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#WavellReviews Toxic by Dan Kaszeta

Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia is available from Hurst Publishers.

Chemical warfare and nerve agents.

Mention these words to most uniformed personnel and it will likely bring back ‘fond’ memories of testing respirators in safe conditions.  But the subject is far more complex, and it is this gap that Dan Kaszeta’s book Toxic fills.  Toxic tells the history of the development and use of nerve agents, historically and thematically.  It covers practical issues such as the storage and weaponising of nerve agents, as well as more strategic questions about their use.  

The author, Dan Kaszeta, was a US Army Chemical Officer and also a Secret Service Officer involved with counter CBRN.  His personal experience and knowledge of nerve agents shine throughout the book.

To give this review a bottom-line up front; it’s worth reading.  It is a great mix of technical knowledge, security thinking and history.  It blends the practical with the strategic and makes the topic accessible and interesting.  Toxic tells the story of nerve agents in a modern context.

One of the key historical periods that Toxic details is Operation Paperclip; or the capture of German scientists in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.  The book examines the efforts of both the Germans to destroy, and the Allies to capture, nerve agent infrastructure.  As is often the case in history, the minor details matter.  A single singed notebook and a throw away comment about a buried barrel proved to be a vital part of the Allied effort to capture Germany’s nerve agent knowledge.  Kaszeta merges his technical detail and experience with the historical evidence to present a detailed, but accessible, record of history.

Another theme that Toxic explores is how difficult it is to produce nerve agents in sufficient quantity and quality, as well as problems with weaponising them.  Be it the detail of artillery or aerial testing, to more modern history about terrorist labs, Toxic explores practical details to broaden a readers understanding.  These details bring to life the scale of resource and commitment needed for successful nerve agent programmes. It gives the reader a feel for how, and why, states restrict, or are restricted in, their use of nerve agents.  Any notions that chemical weapons are easy to create and weaponise are dispelled by the authors expertise. 

Yet, Toxic is more than a blow by blow history of chemical production.  It is how Kaszeta merges the practical with the strategic that makes Toxic the book it is. Why didn’t Hitler choose to employ chemical weapons in 1945?  Why did Iraq choose to employ them against Iran?  Why did Syria? 

The simple answer might be a combination of the practical and strategic.  Arguably Hitler was traumatised by his experience of gas in the First World War.  More likely, he was concerned about Allied retaliation and a belief that the only reason the Allied forces hadn’t already used them was because Germany also had not. 

Toxic later looks at chemical weapons in the context of Cold War deterrence and how the practical realities of maintaining large stockpiles often merged badly with political aspirations.  Do states only build chemical weapons because they believe others have them?  

The widescale use of nerve agents during the Iraq-Iran war is explored in detail.  Kaszeta brings out numerous themes; nations struggle to develop nerve agents on their own and using them requires tactical doctrine.  For all Iraq’s development of nerve agents, Toxic explores how a defending force can train to overcome the effect of their use, and the example of the Iranian Army shows this.

Toxic also explores the very modern use of nerve agents.  Whilst not accepting their use as legitimate, Kaszeta shows that there is potentially some military utility for their use.  For example, heavier than air nerve agents can be used to fill underground bunkers, driving their occupants to the surface, and he details their use by the Syrian regimes use against civilians.  Toxic engages with and dispels many conspiracy theories around this and does not shy away from the horror they cause.  His account of their use by the Syrian regime makes for uncomfortable reading and places nerve agents in a very modern context. 

Kaszeta’s analysis also shows there are holes in the modern understanding of nerve agents.  The history of novichok,  used in the Salisbury attacks, provides evidence of this.  As Russia joined the OPCW and opened chemical factories to the world, the development of this agent went undetected.  Toxic asks tantalising questions about what the West knew, or didn’t, before the attack, presenting evidence for the smuggling of samples to Norway.

Overall, as a reader, I was left with the un-answered question, why use them?  Kaszeta makes a convincing case that nerve agents are resource and time intensive weapons.  They are easy to detect, difficult to use, and easy to train against.  Assassinations aside, they have not yet found strategic military utility to date.

In summary, if you have any interest in nerve agents then Toxic is a must read.  It presents an excellent blend of practical knowledge with contemporary history and security.  Throughout, the author uses both his personal experience and primary evidence to tell the story of the development and use nerve agents. 

Steve Maguire

Steve Maguire is a British Army Officer serving with The Royal Irish Regiment.  He has served at regimental duty, with an armoured infantry brigade, and with the Army Headquarters.  He is also the Wavell Room Senior Land Editor.


The views expressed in his writing are his and do not represent the views of the Ministry of Defence.

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