Ethical Distinctions in Wartime: The Case of Biological Weapons

In the introduction and first chapter of her book Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, Jeanne Guillemin traces the history of biological weapons programs from their inception with French research in the 1920s all the way through to the 21st century. In order to frame key developments in the realm of biological warfare, Guillemin splits the era into three historical phases: an “offensive phase” when both production and possession of biological weapons were legitimate and widely practiced (roughly 1920-1972), a later period of total prohibition based on international law coming out of the Biological Weapons Convention (1972-early 1990s), and a third defensive stage following the end of the Cold War characterized by “tension between national and international security objectives.”

In clarifying the significant differences between chemical and biological weapons, Guillemin calls upon the Rosebury-Kabat report published in 1942, noting six unique features of biological weapons among which are their delayed effects, contagious nature, and dependence on a mammal host for virulence. Despite their many differences, both chemical and biological weapons underwent a similar timeline with regard to shifts in public perception. Early in their developmental history, both were seen by many advocates to be more humane than conventional arms, as they “avoided battlefield blood and gore,” thereby constituting a “higher form of killing.” Public opinion rapidly shifted, however, after horror stories covering the use of chemical weapons in World War I made their way home and influenced the 1925 Geneva Protocol which banned the use (but not the production or possession) of chemical or biological weapons.

This progression of public opinion to characterize some weapons as inhumane and others as totally legitimate raised several questions for me during my reading of Guillemin. I felt that this distinction could at times appear quite arbitrary, particularly in the case of U.S. policy during World War II. FDR himself, according to Guillemin, felt strongly that chemical and biological weapons were “uncivilized and should never be used,” an interesting sentiment coming from the man who would ordain creation of the most destructive weapon the world had ever seen. I wonder how we are meant to set internally consistent distinctions of “humane” versus “inhumane” weapons of war. Is it a matter of scale? One of suffering? Perhaps of physical detachment on the part of the aggressor (as can be seen in the current debate on drone use)? Should the 20th century doctrine of “total war” which “blurred the lines between enemy soldiers and civilians” persist into the 21st, or do the complexities of modern warfare merit a clear moral distinction between the two? What truly qualifies as “mass destruction,” and how does that label at once delegitimize some avenues of warfare while solidifying the validity of others? — Wesley

6 thoughts on “Ethical Distinctions in Wartime: The Case of Biological Weapons

  1. On the distinction between “humane” and “inhumane” weapons —

    It’s an interesting question. I don’t think scale really determines whether a weapon is humane or not. I’m also not sure public opinion is really a good heuristic of what is morally humane or inhumane — for example, the firebombing of Japanese cities during WWII isn’t publicly considered inhumane, when in reality, U.S. fighter plane pilots puked because of the putrid odor of burning human flesh. If people knew that, I feel they’d think the firebomb an inhumane weapon.

    As I said, though, scale is not a relevant factor to determining how humane the weapon is or isn’t — it determines how destructive something is, but not necessarily inhumane. A nuclear weapon is unbelievably destructive, but few would label it inhumane.

    Suffering might factor into it. Chemical and certainly biological weapons onset slow, painful deaths. But in many cases, conventional weapons didn’t kill people, but caused horrible infections that would then prolong suffering. Yet, the weapon itself isn’t inhumane — it was an unintentional, albeit unnecessarily horrid, consequence.

    I think a key component is whether the weapon unnecessarily and intentionally makes people suffer beyond what is militarily necessary. Thus, conventional weapons, whether they cause unnecessary suffering, so long as they do not intentionally cause suffering, would qualify as “humane” (as humane a weapon could possibly be).

