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CHEMICAL ARMS PLANS ARE SAME OLD TUNE

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Wilfred Owen, a 25-year old British officer in World War I, watched through the dark lenses of his face mask as mustard gas choked a soldier who died lunging him for help.

Owen wrote verses describing carrying his comrade's body back in a wagon. If you could see that sight, Owen wrote, you would not quickly send men into chemical warfare. Not long after he wrote those lines, Owen also was killed in action.His words still cry from the grave to describe chemical arms' terror, a terror that led the world's major powers to ban the use of chemical weapons after WWI.

But in the 71 years since that war ended, nations have yet to ban chemical arms themselves, or their production and storage. President Bush and the Soviets are making overatures to do that now. While their proposals provide hope, close inspection shows they so far still offer more politics than performance.

That has a direct effect on Utah because 43 percent of the nation's chemical stockpile is stored at Tooele Army Depot--and the Army told the Deseret News last year that at least 784 of the aging weapons there have developed leaks. Also, new chemical weapons are field tested at Dugway Proving Ground.

Bush's offer at the United Nations last week to cut chemical weapons sounded good -- at first.

It included destroying 80 percent of the U.S. stockpile now -- if Soviets will, too -- while all of the world's chemical-capable nations work on a total chemical ban treaty; destroying 98 percent of U.S. chemical weapons within eight years of that treaty if the Soviets also sign; and destroying 100 percent of the weapons within 10 years if all chemical-capable nations sign.

But Bush didn't mention a few things.

First, much of what America is offering to destroy in arms it couldn't fire anyway. Some of them can't be used because they are old, deteriorating and simply too dangerous to move. Some, like M-55 rockets, no longer even have launchers available.

Second, the military is already under orders from Congress to destroy 90 percent of the existing stockpile by 1997 anyway -- but would replace some of it with new, more-safe-to-use binary chemical weapons, which mix two ordinarily harmless gases in flight to form deadly nerve gas.

The Army is already building a new plant at Tooele to destroy the older arms now stored there and has used a pilot plant there for years to develop technology to destroy the weapons.

So America is not really offering to destroy any weapons that it hasn't heretofore decided to discard, nor do it any faster than already scheduled.

Essentially, it's the same old situation in new wrapping.

The Soviets have an estimated 50,000 to 300,000 tons of chemical arms compared to America's estimated 30,000 tons. As Utahn Brent Scowcroft, Bush's national security advisor, told the press, Bush's proposal would force the Soviets to destroy " a great deal more arms" than it would America.

One thing Bush's offer did was force the Soviets to meet or exceed his rhetoric, if not the action the rhetoric implied.

Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze told the United Nations after Bush spoke that the Soviets challenge America to mutually stop all chemical weapons production immediately and begin disposing of their existing arsenals.

But that would eliminate the Soviet's greatest fear of American chemical arms -- the new binary weapons, which are still being de-bugged and produced at slow rates.

The Soviets have called for America to stop production of the binaries ever since they were proposed, so their position also appears to be essentially the same in new wrapping.

Maybe not. Maybe they now think as critics have long claimed that chemical stockpiles are not needed to defend against chemical attack, that numerous other weapons systems could be used to retaliate. And destroying the stockpiles eliminates the risk of accidents in storage or tests.

But America and the Soviets seem to be doing the same old dance. If they need inspiration to ensure it does not become a dance of death, Owen and anyone who has ever seen the excruitiating death from chemical arms could provide some.