Much has been said in recent weeks about Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Left out of the discussion, most of the time, is the likelihood that Syria, like its ally Russia, possesses biological weapons as well, weapons that have a much greater potential for harm if used by Syria for retaliation against the U.S.
Chemical weapons are of limited use as weapons of war. Relative to the degree of expenditure and effort, they’re usually less effective than conventional weapons. They are effective mainly as weapons of terror. Video of the nerve-gas deaths of innocent civilians, including children, is far more horrifying than pictures of the aftermath of an attack using, say, explosives. More than 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, including an estimated 40,000 civilians (many of them children), yet it’s the deaths of a few thousand from sarin nerve gas that has brought the U.S. to the brink of intervening directly in that war.
Biological weapons are difficult to create and to use, but have the potential for far greater damage and far greater terror, with less chance that a party using such weapons will be held accountable. Many biological weapons can spread from person to person, with no certainty as to the source of the attack—or, in some cases, whether there’s been an attack at all. For example, some experts believe that West Nile virus may have been introduced into the U.S. deliberately, but it may be impossible ever to determine if that’s true.
In a later installment, I’ll look at the alleged biological weapons program in Syria.
First, a little history.
Biological weapons are as old as civilization, and have taken many forms.
The concept of fomites—disease-carrying objects—was familiar in antiquity. The word toxic comes from the Greek toxikon, which derives from toxon, Greek for arrow. Around 850 B.C., Homer wrote, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, of the use of poison arrows. In the Fifth Century B.C., Herodotus wrote of the Scythian archers who mixed decomposed adders with human blood and excrement and buried the mixture in vessels. Adrienne Mayor, in MHQ: Quarterly Journal of Military History, wrote that the resulting poison “would certainly contain the bacteria of gangrene and tetanus (Clostridium perfringins and Clostridium tetani) while the venom would attack red blood cells, nervous system and could even induce respiratory paralysis.” She noted that a Scythian archer had a range of over 1,600 feet and could launch about twenty arrows per minute.
In the Americas, Indians dipped their arrows in manchineel (poisonwood) sap; one such arrow, it is said, killed the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. Some Indians created a poison by irritating a snake with a stick, causing it to bite into a deer’s liver, which was then allowed to putrefy. Indians of the Amazon jungle poison their darts with toxin from the kokoi, or poison-arrow frog.
(A latter-day form of low-tech biological warfare was the use, by the Viet Cong [Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam], of punji pits – traps containing bamboo and wooden spikes contaminated with human excrement. Sometimes the Viet Cong would throw bee hives into groups of South Vietnamese army soldiers, to drive them into the pits.)
Another ancient technique of biological warfare is the poisoning of wells. In the 6th Century B.C., the Assyrians used rye ergot for this purpose. In the Peloponnesian War, during the Spartan siege of Athens, an epidemic killed thousands of Athenians. Thucydides wrote: “It was supposed that Sparta poisoned the wells.”
The Carthaginian general Hannibal, remembered today for his use of war elephants, used snake-filled jars to defeat Eumenes II of Pergomon in 190 B.C. The jars were hurled onto Eumenes’ ships, where they shattered and let loose their contents.
By the 14th and 15th Centuries, corpses were being used in sieges. The smell itself was a factor – defenders of a castle at Thun L’Eveque in northern France in 1340 negotiated a truce because, it was reported, “the stink and the air were so abominable . . . they could not long endure”—but it is likely that the attackers intended to use disease itself as a weapon. At the time, it was believed that disease was transmitted by noxious smells.
In 1346, as Tartars conducted a siege at the Crimean port city of Kaffa (now Feodosia, Ukraine), they experienced an outbreak of plague. They catapulted the bodies of plague victims over the walls of the city – an incident that, according to legend, sparked the second “Black Death” epidemic.
In 1422, at Karlstein in Bohemia, Lithuanian forces reportedly hurled the bodies of soldiers killed in combat, along with 2,000 cartloads of manure, at enemy troops.
In 1495, the Spanish are said to have infected French wine with blood from leprosy patients.
In 1650, a Polish general reportedly put saliva from rabid dogs into hollow artillery spheres and fired them against his enemies.
In 1710, Russian troops battling the Swiss at Reval (now Tallinn) catapulted plague victims over city walls.
In 1763, during the French and Indian War, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America, suggested the use of smallpox to “reduce” the Indian population and ultimately to “extirpate this execrable race.” After a smallpox outbreak at Fort Pitt, one of Amherst’s subordinates, Captain Simeon Ecuyer, gave two blankets and a handkerchief from the smallpox hospital to the Indians, recording in his journal: “I hope it will have the desired effect.” A smallpox epidemic followed, although it is unlikely that Amherst’s scheme caused the epidemic.
