Biological and Chemical Weapons – “A higher form of killing”

The use of biological weapons began after World War I as science and technology developed and military-minded scientists sought to find more efficient means of warfare. Jeanne Guillemin explains that biological and chemical weapons were seen as “a higher form of killing,” a more moral means of warfare.

“To their early advocates, chemical weapons and then bacteriological weapons, as they were called, were viewed as modern applications of advanced scientific knowledge that would cause mass casualties more efficiently than conventional arms, without tearing the enemy limb from limb or exposing the attacker to great harm,” Guillemin writes.

“In the history of both chemical and biological weapons, their vaunted modernity was used by advocates to appropriate moral considerations. During World War I, the German government and press argued that chemical weapons were advantageous because they did not destroy buildings or bridges and were a humane alternative to high explosives because they avoided battlefield blood and gore,” she continues.

A few questions to consider:

  1. What do you think of this view of biological and chemical weapons? Are they “a higher form of killing”?
  2. If you were a military planner, would you ever consider the use of biological and chemical weapons to be appropriate? Necessary?
  3. How should we approach biological and chemical weapons moving forward? Is there any situation where their use is justified? And, what can be done to militarily protect against the possibility of a biological or chemical attack?

Loullyana

12 thoughts on “Biological and Chemical Weapons – “A higher form of killing”

  1. Although biological and chemical weapons avoid “blood and gore,” I would not consider them a “higher form of killing.” In practice, biological warfare is not efficient, predictable, or humane. On the subject of efficiency, because no pathogen has a 100% fatality rate, biological weapons inevitably waste resources – They require weaponizing a large amount of a pathogen to cause relatively few deaths. Consider Brucellosis, which was studied in the US biological weapons program but only has a 2% fatality rate (Guillemin, 7). Further, who becomes infected, who dies from the disease, and how far the disease spreads is largely unpredictable. As we saw in Contagion, some individuals will have natural immunity, and individuals who don’t will acquire / spread the disease based on random contact. There is no formula for policymakers to exactly predict the spread of a disease. These facts are troubling from a policy point of view, but the worst aspect of biological and chemical weapons is how inhumane they are. Individuals will suffer between the time of infection and the time of death. Fear and panic will overcome the population, as Contagion once again makes clear. Perhaps most importantly, biological warfare is meant to injure or kill civilians, while nuclear warfare (at least in theory) could be targeted at infrastructure instead of people. The concerns I have raised may partially explain why biological weapons were banned in the BWC.

  2. I agree with Melissa that biological and chemical warfare is not a ‘higher form of killing’, however, I understand where this assumption could come from. Some versions of military theory follow the line that body count is the major objective in showing the effectiveness of a military campaign. Biological weapons then have the effect in maximizing enemy casualties while potentially limiting ones own military casualties while debilitating a whole society. This also leads to less troop engagement and thus less ‘blood and gore’. This is, however, not necessarily true in reality as biological weapons have the ability to backfire and can cause devastating effects on both fronts, often being hard to control due to it’s indiscriminate nature. The moral justification is also flawed. The impact an epidemic can have, in terms of long lasting effects, is just as bad as radiation from a nuclear attack and can often be much more psychologically damaging to a population as well. Even though the ‘blood and gore’ could potentially be eliminated, it would only be transferred to an invisible form of such. To answer the second question, looking at page 28 in Guillemin is useful. Rosebury and Kabat’s six features show how the use of biological weapons could, in reality, be ineffective for military planners. The first point- incubation periods- shows how biological weapons would be ineffective on the battlefield, or tactical front of military planning. The second and fifth point show how the use of biological weapons could backfire and lead to massive casualties on both sides if not properly controlled. Finally, the third, fourth and sixth point shows the immense amount of research and funds necessary to conduct a proper campaign based off of biological warfare, leaving multiple variables unaccounted for. One point I found interesting is that Guillemin believed that the determining factors for potential agents was grounded in the goals of total war (Guillemin, 30). I do agree with this in some sense, but the fact that there would be no distinction between, “causing international epidemics among civilians and destroying their food sources.” (30) seems to vague for the components of total war. An international epidemic would not be beneficial to the side waging total war because of the chance it has at weakening its on home front- due to international trade for example. Instead there would need to be targeted uses of means to destroy the enemies home front, such as factories and food sources. With biological weapons, like Guillemin says, there would be no distinction and would be ineffective-as of now- on both the tactical and strategic level of military planning.

