The Trench

Biological Chemical

JPPR – The 4 letters that shaped my career

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Dazed. Shocked. Stunned. Does any one of these words even begin to convey my reaction when around noon on 23 April I received the phone call informing me of Julian’s passing, having lost the battle against COVID-19 the night before?

Julian Perry Robinson (by Richard Guthrie; used with permission)

When I entered the field of chemical and biological warfare in 1986, his name immediately stood out. Julian Perry Robinson, a name immediately associated with the Stockholm International Peace research Institute (SIPRI) and the University of Sussex, near Brighton in the south of England. Our first encounter was in 1989. In hindsight, it was unsurprisingly at a workshop bringing together representatives from civil society, the peace movement, students, and academics. It took place at a central-London Quaker centre. My goal of attending the meeting was to meet with Julian and talk about my master’s dissertation on chemical weapon (CW) armament dynamics. My memory is that when we were both together in the same room, we walked straight towards each other and shook hands. No ice ever had to be broken.

Writing down my personal memories has not come easily. Yet, with passing of days, an irony dawned on me: he who had given so much of his life to preventing chemical and biological warfare left us on the anniversary of the first major CW attack in the First World War. Not to mention that he came into this world on the 23rd anniversary of Armistice Day.

Riding waves

Contrary to nuclear and conventional weapons, interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBW) has always waxed and waned in long waves. Whenever CBW became politically or socially controversial, droves of people would enter the field. When the issue disappeared, so did those persons. Like fruit flies, after dropping a piece of banana in a bin and then emptying that bin. Julian was part of what I always thought of as the first wave that rose in the mid-1960s and coalesced around the just established SIPRI.

There a group of young academics came together who would eventually write the 6-volume The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, published between 1971 and 1975. Besides Julian, there was Joseph Goldblat, Carl-Göran Hedén, Milton Leitenberg, and several others. The six volumes did not appear in chronological order, but in the preface to the 5th book (1971), then Director Robert Neild recognised Julian’s centrality to the endeavour:

It is usually wrong to single out one person from a team but in this case there is no doubt that one person has contributed more than anyone else to the study. He is Julian Perry Robinson who has written more of the study than anyone else and has had a great influence on the whole shape and quality of it.

Further in the distance, there were other formidable figures such as Matt Meselson and Martin Kaplan, and so many more. The fabric that held them together for decades was the so-called Pugwash movement (in full the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs). As Julian recorded in his history of the Pugwash movement and CBW, at its origin in 1966, the Pugwash study group on biological weapons (BW) and the nascent SIPRI’s BW project ‘were actually two facets of the same activity’. That symbiotic relationship continued for many decades.

A second wave rose towards the end of the seventies, peaked in the mid-1980s and faded in 1990. The US push for new binary CW and the way the Reagan Administration arm-twisted NATO into adopting a force goal (as a consequence of a condition Congress had voted to fund production) that opened the door for possible deployment in Western Europe led to wide political and societal resistance. For some European countries, the move came on the heels of difficult political decisions concerning intermediate-range nuclear weapons and the start of deployments on their territory. Peace and environmental movements stepped into the fray. Germany cleverly outmanoeuvred the USA and in return for its support for the NATO force goal demanded the evacuation of all US chemical munitions stockpiled on its territory. After the US cargo ships laden with the CW left German waters in the summer of 1990 that wave subsided. This period marked my involvement with CW (and later BW).

The third wave coincided with the finalisation of the negotiations for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the preparations for the treaty’s entry into force. A large influx of lawyers and other specialists, including persons with highly specific science, technological and engineering expertise, characterised it. Shortly afterwards a fourth wave took shape, again somewhat more specialised. It was linked to the debates and diplomatic negotiations to equip the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention with verification machinery analogous to that of the CWC.

The third and fourth waves, which are still ongoing, witnessed growing participation from multiple stakeholder communities, including civil society, scientific and professional associations, and academics, in the diplomatic proceedings, thereby creating a rich multi- and interdisciplinary patchwork of expertise supporting the CBW disarmament ambitions.

People like Julian rode all the waves. Their all-round knowledge – the science behind the weapons, the legal dimensions, knowledge of the political process – as well as the general recognition of their expertise by policy shapers and makers has, in my mind, never been matched. And, most importantly, they were willing to share their knowledge with others, including newcomers to the field. They were elite, not elitists.

