Colonel James S. Ketchum dreamed of a war without killing…
In this week’s issue, Raffi Khatchadourian illuminates the history and the contested legacy of a secret Cold War experiment that tested chemical weapons on thousands of American soldiers. “The drugs under review ranged from tear gas and LSD to highly lethal nerve agents, like VX, a substance developed at Edgewood and, later, sought by Saddam Hussein,” Khatchadourian writes. Some veterans of the tests believe that they sustained permanent damage. Next year, a San Francisco law firm will bring to trial a class-action lawsuit against the federal government, on behalf of former test subjects.
After the Second World War, the American government acquired the formulas for Nazi chemical weapons and brought scientists and doctors to the Edgewood Arsenal, a secret Army research facility near the Chesapeake Bay, to study them. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, the research gained a new component, as the Army began searching for “compounds that would create the same debilitating mental side effects as nerve gas, but without the lethality.”
Khatchadourian speaks with Colonel James S. Ketchum, now eighty-one and the most prominent defender of Edgewood, who will presumably be the star witness in the class-action suit. Ketchum, who was involved in human experiments at the arsenal for nearly a decade, eventually becoming the head of the Clinical Research Department, “went about his work in the belief that chemicals are more humane instruments of warfare than bullets and shrapnel,” Khatchadourian writes. Ketchum “insists that there was never any ambiguity about the drug experiments during the recruitment process,” Khatchadourian writes. Even though soldiers were told that they could excuse themselves from an experiment, many felt that they could not back down on a commitment to a superior officer. And the volunteers, after their stay at the arsenal, “were blindly pushed back into the Army at large, with no follow-up care.”
The Army has determined the “fundamental impracticality” of psychochemical warfare, and has not employed the drugs that were tested at Edgewood in combat. Within the Army, and in the world of medical research, “the secret clinical trials are a faint memory,” Khatchadourian writes. “But for some of the surviving test subjects, and the doctors who tested them, what happened at Edgewood remains deeply unresolved. Were the human experiments there a Dachau-like horror, or were they sound and necessary science?” For his part, Ketchum tells Khatchadourian, “I struggle with these things. But I have always had the feeling that I am doing more the right thing than the wrong thing, here.”
Follow this link to read “Operation Delirium”: http://nyr.kr/UjBXFJ