Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism

Jeanne Guillemin brings up important ethical questions about biological weapons in light of other weapons programs in history. She states, “the lack of use of biological weapons [is] an unsolved puzzle in the military history” (8). In order to explain this “unsolved puzzle,” she surveys a variety of factors that distinguish biological/chemical weapons from other types of weapons and concludes, “for the most of the last century […] the law and custom supported by an empowered public, technological drawbacks, widespread military disinterest, government leadership, and the reckoning of the consequences of use – have over the years reduced the risks of biological weapons, with much left to chance” (10).

In describing factors that contribute to restraints on the use of biological weapons, Guillemin emphasizes key policy makers and military commanders’ “aversion to chemical and biological weapons” (9). President Franklin Roosevelt believed that both chemical and biological weapons were “uncivilized and should never be used” (9). She also notes, “Strangely enough, Adolf Hitler, who did not hesitate at man’s murders by poison, was also averse to chemical and biological weapons” (9).

This fact raises a set of questions. What makes biological weapons more “morally repulsive” and “inhumane” than nuclear weapons? Is it rational that many policy makers and military commanders perceived biological weapons as somehow “less ethical” than nuclear weapons? Is it just a psychological repulsion attached to easily visualizable effects of people slowly suffering and dying from germs over an extended period of time?

On the other side of the debate, early advocates of biological weapons argued that chemical and biological weapons can actually be “a higher form of killing” and “a humane alternative to high explosives because they avoided battlefield blood and gore” (6). Compared to nuclear weapons, biological weapons were also in a way “advantageous because they did not destroy buildings or bridges.” (6)

I think one compelling argument for making an ethical distinction between biological weapons and nuclear weapons is that the first one is by design intended to kill civilians and destroy industrial centers of an enemy country. This is inconsistent with the “just war tradition” which mandates that non-combatants and combatants should be distinguished and the former must not be a target of military attack. Guillemin also notes that dehumanizing enemy civilians as an object to be “efficiently and predictably infected with disease” is inhumane (7). Do you guys think these reasons provide sufficient grounds to make biological weapons an ethically worse option than nuclear weapons? What about the historical precedent of using nuclear weapons against civilians during WWII?

One can also consider the distinction between biological and nuclear weapons from the perspective of relevant scientists. Guillemin poses, “how could biologists and physicians devote their energies to weapons patently aimed at civilians, with no other purpose than to kill life?” (11). As we mentioned in class, there is arguably a clear dividing line between nuclear weapons research and general scholarship for physicists, but the line is blurrier for biologists because the exact kind of medical knowledge and biotechnology required to improve the welfare of humanity, such as illuminating the prognosis of various diseases and knowing the mechanisms of certain pathogens, is intrinsically linked to developing effective biological weapons.

Taken together, what do you think are possible ethical distinctions between biological weapons and nuclear weapons? Do you think there is any? — Jean

17 thoughts on “Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism

  1. I would argue that biological warfare had a long history of usage, from “poisoning the well” and medieval siege tactics, to the smallpox blankets given to Native Americans, and finally the mustard gas and other chemical weapons used in WWI. The effects of WWI chemical weapons were fairly well-documented both from photographic evidence and eyewitness accounts (“Dulce et decorum est” is a example, albeit a secondary source) and the brutality of these weapons was rightly considered as inhumane and extreme. However, there was also the very practical concern of these weapons being difficult to control, and in certain situations chemical gas was actually borne back to the attackers on an errant wind. So there are practical concerns as well; chemical and biological weapons tend to be harder to control, as well as harder to immunize your own forces against. However, these weapons were still used in various ends in WWII, from the zyklon administered in Nazi concentration camps to the chemical weapons used by the Japanese against Chinese civilians (and also in Unit 731’s torture experiments). Of course, in the Vietnam War we saw how Agent Orange was used by American forces against the Vietnamese population, and more recently, Saddam used gas weapons against the Kurds in Iraq. Again, in all these cases the same two reasons seem to come up again, and those are that a) even amidst war, the use of these weapons is almost always considered to be particularly brutal and evil, and b) that when used outside of controlled facilities and laboratories, the use of chemical weapons can often devastate the surrounding environment, including civilian populations, as well (of course this is beside the point if the civilians are your target) which of course also helps explain the previous point. The countries which are sufficiently technologically advanced to develop these “reduced-risk” chemical weapons probably have sufficient conventional and nuclear weaponry in their arsenal. Those that don’t might find it hard to justify the effort and expenditure if widespread vilification is almost guaranteed.

