It's a vicious Catch 22 – a war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction could trigger the use of those weapons against American troops, reports CBS News Correspondent David Martin.
Iraq's dictator has huge stockpiles of chemical agents like Sarin and VX, by some estimates enough to kill every single person in the world. Are American soldiers prepared to protect themselves against this most horrendous of weapons? To find out, we went to a heavily guarded U.S. Army base where the motto "We've Got the Nerve" takes on a whole new meaning. It's the only place in America where soldiers are routinely exposed to deadly nerve agents.
The United States has sworn never to use chemical weapons. But at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, in a room filled with young recruits, men in rubber smocks dispense real nerve agent with syringes.
One drop is enough to kill everybody in the chamber in minutes. The purpose of the drill is to teach the recruits to detect exactly which kind of agent they're dealing with.
The aim is convince young soldiers that they can be exposed to these agents and survive. Each year 5,000 servicemen and women go through the Army's Chemical Defense Training Facility at the fort. They've been through 17 weeks of training to get ready for this. David Martin enlisted for a day to experience first hand what it's like to be exposed to nerve gas.
They may have nerve but the soldiers still were tense.
They might have been even more nervous if they knew how likely Saddam Hussein is to use chemical weapons, if they knew what Charles Duelfer knows after spending seven years as the deputy director of the UN inspectors in Iraq.
"I came to understand, really, about 1995, just how important these weapons were – seen as key to the survival of the regime," he says. During the first Gulf War, Saddam ordered his military to load chemical warheads on scud missiles and even told them to fire if he was about to be driven from power.
"In my conversations with senior Iraqis, they say that the order was given to disperse these weapons, and he delegated the authority to use them, so they say, to their military commanders under certain circumstances," says Duelfer.
The U.S. did not know where these weapons were, he says. "The pre-delegated authority applied to weapons that had been hidden in five locations, none of which were bombed."
Saddam still had the capability to launch chemical weapons against the U.S., Duelfer says. "The Iraqis are very good at hiding things."
He says that the U.S. never found these five locations, and doesn't know where they are.
Duelfer and his inspectors eventually found stashes of chemical artillery shells. But more important than the actual weapons was what the Iraqis told Duelfer about them.
"One night in September 1995, I had a meeting with a series of ministers where they acknowledged for the first time… the initial birth of these weapons and their concepts of use," says Duelfer.
They told Duelfer that chemical weapons are the crown jewels of the Iraqi arsenal. When Saddam was fighting for his survival against Iran back in the 1980s, he fired off tens of thousands of chemical rounds to save his regime.
"The Iranians were assaulting the Iraqi military forces with human wave attacks. The Iraqis were really pressed by this; they responded by using chemical weapons. They used 101,000 chemical munitions," he says.
The United States did not insist on disarming Iraq then and a few years later, the Iraqis told Duelfer, those same weapons saved the regime again, when the U.S.-led coalition liberated Kuwait and was poised to march on Baghdad.
"They were convinced that a strong element of President Bush the elder's decision not to go to Baghdad was because the United States knew they had chemical and biological agents and would use them if they proceeded to Baghdad," Duelfer says. "So they've got two key data points where these weapons have preserved the regime."
Never mind that none of the histories of the Gulf War say that chemical weapons stopped the first President Bush from going to Baghdad. Saddam and his generals believe that, and from their point of view weapons of mass destruction are the great equalizer against an overwhelming force.
"If you want to tie up your enemy's strength, if you want to tie up his reserves, if all of a sudden a lot of his front-line troops are sick, they've got to be treated," says Duelfer. "It certainly is a morale breaker if they find that something they can't see, they can't hear, and they can't particularly defend against is in the environment."
The Army tries to create that environment at this school, but it's only a pale version of what actual chemical warfare would be like. For one thing, there are strict limits on how long a soldier can wear these hot and heavy suits, lined with charcoal to keep the chemicals out. And a Missouri army base is no Arabian desert. The temperature is set at a comfortable 72 degrees.