    I think another key moral problem with biological weapons distinguishing it from chemical weapons is that, because of their infectious nature, biological weapons do not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. When combatants go home, they can pass on the infection to their homes and communities. So, civilians can be embroiled in a military conflict when biological weapons are used. Civilian casualties result from using biological weapons, while chemical weapons just cause huge suffering for those attacked. Of course, chemical and biological weapons can be targeted at civilians, but the point is that when a chemical weapon is targeted at soldiers, they cause unnecessary suffering for the soldiers; when biological weapons is targeted just at soldiers, they cause unnecessary suffering for the soldiers AND also cause unnecessary suffering for civilians uninvolved in the conflict.

    If you believe that just war requires us to distinguish combatants from non-combatants (i.e., war should only be between soldiers, and spare civilians), then you must accept that biological weapons are less humane than chemical weapons.

  2. I would argue that when comparing one nuclear bomb to one strong biological weapon, the effects of said biological weapon could be far more “inhumane” and devastating than a single nuclear bomb. While a nuclear bomb can completely annihilate a fixed area (through the blast radius, thermal radius, and radioactive radius), biological weapons have the ability to devastate an entire country. Even though they wouldn’t destroy the infrastructure on a major as a nuclear bomb would, I believe it is more threatening to expose a population to a biological agent which could be contagious enough to spread throughout an entire country.

    The factors that Rosebury and Kabat laid out, including contagion, infectivity, and effects, could be maximized in an attack of biological warfare to ensure that millions of people could die. One need only recall the devastation of the Influenza pandemic that followed World War II, or the narrowly avoided Ebola outbreak in the past decade, to see how a potent biological weapon can cripple a country’s population, shut down its economy, and spread terror. These effects would not last simply through the time of a bombing–they would be present for months.

    One part of the Guilleman article which I found very interesting, and which certainly ties into the comparisons you made between chemical and nuclear weapons, is how the chemical weapons can be used to target crops and livestock. Once again, while a nuclear bomb could damage any animals or plants in its radius, it is unlikely that a nuclear attack would prioritize a major agricultural region over a metropolitan area. However, a biological or chemical attack targeting the nation’s food producing areas could once again devastate a nation for years to come. Blights can spread rapidly between fields and are nearly impossible to stop without destroying the crops in the first place. Such livestock and plant diseases could also be difficult to identify before significant damage has been done. In a wartime nation that may already be rationing food supplies, any biological attack on agriculture and livestock would lead to deaths from starvation, economic devastation, and panic that would last for a much longer time and perhaps have more severe effects than a nuclear attack.

  3. Re: the distinction between “humane” and “inhumane” weapons—

    Another possible way to set a consistent ethical distinction between “humane” or “inhumane” weapons of war is no distinction. Weapons—whether they are biological, chemical or nuclear—are inherently destructive, regardless of how they hurt, maim or kill people. To characterize some as “humane” and others as “inhumane” contradicts a key purpose of weapons—to inflict bodily harm—and misses the point that the three 20th century weapon systems we have studied were (and remain) predicated on the concept of total war. They incorporate sciences and technologies that, if effectively used (or misused, depending on whose side you’re on), can annihilate humanity.

    The object of developing these weapons has been to create mechanisms that can accomplish the complete destruction of an enemy—if necessary. Each are weapon systems designed to produce human suffering, perhaps the destruction of a society, and therefore, should not be considered humane, no matter scale, design or delivery.