  2. My initial reaction when seeking to explain the ethical distinction that many have drawn historically between biological weapons and nuclear weapons is the civilian argument: while nuclear weapons can be conceived as targeting government or military facilities, with biological weapons there is no question that the chief target is civilians. But the example that Guillemin brings up about Hitler still puzzles me. Obviously, the fact that chemical and biological weapons principally target civilians was not the issue for Hitler, thus leading to the fact that there is inherently some societal ethical distinction between biological weapons and nuclear weapons. I believe that the track record of use of nuclear weapons and biological weapons by nations leads to this conclusion, and I personally see the merits of such a distinction. However, this ‘humane’ distinction of sorts between the two types of weapons would likely not be taken into account by a non-state actor terrorist organization, which would likely be attracted to chemical weapons for the same reasons that governments are afraid to use them. This makes eliminating all stockpiles of chemical weapons around the world all the more crucial, and I am glad that there has been significant progress on this front, although there is certainly more to be done. Do you all agree that the real threat with chemical weapons is from terrorist organizations utilizing them, due to the natural ethical distinction that nations draw between the two types of weapons.

  3. In my opinion, the most obvious ethical issue with
    biological weapons is that they are targeted directly at civilians. However, I
    wouldn’t say that biological weapons and nuclear weapons are much different in
    “moral repulsiveness”. Even if a nuclear weapon is targeted at military
    infrastructure, it is difficult to completely eliminate the chances of civilian
    causalities. A nuclear weapon does have the advantage of being able to predict
    who exactly will be affected, whereas a biological weapon is much more difficult
    to control, largely because we live in such an interconnected world. However, even if they may not be the direct
    targets, civilian causalities are going to occur in both situations. Playing
    devil’s advocate, the effects of radiation from nuclear weapons could drag on
    much longer than biological.

    I also agree with Aryeh that the possibility of chemical and
    biological weapons in the hands of terrorists is not something that can be
    risked. However, nuclear weapons may be more risky in this regard, because it
    is much more difficult to protect against them. Could an argument be made that
    the scientific advancements in our world today increase the chances of a
    society “surviving” a biological attack, making a terrorist group less likely
    to turn to biological weapons than nuclear? In the end, could we survive either
    a nuclear or biological attack (Sorry
    for the downer)?

  4. I wonder if there some sort of ideological barrier when considering the use of biological weapons (more than when discussing nuclear) that stems from a certain discomfort with certain types of biological research. For instance, there have been studies that examine the opinions people have towards synthetic biology, a field in which scientists experiment with different
    “parts” of bacteria in similar ways that an engineer would experiment
    with the parts of a computer. They found that when people who do not describe themselves as religious, have a more negative opinion of synthetic biology when the word “create” was used to describe the field. However, those who described themselves as religious kept a similar negative opinion regardless of the use of the word “create”. Is there something in our culture that makes us feel uncomfortable when people experiment with more “natural” elements of life, as opposed to atoms or chemicals? Do we see biology research more akin to “playing God” than chemical or nuclear?

  5. As others have pointed out below, biological and chemical weapons have a longer history behind them, but I think this history is extremely important. It is worthwhile to remember that nuclear weapons have only been used twice in human history. Because of this, we have an extremely small percentage of the world that was directly affected by nuclear weapons. Compare this to chemical weapons in WWI, where most countries participating heard horror stories about the gasses used. Nowadays, the majority of warnings we hear concerning nuclear fission comes from power plants, not weapons, because more countries have experienced a nuclear plant meltdown than a nuclear bomb explosion. At the same token, although nuclear weapons may be more “accepted” in that the five nuclear weapon states are allowed to possess a nuclear arsenal, it is highly unlikely that any of these countries will ever use a nuclear weapon again, for both moral and strategic reasons. Ultimately, nukes are more “accepted” because they haven’t been so widely used–if a larger percentage of the world felt their effects, they might be considered more evil like chemical or biological weapons.

