On the morning of August 17, 1918, Private Vito Vitelli, of the American 21st company of the 151st Depot Brigade was lying in a foxhole in the Argonne Forest when the German shells containing mustard gas began exploding nearby and spreading out over the ground. The gas crept along the ground like a deadly fog searching for victims. Vitelli awoke realizing that the gas mask he was wearing was either ill fitting or had holes that resulted in his inhalation of this cruel and often lethal chemical weapon. After nine months in the military hospitals he returned home with a citation for a Purple Heart.
The rest of Vitelli’s story is pieced together from the recollections of his daughter Rose, who was only five at the time of his death, and his son who was being carried by his six months pregnant wife, Louise, when she was handed the flag that draped his casket at his military honors funeral. Vitelli, who was born near Naples, Italy, spent the years after that morning in the Argonne in poor health and physical distress. Liver failure was a constant. He would break out in painful blisters all over his body and he also suffered from, according to his daughter, a “nervous disorder” that would probably be called PTSD today. Finally, it was the anaesthetic gas he was given for an appendicitis operation that interacted with his compromised lungs that stopped his heart.
Vito Vitelli was my uncle. Like his son, Vito Vitelli, Jr., I never knew him, only the sketchy outlines of his story in World War I.
Chemical/biological warfare has been “outlawed” by various conventions since those days when the “war to end all wars” was conducted with the assistance of clouds of mustard, phosgene, and chlorine gases that blistered, blinded, suffocated and killed. But anyone with an acquaintance of history knows it is folly to assume that governments and their military minions will stop at anything to gain tactical advantage and that every weapon that has ever been invented, from the throwing stick to the nuclear bomb, has been deployed. The idea that legality has any influence in the matter carries with it the same assurances as a “stand your ground” gun law.
So here we are almost ninety-five years from the day Vito Vitelli was gassed, conducting hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, listening to testimony and commentary about the alleged horrific employment of some form of chemical nerve agent by the Assad government of Syria against rebel forces and his own civilian population. This, of course, all very likely preamble to a Tonkin – like justification for going to putatively limited war against Syria to “punish” and admittedly son-of-a-bitch dictator and to deter and degrade his ability to deploy gas again and/or supply it to any number of enemies America has, and has made, in that region.
This is not the criminally mendacious Bush Cheney government selling the fear of weapons of mass destruction and the total falsehood of Iraqis flying the 9/11 planes on behalf of their war profiteering corporate friends. This is the Obama government, ostensibly transparent, supposedly antiwar, carefully parsing out the supposed logic of a limited strike with “no American boots on the ground” that would show the world Americas discussed for such heinous weapons, and that America’s president means business when he draws a “red line.” This is supposed to be, to hear secretaries Kerry and Hagel, men who probably should know better, a surgical specific tactical, limited event. But even they privately know that these types of incursions are much like a particle entering a Heisenberg cloud chamber like a stochastic pinball machine. Don’t get me wrong, I have a great desire to see Bashar Assad very dead. But while he is the bastard de jour for our government, he is only at the top of my own considerable list of tyrannical MFers.
Politically, the issue has been somewhat like pouring lighter fluid on an ant’s nest. President Obama, the man who dispatched Osama bin Laden is coming off rather like the man who couldn’t. Our reliable war lovers, John McCain, inept Navy pilot transformed by public relations into “war hero,” and likely botched transgender Senator Lindsey Graham, are stuck between their bellicosity and their contempt for Obama. Libertarians, avowedly antiwar, don’t know whether to poop or re-read Atlas Shrugged (same thing really) on this one because they could blow their chances for real power in the Republican ranks. Liberals are hoisted on the horns of a human rights versus antiwar dilemma. If war makes strange bedfellows this is like a frat house pajama party in which everybody is stoned and has a different sexually transmitted disease.
It is a good thing that Congress is being allowed to conduct an open discussion on this subject; there is certainly plenty that the administration needs to clarify, and contradictions that need to be addressed. But so far we have heard nothing that countervails our current moral outrage and addresses the fact that the good old US of A is hardly without sin on this particular subject. When Saddam Hussein used the lethal nerve agent, sarin, against the Iranians in 1988, he did so with America’s knowledge, though not moral outrage. (Those who need a program to keep up with America’s slippery alliances in that part of the world need to recall that Saddam, of whom we have photos smiling and shaking hands with Dick Cheney, was our friend at that time.) Moreover, he did so with CIA intelligence that included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. And that wasn’t the only time; he even used good old mustard gas on four earlier occasions CIA provided intelligence for.
If we go back even earlier, how should we regard the extensive use of agent orange, the defoliant that apparently was not programmed to know the difference between plants and animals, in Vietnam? Where was the moral outrage then by our government? Where was the moral outrage in the rather indiscriminate use of napalm (the liquefied state of a gas) that we used to burn to death women and children and old people in Vietnam? Where is the moral outrage over America’s use of depleted uranium shells in Iraq? And if you want to go back to World War II, which was sort of the sequel to the war to end all wars, there is the little-known, but documented case of the US military occupying Japan after its surrender allowing some of the most despicable developers of chemical and biological weapons in history, the Japanese officers who operated Unit 731, walk away from prosecutions for war crimes, while the American military reputedly walked away with the records of the fruits of their diabolical labors that factored into our own rather ambitious chemical warfare program.*
Vito Vitelli died from the effects of gas in a war that was supposed to “end all wars.” But, unfortunately, his war did not even put an end to the the use of the most despicable weapons of war. No one has yet to develop a chemical or biological agent for hypocrisy.
© 2013, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.3.2013)
*See, Hal Gold, Unit 731 Testimonies (Tokyo, Yenbooks, 1996), P. 136