Source: New Yorker
Colonel James S. Ketchum dreamed of war without killing. He joined the Army in 1956 and left it in 1976, and in that time he did not fight in Vietnam; he did not invade the Bay of Pigs; he did not guard Western Europe with tanks, or help build nuclear launch sites beneath the Arctic ice. Instead, he became the military’s leading expert in a secret Cold War experiment: to fight enemies with clouds of psychochemicals that temporarily incapacitate the mind—causing, in the words of one ranking officer, a “selective malfunctioning of the human machine.” For nearly a decade, Ketchum, a psychiatrist, went about his work in the belief that chemicals are more humane instruments of warfare than bullets and shrapnel—or, at least, he told himself such things. To achieve his dream, he worked tirelessly at a secluded Army research facility, testing chemical weapons on hundreds of healthy soldiers, and thinking all along that he was doing good.
Edgewood had been built in a fit of urgency during the First World War, when weaponized gas—chlorine and, later, mustard—was used to devastating effect in the trenches of Europe. Fritz Haber, the German scientist who pioneered the rise of chemical weapons, proclaimed, “In no future war will the military be able to ignore poison gas. It is a higher form of killing.” The U.S. Army took the threat seriously, and launched a program to study the chemicals, building laboratories and gas chambers in order to test human subjects. “We began to hear about the terrors of this place,” a private wrote in 1918. “Everyone we talked to on the way out here said we were coming to the place God forgot! They tell tales about men being gassed and burned.”
After the Second World War, intelligence reports emerged from Germany of chemical weapons far deadlier than mustard or chlorine. The new compounds, which had evolved out of research into insecticides, were called nerve gases, because they created a body-wide overflow of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, often triggering organ failure and near-sudden death. The Reich had invested primarily in three—tabun, soman, and sarin—and the victorious powers rushed to obtain them. The Soviet Union secretly dismantled an entire nerve-gas plant and relocated the technology behind the Iron Curtain. The American government, for its part, acquired the Nazi chemical formulas—and, in some cases, the scientists who developed them—and brought them to Edgewood.
The Army decided to pursue sarin. The chemical was about twenty-five times as deadly as cyanide, and readily made into an aerosol. It was virtually impossible to handle without casualties; in one year, seven technicians required immediate treatment following accidental exposure. As the vapor was released after tests, birds passing over the flue of the gas chambers fell dead, and had to be cleared off the roof. In experiments that the arsenal contracted at Johns Hopkins University, researchers gave sarin to healthy volunteers in cups of water over three days. Some of the subjects were severely poisoned; they twitched, vomited, and had trouble breathing.
Early nerve-gas experiments focussed on the extreme lethality of the chemicals, and on antidotes, but researchers at Edgewood also began to take note of the chemicals’ cognitive side effects. Subjects often felt giddy at first, then deeply anxious. Some had nightmares or lost sleep and became depressed. A secret 1948 study on the poisoned Edgewood technicians noted that “the outstanding feature of these cases appears to be the psychological reactions,” and its author wondered how “young men having no experience or knowledge” of the chemicals would react. A senior official at the arsenal had observed that men exposed to highly diluted tabun “were partially disabled for from one to three weeks with fatigue, lassitude, complete loss of initiative and interest, and apathy.”
Read More: New Yorker