  6. In my opinion, the moral issues surrounding the use of biological
    weapons stems from the lack of control involved in their implication.
    Whether the intended target is a military group or a civilian
    population, the inability to regulate the spread of infectious diseases
    can lead to unintended consequences. It cannot be guaranteed that the
    disease is contained to a select military population and does not spread
    to civilians. The popular view that the implementation of such weapons
    is unethical is based on the lines, although blurry, between war and
    murder and between military targets and civilians. A particularly
    virulent pathogen that would succeed in military operations can
    unintentionally affect other people, groups, and nations and cross a
    moral boundary. Even though war is between nations, the armed forces
    are largely the targets of violence and, it seems, the world thinks it
    should stay that way.

  7. I agree with you in the sense that nuclear weapons target at military infrastructure would likely cause civilian casualties like a biological weapon attack aimed at a metropolitan area would. However, I disagree with your assertion that nuclear weapons and biological weapons are that similar in terms of “moral repulsiveness,” because both types of weapons may cause civilian casualties. Biological weapons are used with the intent to kill people. On the other hand, nuclear weapons may or may not be used to kill people, because, as you point out, they may be used to target military structures. It is this additional “use” of nuclear weapons that creates a distinction in moral repulsiveness.

    I think it is difficult to predict whether or not technological advances will make biological weapons more appealing to terrorist organizations than nuclear weapons. It may be the case that governments may develop capabilities to defend against nuclear attacks, but not against biological attacks, as opposed to scenario you propose. I see no reason why we should favor one scenario over the other. With regards to your last question though, yes, I do think it is possible that, given the right scientific and technological developments, that we could survive a nuclear or biological attack. In the future, there might exist technology that intercepts nuclear missiles, and/or sufficient medical knowledge infrastructure capable of dealing with a biological attack.

  8. I concur with previous comments in that the clear distinction between the morality of biological weapons and that of nuclear weapons centers around the intended target. While a nuclear weapon CAN and MAY target civilians (think Hiroshima and Nagasaki), it can, if so desired, function only as a destroyer of military property, while the same cannot be said for a biological weapon, whose only possible target, by its nature as a pathogen, is a human. Additionally, the pain and suffering involved in dying of disease makes biological warfare a far less humane option for killing, when compared to the instantaneous death from a nuclear blast, (though the longer-term effects of nuclear radiation indeed may be equally as painful as death by disease).

    A perhaps less significant factor, though worth mentioning, is the testing process of biological weapons, which, by necessity, either kills or causes pain to living things. As Guillemin points out, animal testing is a common method of testing such weapons, wherein animals are harmed or killed. What I was more struck by, however, is her mention of testing on human subjects, and while they’re only involved in the testing of pathogens whose effects can be eliminated by antibiotics, the morality of such a process is certainly questionable. The testing of nuclear weapons can be done in complete isolation with no necessary harm to humans or animals, making it a more morally permissible process than that of biological weapons.

  9. I agree completely. To me it isn’t so much their “civilian targeting” nature, as they were shown to be very effective as a battlefield weapon in WWI. Nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons all have mass destructive potential, whether it be on civilian or military installations. I think history also plays a role in how use of each of these weapons was evaluated in a strategic context. Nuclear weapons strategy eventually developed into the MAD theory we all know at love. But the positive spin towards MAD is that it actually helps maintain borders and (supposedly) discourage land grabs. Nuclear weapons can be used for “good” ends in their use as a threat. From one perspective, Krushchev’s decision to threaten London and France with nuclear retaliation in the Suez Crisis could be seen as a “good” decision, because it brought the US to the table and brought back to the people of Britain the true cost of war.

    The difference with bio/chem weapons is that no such strategic theory was ever evaluated (nor can I think of one that would be morally justifiable). Thus, the only solution is a blanket ban.

  10. I do not necessarily think it is the case that the extent of the suffering caused by biological weapons is what makes them ethically problematic when compared to nuclear weapons. As Allen points out, there are significant long term effects from a nuclear blast, including but not limited to fallout, adverse health outcomes and significant infrastructure damage. Both biological and nuclear weapons induce equivalent levels of human suffering on the short and long run after their use.

