(New Yorker) Raffi Khatchadourian—Decades after a risky experiment, a scientist lives with secrets

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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.

Today, Ketchum is eighty-one years old, and the facility where he worked, Edgewood Arsenal, is a crumbling assemblage of buildings attached to a military proving ground on the Chesapeake Bay. The arsenal’s records are boxed and dusting over in the National Archives. Military doctors who helped conduct the experiments have long since moved on, or passed away, and the soldiers who served as their test subjects—in all, nearly five thousand of them—are scattered throughout the country, if they are still alive.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchHistoryScience & Technology* Economics, PoliticsDefense, National Security, Military* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

2 Comments
Posted December 18, 2012 at 5:30 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. MichaelA wrote:

“The soldiers were never told what they were given, or what the specific effects might be, and the Army made no effort to track how they did afterward.”

Whatever one’s views on chemical experiments, this aspect raises a very real question:  How was the military carrying out its fundamental duty to look after its soldiers’ welfare?  Men can be ordered to endure shelling, shooting or worse, and will often do so willingly or even cheerfully.  But they do so on the understanding of a basic compact that their officers will always put the welfare of their men before everything else but duty, and that the full impact of that duty will be taken first by the officers.  An example illustrates the principle:

In 1879 a company of British soldiers was overrun by a Zulu force at Meyer’s drift.  The last surviving officer, a Lieutenant Harward, mounted his horse and rode off leaving many of his men still fighting.  Sergeant Anthony Booth rallied the survivors and they fought their way out.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Lieutenant Harward was court-martialled at Pietermaritzburg for “shamefully abandoning a party of the Regiment under his command when attacked by the enemy, and in riding off at speed from his men”.  He proferred the excuse that he was riding to get help, and was ACQUITTED by his fellow officers.  The commanding general in South Africa, Sir Garnet Wolseley was appalled.  He issued a directive, which the Duke of Cambridge then ordered to be read as a General Order to every unit in the British Army:

“[strongly disagree] That a Regimental Officer who is the only Officer present with a party of men actually and seriously engaged with the enemy, can, under any pretext whatever, be justified in deserting them, and by so doing, abandoning them to their fate. The more helpless a position in which an officer finds his men, the more it is his bounden duty to stay and share their fortune, whether good or ill.”

That is a simple statement of the duty of any officer, and by necessary implication, the army which those officers govern.  In these experiments, officers should have been the test subjects.  If for some reason this was not expedient (as opposed to merely personally inconvenient) then the officers should have extended maximum effort to monitor and support the welfare of the test subject soldiers, during and after the experiments.

December 18, 8:10 pm | [comment link]
2. MichaelA wrote:

Apologies for cutting it off, this is the full text of Sir Garnet Wolseley’s comment on the court martial acquittal (which he had no power to overturn):

“Had I released this officer without making any remarks upon the verdict in question, it would have been a tacit acknowledgement that I had concurred in what appears to me a monstrous theory, viz. that a Regimental officer who is the only Officer present with a party of men actually and seriously engaged with the enemy, can, under any pretext whatever, be justified in deserting them, and by doing so, abandoning them to their fate. The more helpless a position in which an officer finds his men, the more it is his bounden duty to stay and share their fortune, whether good or ill. It is because the British Officer has always done so that he possesses the influence he does in the ranks of our army. The soldier has learned to feel, that come what may, he can in the direst movement of danger look with implicit faith to his officer, knowing he will never desert him under any possible circumstances.”

December 18, 9:37 pm | [comment link]
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