  3. I, too, would argue against the idea that chemical and biological weapons could ever be justified as a “higher form of killing.” The questions posed in the original blog post, of course, were intended to be relatively controversial in order to get our class to genuinely consider the issues of chemical and biological weapons — but I believe it is also important to highlight that Guillemin’s piece on “Bioterrorism ” did not genuinely endorse chemical or biological weapons a positive development in world history, and that the utility of this kind of warfare seems to be offered in an objective and scholarly manner in her article. I would personally condemn biological and chemical weapons because, despite Jeffrey’s interesting point above on military theory and the aim of maximizing enemy casualties in war, I would expect “higher” or more civilized forms of warfare to rely on offensive strategies that aimed to minimize the total number of casualties in the war, rather that strategies that relied on decimating an entire people.

    I do believe that as a military planner or policy maker, I would never consider the use of biological or chemical weapons as appropriate or necessary. As Guillemin highlights in her text, the Western democracies renounced their offensive biological programs voluntarily because they were “satisfied with that one sure and certain weapon of mass destruction” (nuclear weapons) and realized that they did not need to stoop down to the level of bio/chemical warfare (11). Even in the question of retaliating against a chemical or biological attack, I do not believe that civilized powers would ever need such weapons, given that we can react much more quickly with nuclear weapons if necessary and need only prepare defensive strategies against bio/chemical warfare. I think my priority as a leader concerned for my country and my army in this respect would be intelligence collection and investment into immunization and general medical research. I prioritize intelligence collection first because I would be less concerned with the deployment of chemical or biological weapons by another state and more concerned about bioterrorism waged by non-state actors, so tracking their development and use around the world would take precedence.

  4. I agree with Jeffrey that while biological weapons theoretically have several strategic plusses, they can extremely messy in practice and can backfire easily. It is also easy to underestimate the killing power of these weapons. History, influenced by such instruments as the Geneva Protocol and the BWC, does not provide a true reference point for just how powerful modern biological weapons can be, and as Nouri points out (451), advances in biotechnology have been progressing at an astounding rate over the last several decades.
    This means that unlike in the case of nuclear weapons, whose destructive power has already been clearly demonstrated in WWII, we don’t really know just how effective large-scale biological warfare can be if completely unleashed. However, we can imagine that under the right circumstances, it can be absolutely devastating.
    Turning to the ethics of using such weapons with this in mind, it is important to first ask whether biological weapons are truly better or worse than conventional or nuclear warfare. I argue that from an ethical standpoint, these weapons are on a plane all their own, due to the following points:
    Biological weapons are much less controllable, and by extension, more indiscriminate than even nuclear warfare, which can at least be targeted to a specific city or area. While in war, the deaths of children and elders are typically collateral damage, the use of biological weapons makes them primary victims to an even greater extent than usual.
    Biological weapons by nature target a society’s civilian population more than its military. As Guillemin underlines (36-38), a country can inoculate and equip its military much more easily to deal with biological weapons than its civilians, meaning that in the majority of cases, biological weapons make much more sense when targeted at civilians.
    It is highly doubtful that the amount of suffering that these weapons inflict on a population is less than that caused by conventional war, and is probably as great or greater than that caused by nuclear weapons.
    These factors make biological weapons an unnecessarily slow and painful way to destroy a society–not its military, factories or weapons, but its civilians specifically, and the weakest ones at that. I agree with Michelle that a “higher form of killing” would involve the lowest number of casualties in a war, not the highest. The ethical considerations above make it clear to me that biological weapons constitute an extremely and unnecessarily “low” form of killing instead, one that I would not condone as a policymaker or military planner.

