Who Would Do Such a Thing?

American biological weapons researchers at Camp Detrick, Maryland, in the 1940s

As American politicians discuss “red lines” about Middle East governments using weapons of mass destruction, it is easy to forget that Western nations like the US and UK initially pioneered in the development and use of them.  I wrote a brief essay called “Beyond Narcissism and Evil,” for Oxford University Press’s blog, discussing our tendency to look for mental disorders or evil in foreign leaders who consider using, say, chemical weapons.  While I think it is important to consider all variables, the most important ones relate to how those leaders assess their options, and understanding the political context (can they get away with it?).  Why resort to obscure psychological diagnoses or demonization when more sensible causes are at hand?  Read the full blog post here.  Comments welcome, here or there.  And as a nod to my colleagues who have taken this as a call to abandon ethical analyses, I should clarify: far from it.  We do need to understand why government officials, even dictators, think their choices are justified, and we can’t understand that without an understanding of their ethics.  Historians should marvel at how the ethics of using such weapons has evolved in the West over the years, and I’m not sure we all agree on why the changes occurred.

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