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