    I believe that the ethical distinction between biological and nuclear weapons stems from a point that both Jean (in her 5th paragraph) and Allen bring up, which is the issue of targeting. Jean alludes to ‘just war theory’ which rests on the idea that acts of war are ethically permissible so long as they are directed against lawful and declared combatants. Attacks that affect noncombatant targets must consider how serious the collateral effect is relative to the intended effect. As we discussed before the break, the literature on the accuracy and precision of nuclear weapons is well discussed. It is largely possible to predict the short and long term effects of a nuclear blast and where those effects will occur. This is not the case with biological weapons, whose delivery is controlled by the attacker but whose spread is subject to numerous exogenous factors. Biological weapons fall outside the just war convention because it is impossible to accurately model and predict the extent of the damage. It is therefore impossible to evaluate the cost of the collateral damage relative to achieving war aims. Again, choosing to use a nuclear weapon is not categorically an ethically superior choice to biological weapons. Nuclear weapons’ predictability and relative accuracy makes them a more justifiable choice than biological weapons, which are largely unpredictable.

  11. I want to disagree with a distinction that some seem to be making between nuclear and biological weapons. Biological weapons need not be aimed solely at an enemy’s non-combatant population. If the United States had deployed biological weapons during the battles of Iwo Jima or Midway, for example, it is not certain that a pathogen would have affected the population of the Japanese home islands. It is similarly possible that nuclear weapons could be used with similar lack of effect on a population. In these situations it is doubtful that the use of such weapons would have been seen as less ethical than using flamethrowers against enemies cornered in caves.

    For this reason, I think it’s safe to say that nuclear and biological weapons are viewed as unethical because of the high likelihood of civilian casualties associated with their use. In this course we’ve also discussed the similarities in effect between the fire-bombings of Tokyo and Dresden and the weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder, if history had taken a different course and the only way to defeat the obvious evil that Hitler presented was the widespread use of nuclear (or biological) weapons, would the allies have been justified in doing so?

  12. I think the historical examples you raise, especially the earlier examples of smallpox, siege tactics and poisoning the well, suggest that biological warfare is so reprehensible because it reflects attempts to annihilate a population, not just subdue it. For example, smallpox blankets aimed to kill off a population with a known susceptibility to the disease. This is different than saying that the problem with bio-weaponry is that it targets civilians; in fact chemical weapons in many cases has been used exclusively against troops. Instead, I think we have a particularly visceral aversion to warfare that appears to undermine “humanity” at its core. By attempting to wipe-out, and not just exert military superiority, over a given target, bio and chemical weapons appear to fit this criteria. In an extreme sense, successfully annihilating a population in the way that bio/chemical weapons aims to is a step down the road to genocide. In its capacity for total destruction, I agree that bio/chemical warfare parallels nuclear warfare.

  13. In response to @sam_gelman:disqus, I don’t think that scope of impact (i.e. the number of people affected) is necessarily the main distinguishing factor between nuclear weapons and biological/chemical weapons, since, while Hiroshima and Nagasaki were unique examples of nuclear weapons usage, the Cold War was a time of frequent nuclear testing, as well as pervasive fear of impending nuclear threats among the civilian population. While the threat of a nuclear attack may not practically have been as “real” or “likely” due to MAD, nuclear weapons still had a very large impact and presence in people’s lives throughout the Cold War, fostering a tense and dangerous environment which previous generations can still recall. It becomes very difficult to evaluate whether biological/chemical weapons or nuclear weapons had or could have a greater magnitude or scope of impact, since as @disqus_WxBShY1jVY:disqus describes, all nuclear, biological or chemical weapons have massive destructive potential given certain circumstances. I also don’t think it’s ‘efficacy’ that makes biological/chemical weapons particularly morally egregious, since they are not effective in certain critical aspects, including that it can be difficult to target specific people with them, and that the opposite side can defend with relatively easy methods, such as gas masks or vaccines. Rather, I think it is the element of “suffering,” as Guillemin uses to describe public impressions of chemical weapons after World War I, which really creates the stigma behind biological/chemical weapons. Biological/chemical weapons can inflict “great suffering on the unprepared, and, in many cases, long-lasting debilitation,” Guillemin writes.

  14. Zach, I agree with the fact that both nuclear and bio/chem weapons are viewed as unethical because the inherent high likelihood of civilian deaths. However, I do think that there is nonetheless a significant ethical distinction to be made between the two. Asides from the excellent points raised in previous posts, such as those by afish and Sam Gelman, another point to bear in mind is that bio/chem weapons are extremely hard to contain and considerably less predictable.

