Army's Hallucinogenic Weapons Unveiled
What chemicals was the Army studying?
Why was the program never fully documented in books available to the public?
Who planned and carried out the tests, and what was their purpose?
How, and by whom, were the volunteers recruited?
How adequately were they instructed before giving their informed consent?
What long range effects, if any, have been found in follow-up studies?
So much conspiracy and disinformation surrounds the military's past work on LSD and other chemical agents that it's been difficult to separate fact from fiction. That's starting to change, however.
Advocates of using chemical agents in nonlethal warfare are increasing, making now a good time to start reviewing the historical record. A recently published book on the Army's infamous "Edgewood Experiments" involving hallucinogenic agents like LSD may help shed more light on the debate. The infamous CIA work, MK ULTRA, is often considered synonymous with all government LSD experimentation. But the historical record is far more complex.
This may be the first and last time in my life that I call a self-published book a "must read," but psychiatrist James Ketchum's Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten is an usual case. As Steve Aftergood of Secrecy News has already pointed out, this book "is a candid, not entirely flattering, sometimes morbidly amusing account of a little-documented aspect of Army research."
Ketchum's book is also discussed in an article published today in USA Today, which provides a brief description of the work Ketchum was involved in:
Army doctors gave soldier volunteers synthetic marijuana, LSD and two dozen other psychoactive drugs during experiments aimed at developing chemical weapons that could incapacitate enemy soldiers, a psychiatrist who performed the research says in a new memoir.
The program, which ran at the Army's Edgewood, Md., arsenal from 1955 until about 1972, concluded that counterculture staples such as acid and pot were either too unpredictable or too mellow to be useful as weapons, psychiatrist James Ketchum said in an interview.
The program did yield one hallucinogenic weapon: softball-size artillery rounds that were filled with powdered quinuclidinyl benzilate or BZ, a deliriant of the belladonnoid family that had placed some research subjects in a sleeplike state and left them impaired for days.
Ketchum says the BZ bombs were stockpiled at an Army arsenal in Arkansas but never deployed. They were later destroyed.
The Army acknowledged the program's existence in 1975. Follow-up studies by the Army in 1978 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1981 found that volunteers suffered no long-term effects.
When Ketchum first sent me his book two months ago, I didn't know quite what to make of the self-published tome. I had recently published an article on "mind control," another subject that too easily conflates fact and fantasy. But after reading some of the literature, I've come to understand this book's importance a bit better and am all the more grateful Ketchum sent it.
BZ remains a controversial subject. DANGER ROOM contributor David Hambling has written about allegations that Iraqi insurgents used BZ to make themselves more aggressive (note Ketchum's response to this is the comments section). The predominant interest in BZ at Edgewood was as a calmative agent, however, and one of the purposes of Ketchum's book is to make the case for renewed work into such chemical agents.
Ketchum has a point of view that won't be popular among a lot of people, but that's why his book is all the more difficult to put down -- I found myself constantly amazed, disgusted and fascinated. It's a little like the guilty pleasure of reading someone's diary.
Some of the "oh my God" moments are perhaps unintended, like when Ketchum opens a chapter at his kitchen table, "eating Puffed Wheat" and reading notes about a test subject's descent into paranoia during LSD tests. Or, in another case, when he describes watching volunteers "carry on conversations with various invisible people for as long as 2-3 days." There are test subjects who "salute latrines" and attempt to "revive a gas mask" that they mistake for a woman.
Yikes, you can't make this stuff up.
Then there are the moments that military craziness surprises even Ketchum, like when a general envisions a scheme to incapacitate an entire trawler with aerosolized BZ. Ketchum thinks the notion strange, but "welcomed yet another bizarre challenge..." The work is, appropriately enough, dubbed Project DORK. Ketchum revels in this work, particularly when given the chance to make a feature film about the experiment.
What a first person narrative may lack in self-awareness it gains in details.
One of Ketchum's contentions is that the soldiers involved in the Edgewood work were not "guinea pigs," but rather patriots (enticed by a few benefits). Some, no doubt, will disagree with this point of view, and at times, Ketchum seems to undermine the premise of informed consent, like when he marvels at the uneducated volunteers:
I was fascinated by the ability of unsophisticated subjects, none having more than high school diplomas, to describe their thoughts and emotions, as well what some might refer to as "ineffable" perceptual alteration. They communicated ungrammatically but with unvarnished simplicity.
In another era, a writer might have used the phrase noble savages.
This is not a book that deeply explores the ethical dimensions of chemical warfare and experimentation. For that, you may want to read read Jonathan Moreno's excellent Mind Wars. But those who just want the gritty details of past research, it's worth checking out Ketchum's memoir, which also contains a wealth of references and data specific to the military's work.
Regardless of personal views, I'm thrilled that Ketchum took the time to put it all down on paper, providing a valuable resource to inform the chemical warfare debate and a resource for future writers on the subject. I know of no book quite like his.
Too much work on human experimentation has been shrouded in secrecy -- or lost and destroyed -- rendering a meaningful debate all but impossible.
Ketchum has helped build the historical record.