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War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda
War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda
Jonathan Tucker
Anchor, 2007
496 pp., $18.95

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Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints
Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints
Fredric Brown
Routledge, 2005
390 pp., $44.95

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Neil Gussman


Chemical Reactions

Nerve gas and other unconventional weapons.

Nerve gas is becoming the weapon of choice for tv doomsday scenarios. In last year's season of 24, for example, Russian terrorists steal twenty canisters of a made-for-tv nerve gas and threaten to kill tens of thousands of people. They do manage to kill about 100 people, despite the best efforts of series hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland).

Watching season five of 24 makes it clear why we should be afraid of gas, particularly nerve gas, although this terrifying weapon was cleaned up and tamed for tv. The "Weaponized Centox" featured on 24 kills its victims with the lethal efficiency of real-world nerve gas—vx, Tabun, Sarin, and so on—but unlike other actual nerve gases, Centox then conveniently disappears.1 Real nerve gas poses a huge decontamination problem. It sticks to walls and wings, cars and computers, and it is just as deadly on the skin as in the air. When the tv nerve gas Centox is released within CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) headquarters in Los Angeles, the gas quickly kills nearly half of the staff, but those who make it to sealed rooms and survive simply return to their workstations and resume the high-tech fight against determined terrorists inside and outside the government.

Personally, I would not want to be tapping on a keyboard and drinking coffee in a room that had held a lethal dose of nerve gas just a few minutes before. But if TV gets the details wrong, it gets the terror right. Closed, crowded places make tempting targets for terrorists. The 24 terrorists attack a mall, offices, and attempt to attack thousands of homes through the natural gas system.

If you are interested in the history of the most deadly class of chemicals used in warfare, War of Nerves by Jonathan B. Tucker recounts many tales of developing, producing, and deploying chemical weapons, with a particular focus—as the title suggests—on nerve gas. The author of previous books on smallpox and leukemia and editor of a volume on chemical and biological warfare, ...

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