Thursday, June 18, 2009

American Experience: The Living Weapon (PBS, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched two films on a DVD I’d recorded in the wee hours from KPBS, including an American Experience episode called “The Living Weapon” about the U.S. biological weapons research program, which existed secretly and tested biological agents (sometimes with “simulants” — harmless, or at least hopefully harmless, bacteria that would spread similarly to lethal or pathogenic ones — and sometimes with the real thing; the guinea pigs for the latter were usually Seventh Day Adventists whose religion forbade them to bear weapons but not to serve in a non-combat role; they were also forbidden to smoke or drink and therefore were generally healthier than most servicemembers, which made them good subjects for bioweapon research for isolate-the-variable reasons; if they got sick the scientists could be reasonably confident that it was the agents they were exposing them to that were making them sick).

The program started in 1942 at the request of the British government, who were concerned that the Germans might drop biological agents (particularly anthrax) on British cities as an offensive weapon, and they wanted anthrax stockpiles of their own and turned to the U.S. because we could produce them in far more massive quantities than they could. That’s when the biological weapons research center at Fort Detrick, Maryland was founded — and interestingly, the first head of it was Ira Sullivan, head of the biology department at the University of Wisconsin, who was recruited and took the job despite his Quaker background and the overall distaste for war with which that had left him. Later the program’s chairs decided they needed a place to expose servicemembers to biological agents “in the field,” and so they set up the infamous “proving ground” at Dugway, Utah (in one instance flying their Seventh Day Adventist volunteers out to Utah, exposing them and then flying them back for observation just a day later!) — and the program hummed along until it got involved in the agitation around the Viet Nam war, in which the U.S. government used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon (for the first time since World War I) and also spread the defoliant Agent Orange — which turned out to be at least as dangerous to our servicemembers as anyone else.

After a major accident at Dugway in which an agent they were testing blew away in the wind and killed 6,000 sheep on nearby ranches, in 1969 President Nixon bowed to public pressure and halted the bioweapons program by executive order (imagine that — a Republican President actually doing something humane!). I’m surprised the show didn’t point out the obvious practical objection to biological weapons (as differentiated from the moral ones), namely that a bacterium or virus doesn’t know friend from foe and under field conditions, with winds blowing this way and that, it’s hard to ensure that a biological battlefield weapon kills the other guys and leaves your forces alone. (That was a problem with chemical weapons, too, which is why the first Geneva Convention, signed in 1925, banned them — though the U.S., scofflaw nation as it’s consistently been on such matters, didn’t actually ratify this treaty until 1975!)

Other than that, this was a nicely done show; it was amazing just how much film footage of the bioweapons tests still exists, and it also made the point that, like the scientists who invented the atomic bomb during World War II, the ones in the bioweapons program justified their work on the basis that we were dealing with a particularly evil, unscrupulous enemy that was probably developing bioweapons themselves and wouldn’t have qualms about using them — though, ironically, at least as far as the Germans were concerned we needn’t have worried; for all the evil things he did, Adolf Hitler had been so traumatized by being on the receiving end of a gas attack in World War I (it left him incapacitated for several weeks, during which time the war ended) that he forbade German forces from using chemical or biological weapons.

This was not the case in Japan, however, where a scientist named Ishii not only pushed a bioweapons program but tested it on Chinese in Japanese-occupied territory — and got a free pass from any war crimes trial because the U.S. bioweapons researchers wanted his data. It’s fascinating how Nazism remains “the gift that keeps on giving,” that because the Nazis were (generally) so unscrupulous we felt we had to sink to their level, and ever since then we’ve been justifying it by reference to a steady succession of “existential” enemies: the Soviet Union and now “terrorists.” At the same time, as I’ve pointed out here earlier, the whole idea that it was 20th century war that blurred the distinction between combatants and civilians is nonsense; armies have been targeting civilians as long as nation-states have existed and fought each other — in ancient times with sieges and catapults; in the 19th century with long-range cannon; and in the 20th century with bombing planes and, later, rockets. The idea that war can be somehow “professionalized” and the civilian population insulated from it is, and has always been, utter nonsense, preached by those who want to make war seem more antiseptic and “clean” than it is or can ever be.