Soldiers As Lab Rats
Apropos Lewis Lapham’s article yesterday about government efforts to keep people from taking drugs, Raffi Khatchadourian has a memorable New Yorker piece about the Army giving them to people. Specifically the Edgewood Arsenal experiments in which soldiers were routinely dosed, in pursuit of a chemical weapon that could incapacitate but not kill, with substances like LSD and a particularly nasty-sounding dissociative referred to as BZ. The experiments have been under intense scrutiny due to a forthcoming lawsuit on behalf of the victims:
The lawsuit’s argument is in line with broader criticisms of Edgewood: that, whether out of military urgency or scientific dabbling, the Army recklessly endangered the lives of its soldiers—naïve men, mostly, who were deceived or pressured into submitting to the risky experiments. The drugs under review ranged from tear gas and LSD to highly lethal nerve agents, like VX, a substance developed at Edgewood and, later, sought by Saddam Hussein. Ketchum’s specialty was a family of molecules that block a key neurotransmitter, causing delirium. The drugs were known mainly by Army codes, with their true formulas classified. 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. Edgewood’s most extreme critics raise the spectre of mass injury—a hidden American tragedy.
Once the volunteers arrived at Edgewood, they were given medical and psychological examinations, and were divided into four groups. The least healthy would be used to test equipment. The top twenty-five per cent—the Astronaut Class, as Ketchum once called them—would typically be prepared for the most dangerous chemicals. Doctors informed the volunteers in generalities and asked them to sign a consent form—usually long before any specific test was announced. The forms were designed to offer few details; as one version was drafted, the words “mental disturbance or unconsciousness” were replaced with “discomfiture.” Sometimes a little more information would be provided just before the test began, but not always. Van Sim later confessed that researchers testing nerve gas would tell volunteers that the drug might give them a “runny nose” or a “slight tightness of the chest.”
The Army still hasn’t officially admitted it did anything wrong:
In 2008, the British Ministry of Defence issued a statement to the subjects in its own drug-testing program: “The government sincerely apologizes to those who may have been affected.” That the U.S. Army is unwilling to do such a thing is a source of pain for former subjects. John Ross, the soldier who was given an overdose of nerve agent, struggled for years to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs that he was even at Edgewood. “It’s too late for me,” he said. “I just want an official apology. It was like a con job.”
Read the whole thing. While Col. James Ketchum, the main subject of the piece, won’t defend many things that went on at Edgewood, he still believes that in the context of the Cold War and because the goal was a less-deadly weapon, the tests were justifiable. What do you think?