    Because of this, these weapons de facto threaten the whole global population, especially nowadays given how globalized the world has become. So by employing them, leaders are effectively gambling with the lives of many people whose deaths might likely not even prove useful from a strategic standpoint. Such a move therefore shows a complete disregard for the value of human life. The effects of nuclear weapons on the other hand (as we have seen in the first part of the course) are easily predictable, which allows decision-makers to minimize the number of unnecessary deaths if they wish to do so.

  15. I think the key difference between between biological weapons and nuclear weapons lies not between the intentions or their intended targets. Though it is interesting to consider which of the two weapons are more moral or ethical, the importance is that history has demonstrated that both types of warfare can and have been used to threaten the safety and kill civilians. History can repeat itself and in my opinion, we should focus on why, in some ways, our worry of biological weapons is relatively alleviated and our worry of nuclear proliferation continues to increase. In some ways, though we may have considered biological and chemical weapons with greater “moral repulsion” since it explicitly targets civilians, our belief that we can and will overcome the consequences of any potential virulent pathogen is extremely concerning. With exponential technological advancement and incessantly expanding medical knowledge, we as a human race, encouraged by optimistic government leadership and an enlightened public, have this conception that we can cure any virus and fight any bacteria. On the other hand, we are not nearly as confident we could address and ameliorate the results of nuclear warfare.

    In fact, it is precisely this divide between the “known” (or rather what we THINK we know about biology) and the conceived “unknown” that makes biological and chemical weapons less intimidating and somewhat more manageable. It is a dangerous slippery slope to assume that we have ample medical knowledge and the technology to overcome any virus and stop any spread of pathogens. However, because we have seemingly conjured up a vaccine and a cure for every communicable disease, we no longer see biological warfare as a formidable threat. On the other hand, nuclear weapons seem to be this explosive danger that, no matter how much laboratory work or experimental tests we conduct, cannot be controlled. Focusing on the morality between the two different types of nonconventional warfare is useful insofar as it provides us with accurate information about how we can adequately address society’s concerns as well as the steps taken to prevent such warfare from taking place in the future. However, even though Hitler may have been averse to the usage of chemical and biological weapons, this does not in any way imply that we should regard them with any less concern or worry.

  16. Perhaps our less critical perception of nuclear weapons (as compared to chemical/biological weapons) has its origins not in ethics/justice but in its practicalities. After all, nuclear weapons have only been used twice in human history and preferred rather as a defensive weapon (i.e. nuclear deterrence) in the past half-century. No matter how often we think of nuclear weapons as offensive weapons designed to kill, the truth is that they have only been used twice and, empirically speaking, have prevented World War 3 through deterrence. Nuclear weapons are defensive in that it allows the possessor of the weapon to “protect” itself by threatening potential attackers with the horrifying possibility of retaliation. That is to say, our perception of nuclear weapons today is that they have been used to threaten, not to actually kill (except in the wartime scenario of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Said differently, our imagination of nuclear destruction is so horrifying that we have actually controlled ourselves from actually unleashing it on anyone. In contrast, the moral threshold for using chemical and biological weapons seems to be much lower. Others have already mentioned that humans have been using chemical and biological weapons for thousands of years. These weapons are much easier to employ and it is hard to use chemical and biological weapons merely for the purpose of threatening others (as you might with a nuke), because the moral check on disseminating powder as opposed to launching a nuclear missile is significantly lower. Empirically speaking, it makes sense to perceive chemical and biological weapons, then, as “offensive” weapons rather than defensive, hence the stricter ethical scrutiny relative to nuclear weapons.

  17. I agree with your point about unpredictability. Launching a biological attack on someone else by no means localizes the assault to one population, and can ultimately threaten yours. As one example, if the goal is to take territory, you certainly would not want to contaminate your desired spoils with potentially lethal residue.

    I would point out, however, that for the bulk of the time that the use of nuclear weapons was considered a truly legitimate, and indeed significant, risk, the danger associated with them was compounded by the fear of retaliation, and the uncertainty of whether the world would be plunged into nuclear annihilation. In that way, I think the use of nuclear weapons is just as dangerous to an attacking population as biological weapons are. Perhaps the difference is a perverted trust in one’s enemy. You can gamble that your opponent will not want or be able to fire back once you have launched missiles, for cowardice or hopes of avoiding all-out nuclear war, but you can’t even gamble with the trust of a pathogen in the same way.

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