  5. Both the “height” and the “ethics” of biological and chemical weapons are dependent upon the standards set for these measures. The overall effectiveness or height of a weapon is dependent upon the ethicality of that weapon. If we fail to uphold our ethical standards of conduct during war, then we have undermined the world’s ability to trust us in future operations. So unless that war is conquering the entire world and there is no war after, we need to uphold our ethical standards. Because ethics is a factor in the effectiveness of a war, I will address it before the overall standards of war.
    There are a number of factors which come into play when determining the ethics of war. The United States doctrine in making military decisions proposes three aspects – personal virtue, abiding to rules, and producing desired outcomes (Developing Ethical Reasoning in Army’s Tactical Leaders: A Virtual Learning Initiative). This definition of ethical behavior overlaps into overall mission effectiveness because the outcome of the decision determines its ethicality. Thus, the attempt to define standards for the ethics of war is dependent upon the standards for the effectiveness of war.
    As shown, it is more difficult to determine these standards than it originally seems because all of the factors which influence the standards are interrelated. It is difficult to model and structure something which refuses to allow an isolation of its parts. So how has the United States and the rest of the world defined its standards? Regardless of the technicalities and impossibility of a cohesive solution, policies need to be made. These policies have largely been based on two aspects of the United States’ doctrine – mission effectiveness and personal virtue.
    At the time of the statements which Guillemin cites, forces were looking for ways to maximize the effectiveness of their attacks and to minimize the unvirtuousness of war. Because chemical and biological weapons minimized the destruction and gore currently at the forefront of these weapons developers’ minds, they were more personally virtuous. They avoided the effects which were trying to be avoided. The problem of the other effects was not yet fully realized. On the other side, they were effective because of their ability to minimize friendly casualties (much like drones today).
    Given our current knowledge of the effects of chemical and biological weapons, they are not a form of “higher killing” and are not ethically superior. However, given the knowledge and ethical standards of the day, those proclaiming the weapons ethically superior in the early 20th Century were also correct in their claims.

  6. I agree with some concepts that Jeffrey and Isabel already mentioned in the previous comments. I think that potentially biological weapons cannot be considered as a ‘higher form of killing’ for several reasons: 1) it’s hard to predict how fast the disease will spread, 2) they are not directed to a specific target (unlike nuclear weapons) 3) it’s a much slower kind of warfare (unlike nuclear weapons). Moreover, like Melissa said, it’s hard to predict the amount of deaths that a bio-chemical attack could cause, given the three factors aforementioned. Nuclear weapons are a much better kind of warfare and that is proved by the fact that countries still rely on nuclear weapons way more than on bio-chemical weapons both on the deterrence aspect and on the “production” of it.

    If I were a military planner I would definitely not invest too much on civil and military defense of biological weapons. Of course, it is a type of warfare that should still be highly regarded but given that countries itself are unwilling to use them I would invest mainly on different and more modern types of warfare (i.e. cyberwarfare).

    Like for every other kind of weapons that we are studying, we should still keep an eye on biological weapons when we think about terrorism. It would be interesting if there was an article regarding the cost and accessibility of biological weapons like the one we read about nuclear weapons and see if it is easier or not for a terrorist group to buy or produce them. Countries are clearly unwilling to engage in a bio-chemical war and that is proved by the fact that there have not been any violations of the Geneva Protocol. Nonetheless, we should always promote and develop a system that protect civilians against biological weapons because we know that civilians themselves are the target, unlike for other forms of weapons.

