Sean Spicer is an idiot, of course, in service to a numbskull, and deserves ridicule for much of what he says from his White House podium. But not everything. Piling on — assuming your opponents are always and everywhere wrong about everything — is as ugly when progressives and Democrats do it as when conservatives and Republicans do. Spicer is being pilloried for making a statement the other day that was true and important and deserves consideration. As despicable as Adolf Hitler was, Spicer said, he “didn’t…sink to using chemical weapons.”
Here, breathe into this paper bag. Settle down. Hear me out.
First, may we specify what Spicer did not say? He did not say, as I have seen numerous headlines quote him, that Hitler never used poison gas. He did not mention, let alone deny, the Holocaust. The key thing about chemical weapons is not that they are chemicals but that they are weapons — munitions, designed and intended for use on the battlefield. Chlorine gas in an explosive shell is a deadly weapon; in a tank at your local sewage treatment plant (which cannot work without it) it’s just a chemical.
The Holocaust, awful as it was, was not the only thing that happened during Word War II, and to insist that it was, to demand that anyone who brings up the War in any way genuflect before the memory, is to dumb down history. It is the same thing as insisting that the only thing the American Civil War was about, the only thing that caused it and the only thing that animated it, was slavery. These attitudes subtract from the sum total of human knowledge. If we cannot discuss and evaluate the complexities of human motivation and behavior without bringing down on our heads howling mobs of simpletons, we are truly lost.
Hitler, in fact, did not deploy chemical weapons on any battlefield of World War II. (A single book alleges a single instance of chemicals used against Russian troops holed up in caves after the battle of the Kerch Peninsula in 1942. The exception, if it is one, illuminates the rule.) Hitler’s restraint, for example during the invasion of Normandy, is remarkable given the fact that it was a German — the incredibly evil Fritz Haber — who invented poison gas and deployed it several times on the battlefields of World War I, beginning with Ypres. Remarkable, too, because up to the very end in the bunker, Hitler had at his command large stocks of chemical weapons including nerve agents.
Despite their horrors, especially for the people affected by them, chemical weapons, including the nerve agents the Germans invented a little later, were not very effective weapons. Handling, transporting and deploying them were tactical nightmares. And then a change in the fickle wind could bring them down on the heads of their owners, instead of the enemy.
But that’s not why Hitler never used them. He, too, was horrified by their effects, and deeply afraid that if he used them, the Allies would respond in kind. Like the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that has prevented the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield (ever since more than one country had them), it is the terror inspired by chemical weapons that restricts their use — except by monsters against civilians unable to respond.
A discussion of chemical weapons — their history, their use and non-use, their nature — is essential to understanding history. Please don’t blow it up by insisting that we can’t bring it up without also, or even instead, discussing the use of poison gas to execute prisoners. That’s awful, too, but it’s different: the United States used gas chambers to execute prisoners until 1999.
Sean Spicer doesn’t know any of this stuff, of course, and neither does his boss, and that’s why all he could do in the face of the huffing and puffing was offer a craven apology and beg us all to stop beating on him. This time — maybe this time only, but this time — we should.