During the American Revolution, the British reportedly exposed civilians fleeing Boston to smallpox, in an effort to spread the disease, and did the same with Virginia slaves who had escaped and were sent home. They also sent smallpox-exposed people out to mingle with American soldiers during the siege of Quebec City. “Were it not for that epidemic,” wrote the late BW expert Jonathan Tucker, “Quebec and all of Canada might be part of the United States today.” Subsequent to those incidents, General Washington ordered all American troops variolated (exposed to smallpox so as to induce immunity).
During the “Civil War” in the U.S., Dr. Luke Blackburn, future governor of Kentucky, reportedly attempted to spread disease to Northern cities through the sale of clothing contaminated with smallpox and yellow fever. One Union officer’s obituary stated that he died of smallpox from the contaminated clothing. And, according to the memoirs of General Sherman, Confederate troops shot farm animals in ponds so that their “stinking carcases” would compromise the water supply of Union forces.
Meanwhile, although chemical weapons were used occasionally—the British used sulphurous fumes during the siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War and fired shells containing picric acid at the Boers—such weapons were already considered immoral. In 1899, the Hague Convention banned projectiles whose sole purpose was the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases. Despite the Hague Convention, the Germans used poison gas in World War I – most famously, chlorine gas at Ypres on April 22, 1915.
Also in 1915, Dr. Anton Dilger, a German-American physician working near Washington, D.C., produced large quantities of anthrax and glanders pathogen, which was used by German agents in an attempt to infect 3,000 horses, mules, and cattle headed from the U.S. to Allied forces in Europe. It has also been reported that German operatives in Romania used anthrax pathogen to infect sheep destined for export to Russia. Using anthrax and glanders, German saboteurs are said to have infected horses and mules in France and mules in Mesopotamia, as well as Argentinean livestock intended for Allied use. (It should be noted that a League of Nations committee in 1924 found no hard evidence that Germany had committed bacteriological warfare.)
In 1925, the Geneva Protocol (The Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare) banned chemical and bacteriological warfare. Because the protocol did not ban research, production, and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, and because many of the countries that ratified it reserved the right to use such weapons in retaliation, the protocol amounted to a no-first-use agreement.
The U.S. signed the Geneva Protocol at that time, but did not ratify it until 1975.
In 1930, in Japan, Shiro Ishii, a professor of immunology, began to advocate the creation of a biological weapons program. By 1932, he was given command of three biological research centers, including one in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. In 1931, the Japanese reportedly used cholera-laced fruit in an attempt to poison League of Nations officials who were investigating the Manchurian occupation.
In 1933, Major Leon Fox of the U.S. Army Medical Corps argued, in an article in Military Surgeon, that “Practically insurmountable difficulties prevent the use of biologic agents as effective weapons.”
“Bacterial warfare,” Fox declared, “is one of the recent scare-heads that we are being served by the pseudo-scientists who contribute to the flaming pages of the Sunday annexes syndicated over the Nation’s press.”
(It was not the last time that a scientist would declare biological weapons unviable.)
Although the Germans, during World War II, did horrific experiments on concentration camp prisoners, those were apparently done to study disease and to develop vaccines and medicines, not to develop biological weapons. Other than a reported case of Germans poisoning a Bohemian reservoir, it appears that they did not use biological weapons. Ironically, a biological “weapon” of sorts was used against them: The German army avoided areas with epidemic typhus, so physicians in an area of occupied Polandused dead Proteus OX-19 as a vaccine to induce false-positive test results for typhus. By creating a false epidemic, the physicians kept the German army away.
In contrast to the Germans, the Japanese conducted a large biological weapons program codenamed Water Purification Unit 731, under the command of the aforementioned Shiro Ishii. The program studied anthrax, tularemia, plague, botulism, smallpox, glanders, typhoid, typhus, and other diseases for use as weapons. It employed more than 3,000 scientists and technicians and killed at least 10,000 prisoners who died from infection, were executed for autopsy, or were cut open for examination while alive. During this program, the Japanese attacked 11 Chinese cities with biological agents; the attacks included water and food contamination with cholera, anthrax, and salmonella, and the release from low-flying aircraft of an estimated 150 million plague-infected fleas along with grain to attract rats that would carry the plague to humans.
The fact that the Japanese were conducting biological warfare was reported in the U.S. Early in 1942, The New Republic magazine editorialized: “Apparently well authenticated reports that the Japanese have experimented with biological warfare in China should put us on our guard. . . . No considerations of humanity on the part of the Axis would prevent the use of this kind of weapon. The chief reasons why it has not been hitherto employed are military. In the first place, it has been difficult to invent a technique that would be effective enough to repay for the military effort. In the second place, an epidemic, once started, would not respect boundary lines, and would be especially dangerous to the aggressor if his troops were to penetrate the infected regions. . . . The ideal place to use this weapon would be in a continent separated from the aggressor by a wide ocean, which the enemy did not expect soon to invade.”
(Still, even after the war, some remained skeptical of the reports. Waldemar Kaempffert of The New York Times wrote, “The Japanese were accused in this war of having dropped plague germs on one Chinese town, but the evidence was not very convincing, since plague is endemic in China.”)
That brings us up to the Cold War, about which I’ll write next time.