  7. When considering the question of whether or not to allow biological or chemical weapons, there are fundamentally two aspects: the ethicality, and the sheer effectiveness. As far as an evaluation of ethicality goes, I would push back on the Guillemin’s argument that chemical and biological weapons are more ethical because of their lack of gore—to minimize pain simply because of the lesser degree of violence seems meaningless when death yields become comparable. However, the point she does make about how biological and chemical weapons leave structures and buildings and towns intact is not insignificant. This would imply that the unaffected, healthy people living in the same areas still possess the opportunity to take advantage of the remaining resources—an arguably less terrible state than those living in war-torn areas where conventional weapons are used. However, is it ethical to implement such an uncontrollable weapon? As seen in the movie Contagion, a virus can easily get uncontrollably out of hand if it is contagious enough. Is it ethical to use a weapon with the lack of complete certitude whom it would impact?
    As far as effectiveness goes, the main advantage of using a biological or chemical weapon, in my opinion, is the emotional impact. As they do not impact buildings or structures, the only way they would impact warfare is driving policy makers to surrender in the face of lives lost. I don’t think this would necessarily be a useful tool for decision makers, as they could achieve the same impact with conventional tools. Furthermore, there is a certain stigma as discussed by Guillemin about poison which does impact the reputation of a country and its latter abilities to maintain friendly relations with other nations.

  8. While the logic or thoughts behind exactly why you could assign the moniker “higher form of killing” to a certain sort of weapon or form of killing makes some basic sense because you can avoid gore and is more efficient, this does by no means excuse the atrocity of the act. Using any sort of weapon to kill large numbers of people should always have a huge burden attached to its use. In fact, it seems to me that when the efficiency of the means of killing increases precipitously, the moral and ethical questions attached should follow suit. While the strict description of a “higher form of killing” certainly makes sense literally, increased lethality and lack of gore does not excuse the act itself.

    To put myself in the shoes of a military planner is obviously a difficult thing to do, and something I hope never falls to me. I guess that in a last ditch effort to defend a large group, or in a situation where nothing else was a reasonable option their use makes sense, but the ability for any form of bio/chemical weapons to backfire is simply too high for me to live with reasonably.

  9. I think many of the above commentators have successfully dismantled the case that biological or chemical weapons can be considered a morally superior form of fighting, for the various reasons of scale/directability/unpredictability, inter alia. I do think, however, that it is interesting to interrogate how people at the beginning of the 20th century might have come to believe that they represented a “higher form of killing” as it seems to be a mistake common in that era. It seems that people mistook a more sanitized form of killing–further removed from its perpetrators, easier to conceive of as a routine, assembly-line sort of operation–with a “higher form” of killing. Even today, it seems easier to justify the sort of killing that takes place through drone strikes launched by autonomous drones–out of sight, out of mind–than it is to conceive of killing in a more visceral way.

    But in terms of suffering inflicted (which seems the most appropriate criterion for the morality of a given tool), it is unclear why dying in agony from a chemical weapon attack or wasting away due to radiation poisoning from a nuclear attack is preferable to death by gunshot or even bludgeoning. In fact, it appears to me that “advanced” weapons seem morally inferior, in the sense that they allow people to conceive and rationalize killing on a scale and in a manner previously inaccessible to humanity. Stalin’s adage “the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic” is a horrific affirmation of this truth: and it is a statement that is both impossible and incomprehensible sans the modern, so-called “higher” machinery of war. In sum, “civilized killing” seems scarcely distinguishable from “uncivilized killing” except insofar as there is a good deal more of it. Perhaps if our wars were again fought with swords, we might have greater reservations about waging them.

  10. Let me be clear in stating my opinion on this: There is no such thing as a “higher form of killing.” At least the way I see it, if the ends are the same, the means matter little; and if the ends end lives, no means can be of a high form.

    That being said, I think I disagree with most of my classmates when I say that, if I were in charge, I wouldn’t immediately disregard the development and research of BWs and CWs. It’s important to note here that I speak of non-lethal BWs and CWs. Indeed, we’ve focused quite a bit on the possible casualties of intended-lethal BWs and CWs like anthrax, but there are BWs and CWs that are non-lethal (like tear gas and pepper spray, both of which are widely used), many of them yet to be studied, researched, or developed. Perhaps non-lethal BWs and CWs (and possibly lethal BWs and CWs with surefire antidotes) could help an eventual, if there even was such a thing, higher form of war. Such weapons could be used to first temporarily incapacitate an enemy force, during which time they would be busy treating symptoms, and then an invasion (during which there would be no causalities because the enemy is unable to fight) forcing surrender could result in a battle with no fatalities.

