Book Review – Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia

By Chris Quillen, Biodefense PhD student

Nerve agents are very much in the news these days. Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria repeatedly used Sarin against its own people during that country’s civil war. The Putin regime employed Novichoks in both Russia and the United Kingdom against citizens it deemed insufficiently loyal to Moscow. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un utilized VX in the assassination of his brother at an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Across the globe, the use of nerve agents is challenging the international nonproliferation regime in numerous ways.     

Against this backdrop, Dan Kaszeta’s Toxic: A History of Nerve Agents, from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia provides welcome background and context on these specific types of chemical weapons. A former Chemical Officer in the US Army with decades of chemical weapons experience including multiple stints at the White House, Kaszeta offers much-needed technical expertise on the invention, production, and investigation into nerve agents. The focus specifically on nerve agents is a welcome change from many other histories that tend to lump all chemical (and sometimes biological) weapons into one amorphous “poison gas” threat with little differentiation between them. While older chemical weapons such as sulfur mustard or phosgene are sometimes mentioned in comparison with nerve agents, the author never loses his focus on his primary subject. This focus also enables Kaszeta to bypass the introduction and extensive use of chemical weapons in World War I that tends to dominate many other similar histories. Instead, Toxic begins with the Nazi discovery of Tabun, Sarin, and Soman in the context of World War II and follows the history of the dissemination of this technology to the present day.

The in-depth discussion of Nazi nerve agents is one of the real strengths of this book.  Kaszeta conducted extensive archival research and revealed numerous interesting new details including insights into why nerve agents were not employed during the war, either on the battlefield or in the gas chambers. Similarly, his discussion of nerve agent development by the US, UK, and USSR during the Cold War is impressive even if it tends to focus heavily on weapon systems (likely reflecting Kaszeta’s military background). The sections on the Syrian Civil War and the Skripal poisoning in the UK are also notable for their impressive detail and valuable discussions into those investigations.

Kaszeta’s best analysis appears in recent events that he investigated as part of his work with the open-source research organization Bellingcat. He directly confronts the disinformation campaigns trying to deny Syria’s use of Sarin. The author correctly points out that much of the effort is not designed to disprove Syria’s actions, but simply muddy the waters enough to make investigators throw up their hands in defeat. Kaszeta similarly attacks Russian disinformation about the Skripal poisoning and uses a combination of technical knowledge and common-sense logic to demonstrate the weakness of Moscow’s denials. One would not expect to find much humor in a history of nerve agents, but Kaszeta’s devilish sense of humor makes several appearances, especially when disproving the lies of the Russian and Syrian governments about their nerve agent use.

That said, the book is inconsistent overall. The sections on the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin project and the VX assassination of Kim Jong Nam, in particular, lack the same level of attention as most of the others. The basics are all there, but the minimal amount of detail and the lack of insights are sometimes striking compared to other chapters. Relatedly, Kaszeta sometimes provides copious details on nerve agent production facilities and weapons systems and then fails to provide sufficient analysis of what it all means. This is nowhere more evident than in his too brief final chapter where he brings the entire history together. He, undoubtedly, has more insight to give and the book would likely be much improved if he shared more of it.

Kaszeta remains focused on nerve agents throughout his book, but he sometimes diverges from the broader historical narrative in distracting ways. The chapter on the psychological effects of nerve agents is a key example of this tendency. Kaszeta raises interesting questions about possible linkages between nerve agents and mental illness, but the topic seems out of place and his argument is underdeveloped. Perhaps lacking the appropriate medical knowledge to pursue on his own, the author simply wanted to raise the issue for others to investigate, but this story seemed a speculative diversion away from the main story.    

While most of Kaszeta’s conclusions are well-reasoned, one in particular stood out as questionable. He argues correctly that nerve agents were brought into being through the ingenuity and hard work of people working for the Nazi regime and every other related discovery builds upon that breakthrough. He then makes somewhat of a leap that without this important contribution, nerve agents never would have been invented at all. This conclusion seems debatable at best. Both sides in the Cold War would have continued their chemical weapons research even without discovering the Nazi nerve agents. The science of chemistry also would have continued to advance even without the military impetus. Investigations into the organophosphate compounds that form the basis of nerve agents would have continued regardless. After all, many nerve agent discoveries were originally based on research of pesticides. While the Nazi contribution cannot be denied, the idea that nerve agents would have remained undiscovered without it seems highly unlikely.      

The greatest contribution of Kaszeta’s Toxic is as a historical and technical reference on nerve agents, an important issue. The appendices, in particular, offer solid scientific descriptions of nerve agent issues and background information on several countries rarely discussed in the literature, such as the former nerve agent programs in France and Yugoslavia. Written in accessible language, the book uses Kaszeta’s scientific knowledge to shed light on important questions. For example, he argues that while Soman is more effective than either Tabun or Sarin, few countries have pursued Soman production because it involves the expensive precursor pinacolyl alcohol. He also uses this knowledge to debunk conspiracy theories. Specifically, some have argued that Sarin was only detected in Syria after a warehouse with the binary precursors of methylphosphonyl difluoride (DF) and isopropyl alcohol was bombed. As Kaszeta rightly argues, the bombing of such a building would create a massive fireball from the two flammable chemicals, which would not magically mix together to create a nerve agent. The author’s ability to apply his knowledge and experience to contemporary issues is invaluable. For anyone interested in the historical impact of chemistry or the role of chemical weapons in world affairs, this book is a worthy addition to their reading list.

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