"I would say four hours probably would be the max that you'd want to have on that protective suit in that situation," says Sgt. Sean Chernis, one of the instructors and a veteran of the first Gulf War. He points out that there are no timeouts in combat: the chemical protection suit must stay on in the event of an attack.
But the suit is bulky and makes it harder to fight. "One of the things with chemical warfare that the enemy does like, is it degrades the ability for the soldiers to fight and the effectiveness of the soldiers," says Chernis.
The soldiers got a taste of how it feels to be under chemical attack, albeit under carefully controlled conditions. First their blood was tested. Then their blood pressure was taken. Martin's was much higher than normal.
Then gas masks were tightly fitted. In charge are sergeants who work with nerve agents every day of the week. But that doesn't change the fact that the recruits and Martin could die a very unpleasant death.
The symptoms: Headache, dizziness, confusion and nausea, hot dry skin, seizures, loss of consciousness, lack of pulse. "Lack of pulse is not good for you," says one of the instructors.
Everyone is nervous, some more than others.
Sgt. Brad Koland has seen it before. "You can pick out if a student needs to have a little bit more special attention and I'll use you as an example," he said to Martin. "You are a reporter. You should be talking all the time. But you were the quietest student in the entire classroom. So I specifically spent time with you to help ease your fears. Or your anxiety, whichever the case may be."
"Well, we can call it fear," Martin responded.
A trained soldier is supposed to be able to put all the gear on in eight minutes. Martin, an untrained civilian took much longer, even with the help of a sergeant.
Before they go into the hot zone, they go outside for a dry run. With the clown-size boots and thick rubber gloves it's slow and clumsy going. The temperature inside the gear goes up 10 to 15 degrees, so an 85-degree day is its own kind of hot zone.
The procedures seem fairly simple; it's not brain surgery. But it's hard to remember to do it all when the he only thing you can think about is the real nerve agent.
There's one last stop before the hot zone – a chamber where the instructors spray a noxious, but harmless chemical in your face. If you don't choke, you know your mask is working.
Then VX is released into the room, either sarin or VX. VX paralyzes your nervous system in three to five minutes if a drop hits your skin. Saddam Hussein is believed to have 3.8 million tons of it. He also has stockpiles of sarin gas, which gives off a deadly vapor.
Slips of litmus paper help the students identify what the agent is. An instructor asks the students what kind it is. This is a key question. The difference is crucial because sarin dissipates quickly in the air. VX remains lethal for hours. The gas is VX, which is very persistent.
After a VX attack, soldiers must decontaminate anything it has touched, scrubbing it down with bleach and water. A study done by the Marines after the first Gulf War found it would take 20,000 gallons of water to decontaminate one battalion of about 800 soldiers. Finding enough water in the desert was "almost impossible."
There's another problem, which makes solving all those other problems that much harder.
"It felt like my IQ decreased by about 50 points as soon as I went in there," Martin told Chernis afterward. That happens to many people, Chernis says.
"They get 'in the zone' is what we call it," he says.
That is probably why Martin made such a mess of administering an atropine shot to restart the heart of a dummy supposedly stricken by nerve agent. He came within a hair of sticking himself with the needle; a hole in his glove would have exposed him to the nerve agent.
The rest of the trainees have just completed four months of training, training that only one of every 30 soldiers in the Army goes through. Chemical warfare is such nasty business it's a badge not every soldier wants to have. But if it ever happens, these are the soldiers who will have to hold their units together.
"You're going to be the only one in your unit, probably, who has gone through this training. You're going to have to convince that mechanic," says Koland. "You're going to have to convince that cook. You're going to have to convince that office worker that this mask works in a toxic environment."
Martin came out of the training with confidence that the equipment would protect him. But he worries about his many mistakes during training.
"Was there anything I did right?" he asked Koland.
"You took your shower correctly," Koland replied.
American soldiers, at least some of them, have the training, and they have new lighter-weight chemical suits that are rolling off the assembly line at a rate of half a million a year. But Saddam has the weapons, and this time the U.S. may be planning to go all the way to Baghdad.
Says Duelfer: "If (Saddam) thinks it will help preserve his interests and preserve himself, and there's no reason why he wouldn't, (he'll use chemical weapons)."