    Perhaps I think too idealistically. But I think if we can agree on safe zones for wounded soldiers and civilians of any side in a war, if we can sign international non-proliferation treaties, and if we can agree that killings are bad and should be eliminated or, at the very least, minimized, I think we can agree to develop ways in which battles don’t have to become blood baths.

  11. My apologies. I posted an unfinished version of the post. Here’s the edited (it’s not much different–I put asterisks around the one sentence I added):

    Let me be clear in stating my opinion on this: There is no such thing as a “higher form of killing.” At least the way I see it, if the ends are the same, the means matter little; and if the ends end lives, no means can be of a high form.

    That being said, I think I disagree with most of my classmates when I say that, if I were in charge, I wouldn’t immediately disregard the development and research of BWs and CWs. It’s important to note here that I speak of non-lethal BWs and CWs. *Certainly, BWs and CWs can spread to unintended areas and, as the 1993 OTA Estimate stated and Prof. Glaser paraphrased, “BW efficiently delivered against unprotected populations would, ‘pound for pound of weapon, exceed the killing power of nuclear weapons.’”* Indeed, we’ve focused quite a bit on the possible casualties of intended-lethal BWs and CWs like anthrax, but there are BWs and CWs that are non-lethal (like tear gas and pepper spray, both of which are widely used), many of them yet to be studied, researched, or developed. Perhaps non-lethal BWs and CWs (and possibly lethal BWs and CWs with surefire antidotes) could help an eventual, if there even was such a thing, higher form of war. Such weapons could be used to first temporarily incapacitate an enemy force, during which time they would be busy treating symptoms, and then an invasion (during which there would be no causalities because the enemy is unable to fight) forcing surrender could result in a battle with no fatalities.

    Perhaps I think too idealistically. But I think if we can agree on safe zones for wounded soldiers and civilians of any side in a war, if we can sign international non-proliferation treaties, and if we can agree that killings are bad and should be eliminated or, at the very least, minimized, I think we can agree to develop ways in which battles don’t have to become blood baths.

  12. When it comes to killing, how often can we invoke a sense of morality?

    The application of the term “moral” to the use of biological and chemical weapons in contrast to other forms of militaristic action seems like a misuse. Characterizing mass death as more moral because it is “cleaner,” or requires less damage control is inaccurate. While there are relative degrees of morality (for example allowing for a quicker, painless death), indiscriminately causing enormous amounts of painful death by disease doesn’t merit this relative scale of morality. I don’t believe that these types of weapons are a higher form of killing. While they don’t immediately decimate a city’s infrastructure, they randomly kill off a city’s people, which has the potential to destroy a city from the inside out. Additionally, biological and chemical weapons can be much more discreetly used than other weaponry. There is no explosion, no battlefield, no direct agent. Rather, agents are tiny microbes often spread from host to host in friendly interaction.

    As a military planner, I would highly discourage the use of chemical and biological weapons. I believe that there are moments in wars where drastic measures are sometimes necessary. Yet, as military commanders have noted in the past, these weapons are unpredictable and have delayed effects. Attacking civilians in such a way, where there is no certainty about spread, impact, or longevity, is a worse solution than attacking in a way where damage is ascertainable from the first, and as many civilians’ lives as possible are spared.

    Moving forward, as is being done already and was started by President Nixon in 1969, I believe that chemical and biological weapons should be totally banned. Especially with the increasing threat of biological warfare as science develops and pathogens with specific effects can be created in a laboratory, it is necessary that governments control the use of science in their own populations and on an international level as well. One mistake could lead to a disastrous outbreak for which the world is not prepared.

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