LITTLE-REMEMBERED, amid reports of the unleashing of chemical weapons in Iran and Iraq, is the fact that the United States was one of the first victims of gas warfare in history. In World War I, the first conflict in which poison gas was used extensively, the French, British, Russians, and Germans all sustained large numbers of gas casualties. US chemical casualties were fewer, but they represented a much larger percentage of total casualties - 27 percent of all US dead and wounded.
By war's end, use of gas by all participants was rising, with the US shooting off its own chemical shells as well. At that stage in the history of chemical warfare - with its growing recognition that common industrial substances could be weapons - there was both macabre ingenuity and black comedy. Two examples: respirators made of women's stockings and gas masks styled for horses.
Late in the war, when the first US chemical regiment decamped from Washington, it carried the jaunty nickname ``the Hellfire Boys.'' (To this day, a dragon breathing fire and smoke is the symbol of the US Army's Chemical Corps. Dragon figurines, dragon mugs, ashtrays, and even dragon wastebaskets are common items in chemical officers' offices.)
Chemical weapons were not used in the main theaters of World War II, perhaps because Hitler feared retaliation in kind. In fact, German scientists produced a secret human pesticide the Allies did not have: nerve gas. A drop of this lethal agent on an unprotected arm can kill.
After Allied researchers unraveled the secrets of this gas, nerve agents became the mainstay of the chemical arsenals of both superpowers. By the mid-1960s, the US had everything from bombs to rockets to land mines filled with nerve gas.
President Nixon canceled new chemical arms production in 1969, in the face of controversy over such incidents as the accidental death of some Utah sheep grazing near an outdoor nerve gas test.
``Mankind,'' the President said, ``already carries in its own hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction.'' It took a concerted effort by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s to get Congress to agree to resume chemical weapon production. The Pentagon cited as reasons a steady Soviet buildup, and a need for modern, safer chemical weapons.
The congressional battle was so close that twice, in 1983 and 1986, Vice-President George Bush was called to the Senate chambers to break tie votes. His mother, Dorothy Bush, objected in 1983. ``George knows I disapprove of it,'' she said.