Toxic by Dan Kaszeta – a review

(A History of Nerve Agents, From Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia)

By Philip Ingram MBE

I have the unenviable label attached to my profile as a CBRNE expert partly through modules on my Applied Science degree from The Royal Military College of Science being nicknamed the ‘Chemistry of Death,” partially because one of my Masters degree projects was in emerging CBRN threats and partly through my military service having had to deal with CBRNE threats both theoretical and actual all during my 26 years in Service.

I therefore looked forward to the book “Toxic” by Dan Kaszeta, delving into the history of nerve agents from Nazi Germany to Putin’s Russia. Of course, I was considered an expert, I had made organophosphate compounds in a lab, I knew the Germans had invented nerve agents on the back of pesticide research and that the British had invented Vx and Novick’s were Russian; so, what would I learn?

All I can say is a hell of a lot!  Toxic is a comprehensive, exceptionally well researched and thorough explanation of nerve agents, where they came from, how, in broad terms they are made, stored, weaponised, used and work. Having sat in a laboratory being lectured about nerve agents, they can be a very dry subject to say the least, but Dan Kaszeta has managed another coup, to tell their history in a way that reads like a spy thriller. Toxic is a page turner!

That page turner is enhanced by Dan’s very real credibility having been a US Army Chemical Officer and, in the US Secret Service, protecting POTUS from CBRN threats. His knowledge, practical experience and ability to put things in real context shines through.

The title of the opening chapter gave away that the book was well written ‘Axis of Weevils’ brought together the German connection with pesticides, a summary of the whole chapter in 3 words, brilliant.  Importantly he describes how it was the German Army and not the SS who controlled the militarisation of the pesticide research discoveries, a clear example of the real tensions there were between different elements of the German war machine.

The other two important point that came out from his analysis of the German development of nerve agents were the complexity manufacturing them and how this was greatly magnified when attempting industrial level production and secondly the importance of the stocks, documents and scientists captured by the allies at the end of the war.

The complexity issue is critical and reinforced at every turn as the history weaves its way thought the 1950’s and the UK discovering Vx and the 60,70and 80’s with the challenges of not just manufacture but storage and of course delivery means. It is critical when examining the flippant way many so called scientists suggested they could easily make Novichok in a laboratory as part of their defence of Russia post the Skripal affair.

I have one comment to them – I dare you – I know none would even consider it and I shudder at my own fume cupboard concoctions (to be clear none were nerve agents or close).

The unpredictable nature of nerve agents as a weapon and their lack of real impact on the battlefield was well explained as he described their use in the Middle East by Iraq.  Such is their political psychological impact we mustn’t forget it was partially nerve agents that led to the second Iraq war and all of the consequences being still suffered today.  Dan highlights with clear examples why nerve agents are not good weapons of war and not as effective as their deadly reputation suggests.

Given that, I was hoping he might have uncovered more detail around a little reported Operation Avarice where the CIA bought chemical weapons in Iraq in 2005 and 2006.  The few press stories about it are misleading, inaccurate and only tell skewed parts of the story, however I suspect the real files relating to Avarice won’t be released for many years, if ever! One for the next edition.

Having clearly explained how difficult nerve agents are as a weapon of war he explains their effectiveness as weapons of assassination, carefully targeted as in the Vx attack on Kim Jong Nam and the Novichok attack on Sergei Skripal. It is refreshing to read sound accurate analysis, logically explained and completely myth busting.

In all, if you have an interest in military weapon systems, chemical warfare, the impact of personality on decision making and intelligence gathering, the intrigues of manufacturing, storing and weaponising nerve agents (without too much detail) then this is the book for you.  If you like espionage, intriguing factual accounts of real events and a really good read, then this is the book for you.  I highly recommend it.

You can order the book here: https://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/toxic/