Since the dawn of humanity, there has been armed conflicts. Unfortunately, the level of technical advancement has always dictated the intensity of savageness. At first, weapons of choice included stones and sticks. Then, bows and arrows, spears, and crossbows facilitated the taking of lives. Along the way, Greek fire and later black powder made armies stronger.
Firearms made wars even bloodier, but it wasn't enough. The stakes of wars became higher and higher, and winning meant developing more devastating armaments. In the 20th century, mankind had reached its pinnacle. We now have the possibility to destroy the planet thousands of times over. We now have weapons of mass destruction.
Although Westerners are predominantly those who talk about weapons of mass destruction, the term was actually coined by the Soviet military establishment during the Cold War for their in-house documents. They understood that modern weaponry was far more powerful than anything conceived before. Weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is a broad expression that encompasses weapons that are nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological (my focus is on the former three), and have the potential to devastate the world of its inhabitants.
Atomic weapons were born in World War II. The Allies were taking a beating in all theaters of operation and what was even scarier was the fact that the Germans were trying to harness the powers of nuclear fission with their own Virus House Project. Those who would succeed, would rule the universe.
The Americans therefore initiated the Manhattan Project. One of the most secretive military endeavors in recorded history, the venture rallied some of the most brilliant minds in the world such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein. By 1945, at a cost of $2 billion, they had made three bombs: "Gadget," "Fat Man," and "Little Boy." The first was only a test model. The others would be used in the war.
Although Germany had capitulated in May, the Japanese were still fighting. They were offered surrendering terms but turned them down. The Allies then decided it was time to put an end to the war. On August 6, 1945, a U.S. plane dropped Little Boy over Hiroshima, Japan, and three days later, Fat Man was used on Nagasaki. Over 200,000 people died from those two bombs. If the blast didn't kill them, the radioactive fallout did.
After the War, a new enemy emerged: The USSR and its Communist regime. The KGB had an extensive network of spies and a considerable scientific infrastructure. Before long, they were in possession of precious atomic secrets. They detonated their first nuclear bomb in 1949. The Cold War was underway.
The two vast countries started to stockpile nuclear weapons, developing a strategic standoff. The objective was to sharpen the reaction time to the other country's first strike initiative. Neither nation was about to launch a nuclear war but they wanted to be able to retaliate as quickly as possible if the other side did. In that spirit, the Soviets moved some nuclear ballistic missiles to Cuba in October 1962. For 13 days, the prospect of a nuclear holocaust had never felt so real.
Since then, the end of the Cold War convinced world powers to decrease their nuclear arsenal. The problem now lies with rogue nations and terrorist organizations. While it took geniuses to come up with the theoretical research that made the first atomic devices, the technology is now so widespread that it has become possible for almost anyone with the right resources to build a nuclear bomb. The predicament is that terrorists who seek this technology are not concerned about safety or failsafe mechanisms; they build their bombs to use them, not as a deterrent.
The theory behind chemical weapons is that it's the toxic nature of the compound that reacts with the target. In most cases, there's no explosive involved; it's simply the use of chemical products in an aggressive manner. For example, if you were to release a stink bomb in a roomful of people, that could be considered a chemical attack.
Chemical weapons first appeared in warfare during World War I. Artillery shells were loaded with chlorine gas, phosgene, or mustard gas. While the former two were both asphyxiants, the latter was especially popular during the conflict and was the most dreaded of all chemical weapons. It would cause the skin to blister and irritate the lung tissues; enough exposure could cause death. In 1925, a treaty was signed (The Geneva Protocol) to prohibit the use of weapons of this nature.
But that didn't stop its usage. The Italians used them in their war against Ethiopia and the Japanese later did so in China and Manchuria. It also caused damage in the Iran-Iraq conflict in the '80s. The toxins can be delivered through the air or in a food or water supply. Depending on the chemical employed, these weapons' effects can range from annoying to incapacitating to downright lethal.
More dangerous chemical weapons were invented. Sarin was developed before World War II, but only recently has it been utilized; in 1995, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo released this neurotoxin in the Tokyo subway killing 12 people and wounding thousands. One milligram is all that's needed to kill a human. An even more powerful nerve agent was later concocted: VX gas. The main difference is that this product doesn't need to be inhaled; a mere drop on the skin will prevent the brain from communicating with the rest of the body, causing almost instant death.
This gas has never been used in combat (but it was featured in the film The Rock ).
The principle behind biological weapons is similar to chemical warfare, only harm comes from a bacteria or virus. With the number of diseases that medical experts are at a loss to explain, like AIDS and Ebola, it's definitely one of the most feared forms of weapons of mass destruction. With genetic modifications and a controlled spreading method, the entire population could be annihilated.
Aside from the anthrax mailing cases that made waves on the East Coast in 2001, which can be considered attacks of this type, the use of biological weapons dates back to 1346, during the siege of Kaffa, a Genoese port on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea.
But one of the most famous uses of biological warfare was in 18th century North America. Looking to deal with the "Indian problem," blankets infected with smallpox were sent to Native Americans in both Canada and the United States. Since these tribes had never been in contact with such a disease, they were very susceptible and the casualty rate was high. It is believed that certain governments are presently holding smallpox samples -- a virus that is considered extinct -- and could deploy it as a biological weapon.
Of the countries that are believed to hold one form of WMD or another, the areas of concentration are North Africa and the Middle East, Eastern Europe and former Soviet Republics, and Asia. Of course, world leaders like France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have them too.
As of the publishing of this article, Iraq could be on the brink of attack if proof of weapons of mass destruction is found. Of course, most of the world is thinking about the repercussions of a war in which weapons of mass destruction are used.
While most countries possessing such weapons claim they do so in order to retaliate in the event of an attack, any country that acquires weapons of mass destruction raises suspicion within the international community.
Also, such destructive armament has always been popular in the entertainment world. They are the bread and butter of authors like Tom Clancy and have made movies such as The Rock, Outbreak, and The Sum of All Fears blockbusters. Weapons of mass destruction nurture fear and panic, and they will be a part of pop culture for as long as they remain a military reality.