The never-ceasing intellectual push

Many pieces celebrating Julian’s life and work recall his interactions with students. I was not a student of his, yet he was very much my mentor. Not just on introducing me to the CBW field, but – more importantly – on how to organise research, on how to ask the right type of questions, and on how to be critical of one’s own answers. That learning process could be vexing.

After the London meeting, Julian – together with that other British pillar of academic interest in CBW disarmament, Nicholas Sims, then of the London School of Economics and Political Science – actively supported my master’s and later PhD project on CW armament dynamics at the Free University of Brussels. Back then Belgium may already have been at the crossroads of many things, the CW field was nonetheless a lonely place. That led to multiple treks to Sussex University, and more specifically to the Mantell Building. I still recall Julian’s facial expression when we met there for the first time and I asked him whether the building had been named in honour of the British palaeontologist. “Gosh, Jean Pascal, do you know that?”, he replied all smiles in a slightly mocking surprise tone.

While developing the research framework for my PhD dissertation, I came across the term ‘assimilation’ in several of Julian’s writings. Used for the first time in the section on the growing political pressure in the US to resume CW production in the CBW chapter of the 1982 SIPRI Yearbook, I noted that he revisited the concept in multiple papers and book contributions but tended to touch on different facets. In essence, it posited that for a particular weapon to become assimilated into military doctrine, a variety of political and military imperatives have to become reconciled. Julian drew on economic theory as well as armament theories, especially those schools emphasising bureaucratic or technological imperatives.

Not having found a publication synthesising the assimilation concept, I wrote a four-page research framework paper bringing together the many strands of Julian’s writings. Together, his thoughts developed over several years revealed striking internal coherence. His surprise surprised me. It was the start of intense conceptual discussions that led to an advanced model for studying the internal dynamics of weapon acquisition in states and terrorist entities I still use and teach today.

It also marked the start of many after-working hours discussions in the Swan Inn just outside the campus of Sussex University. Two-three times a year I would cross the Channel for one or two-week photocopying forays into the archives. One staying memory was this extreme use of acronyms. So, I guess that in my early days, I visited the ADIU (Armament Disarmament Information Unit); much later that became HSP (Harvard Sussex Program), and there may have been something else in between. There I was ‘consulting’ the SHIB, but I could not research it because the acronym referred to the cataloguing system and not the archives proper (parts of which were stored in Julian’s basement flat). And thus it continued, with things like PITH (Progress in The Hague) or PIG (Progress in Geneva), features in the CBWCB (Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions Bulletin).

But the Swan Inn was my real university. Over beer (him) and wine (I) we discussed progress in my PhD project. And the meetings usually ended with detailed suggestions of what I should research next. No instructions, no. Always open questions. “Hmm, very nice, Jean Pascal…. However, have you thought of this or that aspect?” By the next time, I had followed up on his suggestions, and so we found ourselves back in the Swan Inn, and with pride I summarised what progress (I thought) I had made. “Hmm, very nice, Jean Pascal, but have you…?”

Yes, I had a sense of frustration; a sense of feeling every time tantalisingly close to the answer, yet never ever being able to quite grab it. Gradually I came to realise that time and time again he was pushing the edges of my understanding of the research questions, teaching me never to be satisfied with the answers I came up with. Always question one’s own findings, never relent because there may always be more to discover beyond what one thinks one knows. THAT has stayed with me ever since.

Chemistry and linguistics: the twain that never met

One issue that kept recurring in our discussions, and that we never resolved, was the distinction between ‘poison’ and ‘asphyxiating gas’. Both terms appeared in documents agreed at the 1899 Hague Peace Conference. The provision banning the use of poison and poisoned weapons in the Laws of War the delegates adopted unanimously without any discussions; the Declaration on asphyxiating gases failed to gain consensus. I argued that a semantic bifurcation had occurred: in the minds of the negotiators ‘poison’ referred to past weapons and usage; ‘asphyxiating gases’ to toxic substances developed and produced by the chemical industry.

Julian, a trained chemist, strongly disagreed. A poison is a poison. I had graduated in Germanic linguistics with specialisation in phonology. Heavily influenced by Noam Chomsky’s approach to transformational-generative grammar during the late 1960s, I was deeply conscious of the mental construction of words and the underlying contexts to which a user may be referring when communicating. To me, in 1899 the delegates evoked referents whose meaning and associated semantic fields were clearly distinct to them.

