped he would lead a more peaceful United States. Fritz Haber won the award because the world hoped he would feed more people than he murdered. Alfred Nobel created the prize because he hoped it would cancel out the legacy of violence and suffering he bore as the inventor of TNT.

And now hope for a world without the weapons pioneered by Nobel laureate Fritz Haber has given us our newest recipient: a watchdog group responsible for the dismantling of chemical weapons. A group who has gained attention this year because those weapons were used. Business as usual for the Nobel committee. Dreams are wonderful, but only when they’re backed up by action.

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