  4. The ethical concepts behind the weapons of war is never a simple topic to discuss, but from my understanding of the types of weapons that are banned under the Geneva convention, the humane lethality of a weapon is gauged by the ability for an individual to recover from a non-lethal strike of that weapon: Tri-blade knives, expanding projectiles, explosives with undetectable shrapnel, etc. Now, this might seem like a false equivalency, but I think we should entertain this thought because we can’t seem to agree on what makes a weapon “inhumane,” which can be seen as this:
    Agent decision + lethal strike + target -> target death
    Agent decision + near miss or non-lethal strike + target -> target survival
    What is assumed here is a relatively short time horizon between an agent’s action upon a legal target and the outcome. The issue with Bioweapons is that there is an increased probability of: Agent decision + near miss -> unintended infection + target death via a proxy. In this case, there is no clean connection on a short time horizon between the initial attack and the effect on the target. The target, that would have survived in conventional scenarios, dies without the direct agency of the attacker in this new scenario (applicable to many strategic wmds.) Another issue is battlefield survivability. In short, people can get hit by bullets and survive, so what is the probability of death for an indirect hit with a strategic biological strike? The probability of death might not be 100%, but there are only two categories: infected and not infected whereas with a bullet you can have three with the benefit of direct agency of a combatant. At the same time think about the practical application of bioweapons. They exist solely to kill or utterly incapacitate the individual. In war, if you disarm an individual, and if this person poses no threat and surrenders, it is illegal to kill this person. You can’t do that with bioweapons because dead people can’t surrender nor have the option to do so. At the same time, with firebombs and high yield warhead, one must remember that their purposes on paper were to destroy the war-supporting infrastructure of industrial centers. Ideally, you could accomplish this without striking the civilian population, but that’s not the case. In contrast, bioweapons intentionally target people directly through infection or indirectly through starvation, which curtails the target’s opportunities to capitulate in a predictable and controlled manner.

  5. I was similarly struck by claims that biological and chemical weapons are more humane than conventional weapons. Such a claim seems to rest on the assumption that civilians will be killed no matter what and efforts should be made to see that they are killed in a more “humane” way (I find this assertion highly dubious) and that damage is limited to just humans. While it is true that many chemical weapons and biological weapons don’t destroy infrastructure or harm plant and animal life, this view has the purpose of infrastructure and the hierarchy of life wrong. Buildings are for people, not the other way around. Weapons should seek to minimize the loss of human life, which is irreplaceable, while maximizing the damaging but recoverable losses of infrastructure. Additionally, while it is admirable to consider animal and plant life, it should be remembered that in the present moral system governing society, human life is prized above all else.

    I find it interesting that chemical and biological weapon’s lack of “blood and gore” is implied to mean that such weapons are less likely to have an adverse psychological or emotional impact on the civilians against whom they are used. In the age of post-traumatic stress disorder, this makes sense. Seeing blood and gore can certainly scar people for years. Nonetheless, this argument only makes sense if exposure to blood and guts is the only trigger for intense emotional and psychological distress. The terror experienced by a population assaulted by weapons they cannot see is arguably worse than exposure to horrible conditions they can understand. Conventional war, even when – or perhaps especially when – civilians find themselves under attack can often serve as a centripetal force in society, such as in the Blitz in WWII England. On the other hand, the pernicious arbitrariness of pandemics often leads to the breakdown of societal order, with loved ones being abandoned and an “all about me” mentality dominating. Nothing is more terrifying than the unknown, and chemical and biological weapons are shrouded in far more mystery than conventional, “blood and gore” creating weapons.

  6. I would argue that biological weapons are not humane. Biological agents cause tremendous pain and suffering indiscriminately including to civilian populations. In fact, it might even more greatly impact more vulnerable populations like children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Even if it was designed to cause discomfort or inconvenience rather than to kill, it is impossible to say that it will not cause any deaths, and is arguably comparable to inflicting torture on an entire civilian population.

    I think that part of the normative trend against biological weapons stems from its unpredictability. Biological weapons cannot be relied on to do a certain amount of damage in a conflict because of their inherent volatility. They also might inflict far more damage than they are supposed to, and especially in today’s extremely connected world have a high chance of spreading to other countries that might not be participating in the conflict.

    The decision to ban biological weapons comes from its inhumanity and inherent cruelty, but the reason there has been so little use of biological weapons compared to chemical weapons, and stockpiles are so much smaller than nuclear ones is because as WMDs, biological weapons are too unreliable and unpredictable to be worth the investment. Any weapon of mass destruction is inherently inhumane, it just happens to be the case that biological weapons are also not particularly reliable

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