This discussion continued well after my PhD exam in May 1996, as the following extract from a letter to Julian in February 2001 illustrates:

In terms of your comments, yes, I really wanted to say a lot more, especially since I have so much more material to include. The discussion on the semantic bifurcation of poison/asphyxiating gas is perhaps one we should reserve some quality time for. As a linguist in my ‘olden days’ I am confronted with the fact that at the end of the 19th century diplomats and military advisers started making use of two terms referring to the same object (i.e. poisonous substances). In the development of languages usually two things may happen: either one of the terms (the older or socially less prestigious one) disappears or both terms undergo a shift in meaning (the stool/chair and skirt/shirt in English history being two very obvious examples). Meaning is understood to be constructed in a certain social context (and to me it is wonderful that this basic insight of linguistics is at the heart of the growing school of social constructivism in international relations). In other words, ‘poison’ and ‘asphyxiating gas’ must acquire their meaning in distinct semantic fields, otherwise I cannot explain why the negotiators at the 1st Hague Peace Conference started to make the distinction in the first place. Moreover, it was not an idiosyncrasy of the participants at that conference, since it has been maintained ever since. Hence the noteworthy references in World War 1 documents and especially in the different charges against Germany at the end of the war (these documents are quoted at length in my PhD dissertation).
   In my view, the semantic differentiation occurred on the basis of the then current understanding of the concept of ‘technology’ and the experience of the impact of technological development on society in general and on warfare in particular.

We never saw eye to eye on this one. During my internal PhD exam in May 1996 he raised the controversy. He explained in detail why he disagreed. He stated that he was aware of the line of thought I had developed in my dissertation but added that it was the best argument in favour of that position he had ever come across.

That was a remarkable moment. I took the critique as a great compliment. Yet, its deeper message signified that researchers could fundamentally disagree on a given topic, but still respect each other.

A discussion never finished…

And then there was that something about the PhD research experience Julian raised during one of our Swan Inn discussions: “Remember (or did he say ‘cherish’?) this time; you will never experience it again in your life”. He was referring to the luxury of being able to investigate a topic in great depth.

Julian was right. I embarked on several major research projects but managed to finish few. My waxing frustration over my inability to recapture those most satisfying years contributed to the decision to set up The Trench in 2013; to own my professional life.

While writing this tribute to Julian, I came to realise how much The Trench’s mission statement owes to those discussions back in the 1990s:

     Recalling where science, industry and military art converged: the call for deep understanding of the processes that contributed to the emergence of modern chemical or biological warfare; a thought that remains as true today with regard to future threats, as it applies to history.

     Challenging entrenched positions: always question one’s own perception of the truth; dig deeper; always push that extra shovel. Even if one is the sole person to think that the Earth is round, it would still not make 8 billion other people who insist the world is flat right.

     And then there is the unwritten third line to the mission statement: Never go over the top. Just like machine guns mowed down young men climbing out of their trenches to attack enemy positions; staking out spectacular positions or making wild claims would cut me down to size. This quiet thought may have originated with an unconscious internalisation of Julian’s intellectual modesty, another trait I admired in him.

Unfortunately, the ‘quality time’ mentioned in my letter never materialised. Currently working on a CBW history project, I was a few months away of sending Julian a rough manuscript section positing that the norm against ‘asphyxiating gases’ was not a continuation of the proscription of ‘poison’ use; rather it had its origins in the health and environmental regulations arising from the first industrial revolution when so many new toxic substances were ruining the health of labourers and city populations.

What remains are many cherished memories of how radically my career changed course. And thoughts about what might still have been…

Yes, JPPR played a really big part in all that.


  1. Annick Suzor-Weiner
    13 May 2020 at 7:56 am

    Very touching memories and informative report.
    I wonder if your remark that “interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBW) has always waxed and waned in long waves” does not apply somehow to nuclear weapons: Waxing after the end of WWII, waning after the end of cold war… Young generations are not conscious of the threat. Time to wake them up?

    1. Tom Sauer
      13 May 2020 at 1:43 pm

      Thanks for this nice contribution, Jean-Pascal. PhD supervisors (like myself) should be aware of their potential role. You have been lucky with JP Robinson.
      I also cannot agree more with you saying that researchers could disagree, but still respect each other.
      Furthermore, I also fully agree with Annick’s remark that “the waxing and waning” also applies to nuclear weapons, unfortunately. There is still a lot of work to do.

  2. Elisa Harris
    20 May 2020 at 10:28 pm

    Thank you for your beautiful tribute, Jean Pascal. You’ve described perfectly the Julian so many of us were so fortunate to know.

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