I finally finished reading Dr. James Ketchum’s hefty hardback tome, Chemical Warfare Secrets Almost Forgotten at the dizzying pace of about 3-5 pages per night. Speaking of dizzying (sorry, that’s an awful segue but I feel compelled), this thoroughly enjoyable memoir is primarily about the Edgewood Arsenal psychiatrist’s 10-plus years of work in the U.S. Army’s classified efforts to develop incapacitating chemical warfare agents during the Cold War.
The book contains detailed accounts taken from actual records of tests involving the deliriant BZ (or 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate), and the hallucinogen LSD. Some of the numerous official records he includes contain comical accounts of test subject behavior and conversation. As Ketchum explains, while LSD causes effects the user knows are not real, that’s not the case with deliriants such as BZ. The BZ test subjects would be completely bonkers for days at a time, speaking to invisible people and watching or interacting with fantastic visions—sometimes funny, sometimes distressing—until finally exhaustion would set in and they’d sleep it off. For instance, in one of Ketchum’s cases, a test subject managed to escape from his padded room and found a place to lie in wait for the enemy, armed with a broom handle and a glass ashtray. After Ketchum talked him down the following conversation ensued:
“You see that sewing machine over there?” he asked.
“Uhh, no,” I said, studying the air intently.
“Just take my word for it, it’s a sewing machine,” he continued patiently, apparently assuming I was visually challenged. Then he leaned forward and ran his finger along the molding, asking if I could see the strips of bacon.
“Strips of bacon?” I finally realized he was referring to the narrow strip of wood between the wall and the floor. Then he suddenly became distracted by the whirring sound of the air conditioner. He gazed at it studiously.
“Hey,” he shouted loudly at the grating.
“Who’s there?” I asked, showing professional concern.
“Who’s there, who’s there?” he shouted, taking up the cry and looking anxiously upward through an imaginary shaft. After a moment, he turned his head toward me and reported his findings.
“It’s okay, it’s just some kids,” he said, appearing relieved.
He sat down on the edge of his bed, while I sat on a hassock. For the next twenty minutes, we held what might be called a relaxed conversation. He did his best to express himself clearly, but somehow the words kept coming out wrong.
“Did you answer the phone?” he asked me abruptly.
“The phrone, the phrone! If it weren’t for those damn kids…” he suddenly stopped, again losing track of his thought.
“Well what you might call the kids. I mean the kids…well whatever it is. It might be a truck or a fence. Down at the motor pool. Or maybe it might be danger.”
And so it went.
As I recall, this sounds eerily like trying to hold a conversation with my ex! But the book isn’t just full of funny accounts of mindless blather. Ketchum defends the program against detractors (who were not just conspiracy-theory chuckleheads), explaining how he took pains to develop and continually improve structured and humane protocols for agent testing with human volunteers. As evidence of the Edgewood program’s success in this, he notes there was never a lack of test subjects to include repeat volunteers, and many waiting their turn to do the brief tour at Edgewood. These were not “unwitting guinea pigs,” Ketchum says, but highly intelligent and knowledgeable volunteers to whom the test procedure and drug effects were explained. Subjects then had the opportunity to change their minds before taking the drug. Not so, he discusses later in the book, with the CIA’s program, which was less of a program than a childish free-for-all that gave all of government incapacitant testing a black eye. He also notes a brief association between the Edgewood program and what was by many accounts a sloppy and unethical prisoner testing program headed by Dr. Albert Kligman (I mentioned Kligman and a report that suggested benefits of paid prisoner testing last year here).
Ketchum notes a couple of times in the book that perhaps we should re-evaluate the policy that incapacitating agents don’t belong in warfare. “Eventually,” he writes, “life-sparing drugs, by reducing the acknowledged brutality of conventional warfare, may find acceptance.” As it stands, incapacitants are legal if used by law enforcement within a nation’s borders, but not legal if used by the military. To take that to extremes, the police could theoretically drug a crowd if they decide people are out of control (which, in some countries, might not take more than looking unfriendly), but for the military the only option for subduing an enemy is to blow him to bits. Ketchum wonders how that is the most logical or humane option. In the Moscow Dubrovka Theater siege, using the fentanyl compound was legal as a law enforcement response and it unquestionably prevented the terrorists from a mass suicide bombing that would have killed most, if not all, inside. The Russians screwed up the part about clueing in their first responders and doctors, unfortunately, which would have prevented some of the deaths. Still, to use the drug in the first place was their best possible option.
The author comes across as an honest, down-to-earth, and likable person who doesn’t put on any airs. The book was informative, enjoyable, and for the real non-lethal weapons geek, contains a huge appendix full of drug facts and historical records. If this is an area you’re interested in, I’d definitely say you’re losing out if you don’t get this book.
p.s. Nice web site, Jim
Filed under: chemical weapons, incapacitants, military, nonlethal weapons | 2 Comments »