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War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to al-Qaeda Hardcover – February 7, 2006

4.6 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to arms control expert Tucker, chemical weapons—and efforts to ban them—are almost as old as war itself. The ancient Greeks and Romans tried to outlaw poison, and in 1675 the French and German empires signed a treaty that outlawed poisoned bullets. By WWI, the "futile slaughter of trench warfare" made toxic gases more attractive to the German High Command—and then everybody else. Fear of reprisal precluded the use of nerve agents in WWII battlefields, but the Nazis found Zyklon B, an insecticide, to be an effective instrument of death in their gas chambers. In the 1950s and '60s, virtually every major power was developing and testing chemical weapons, and this deadly technology was often granted to client states: Egypt used nerve agents in its 1962 war against Yemen, and Iraq frequently used nerve agents against its Kurds. Despite current debates about weapons of mass destruction, Tucker's main points are not about warfare: his description of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack proves that with enough money, any madman can develop nerve gas. In his final pages, Tucker does point out that we have "grounds for hope as well as concern," but many readers will only find cause for pessimism. Regardless, this is a sobering, detailed and necessary book. (Feb. 7)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Nerve agents have been in existence since the 1930s, when German scientists invented them. But not even Hitler had the nerve to use them; for crossing that Rubicon, the world has fallen dictator Saddam Hussein to blame. Both tyrants appear in Tucker's history of nerve agents, which is notably informative and clearly written. Though readers will learn how the poison is manufactured and the morbidity of its biological action, they will cleave to Tucker for his accounting of the rationales for making the stuff in the first place. An arms-control expert who has worked in Washington's agencies and think tanks, Tucker imparts the shock of the Allies upon discovering what the Nazis had wrought. At first merely keeping the German stockpile, they built their own production complexes in the 1950s. Yet strategists could never clarify the military sense of nerve agents, while technicians were forced to contend with the inevitable leaks, which cultivated sentiment favoring abolition. Undeterred by international conventions, terrorists' interest in nerve agents generates Tucker's disquieting conclusion to his essential background history. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1St Edition edition (February 7, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422293
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422294
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,658,909 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By John Matlock on May 2, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In my opinion, this book has a slight misnomer in the title. It's not really on chemical warfare as it is on nerve agents -- It could almost be titled 'All you ever wanted to know about nerve gas but didn't know who to ask.' The story begins with World War I, and the standard gasses that were used such as mustard and chlorine.

It is an excellent primer on the history, manufacture, use, storage, disposal, and just about everything else regarding nerve gas. One thing that I was surprised to not find was any reference to Japan's Unit 731 which conducted chemical warfare experiments in China during World War II.

Finally, since the book was written information has come out about one of the roadside bombs that the insurgents set off in Iraq. This was a binary nerve gas artillery shell. Fortunately, the shell was designed so that it had to be fired from a cannon to be armed. When it was set off on the ground the two agents did not mix and only a very small amount of nerve agent was generated.

This book is not exactly light, fun reading, but it is a sign of our times and it is to be expected that al-Queda or some other organization will succeed one day.
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Format: Hardcover
The subtitle of this book, Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda, is a bit misleading. While the first chapter does provide a quick overview of the military use of chemical weapons in the Great War, this is really a history of one type of chemical weapon: nerve agents. And, as a history of nerve agents, it is an outstanding one. Covering the early days of German development in a fine detail as well as post-war US and, a more difficult proposition, Soviet work (And even a few words about the French and British), it presents a coherent picture of the whys and wherefores of these agents. Its coverage of the Novichok/Foliant programs is probably the best unclassified version you will see. It also gives a good overview of the Iraqi projects and use, and provides a useful level of detail about the Aum uses of sarin. In short, if you are interested in these agents, either from a historical perspective or because you need to know what to do about them, this is worth your time. (And it is not a painful read, although one doesn't use words like entertaining when talking about this topic.)
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although this is an engaging, page-turning read, it also is extremely scholarly with notes, references and an amount of historical detail that was surprising. The accounts of the twists and turns of Hitler's "to use or not to use" saga is nail biting and extremely well written.

As other reviewers have said, you won't get info on bactratoxins, secret CIA transdermals etc. as this focuses on nerve gases predominantly. There is a LOT known about China but not a lot said here but that's not a fault, the coverage is broad and deep with few exceptions.

If you enjoy historical novels or well written "reader friendly" history, the author is amazing in the amount of very human detail he gives, including the horrific treatments of conscripted workers in many of these plants. When having a bad day I think of the guy the author describes who watched thousands of his co-workers die of poisoning, marched while thousands of others died like walking skeletons to other prison camps and factories, only, after being one of a few to survive, to be hunted down and murdered by the Gestapo for "knowing" too much!!! I'm not suggesting this topic is entertaining, but the author gives so much detail, you have to keep reminding yourself it is NOT a novel.

Highly recommended not just for those interested in the narrow topic of nerve agents, but also the human side of to use or not to use decisions, and anyone that wants a very detailed look at this aspect of military history.
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Format: Hardcover
For my money, the best and certainly the most current book on the history of Chemical Warfare. Provides a lot of extraordinary detail on both the U.S. and Soviet Union's offensive Chemical Warfare programs. Easily readable with good, clear prose. Contains more detail than a casual reader might prefer, but for those with an interest, this book definitely satisfies. Deserves a place on the shelf of anyone that is engaged in this profession or with an active interest.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Meh. I am a chemist and felt this book was put together by googling chemical warfare. It is great for someone with no background but lacks anything really in depth. A nice book for someone less chemically inclined.
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Format: Paperback
The book has a thorough treatment of the history of the manufacture and use of various chemical warfare agents. The book is free of chemical formulas which results in some loss of clarity when methods of synthesis are described. I noticed one minor error : dieldrin and aldrin are refered to
as phosphorus compounds( they are not)> Strangely, I have noticed this same error in another book I reviewed on sarin.
The book covers use of nerve gases in the Iran-Iraq war , the Gulf wars, War in Yemen , the Syrian civil war. Terrorism by a Japanese cult
involving an attack on the Tokyo subway (using sarin) is covered in detail. The shocking part of the story (apart from the loss of life) was the
apparent ease with which the cult set up a factory for making sarin by the ton. Also covered in the book is the attack on a theater in Russia
which may have involved Fentanyl(not chemically related to the nerve gases).
Finally. a good deal of space is devoted to the attempts to outlaw chemical weapons by international treaty, and to the efforts at destruction
of existing stockpiles. The moral here seems to be that it is easier to make these substances than it is to keep them safely or to destroy them .
The substances mentioned include Tabun, Sarin, Soman, Novichok compounds, Tammelin esters, and VX
Not much discussion of other CW agents like Lewisite, Adamsite , mustard gas or tear gas, but then they are not anticholinesterase nerve agents.
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