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