Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday Salon 15.54: biological and chemical warfare.

Last few pages now and the VIRUS HUNTER strays onto the topic of chemical and biological warfare - in particular their histories.

He says he is 'perplexed over what was so much more horrible and emotionally repellent about nerve gas or anthrax, say, compared with bullets or bombs.' Good point. It made me think about what my mother said about the end of the second world war in Japan. When she first heard about it, as a young teenager, she was disturbed. The thought of the atomic bomb worried her a lot and in the end she seemed to have become ill. All those people she thought, all at once. She came close to a nervous breakdown.

The thing that cured her, she said, was something her grandfather said: a single person's life is as important them no matter whether they are shot by a single bullet or one of thousands. It is just as horrible.

Nerve gas injures and disfigures horribly - that's why it was banned. But then mines and burns disfigure too and I guess anyone who has fought in battle is scarred - mentally if not physically - and these scars are just as incapacitating.

While he does not advocate biological and chemical warfare, C.J. Peters can't see how they are worse. He then goes on to give an interesting potted history. The first record of biological warfare was when Genghis Khan besieged a city in the Crimea in the fourteenth century. They brought the Black Death with them - it was endemic and came from the fleas of wild rodents on the Mongolian steppes. To end the siege they catapulted plague-ridden cadavers over the walls - and the fleeing inhabitants may have caused the plague to spread to the rest of Europe.

Another well-known instance was in 1763 when British forces threw in Smallpox laden blankets to the American Indians when they grew troublesome.

Chemical warfare, he says, has been with us for 4000 years, when toxic smoke was used in biblical times. However they were not part of the day-to-day training of troops until the early 1980s as a result of intelligence that the Warsaw pact countries were busy using chemical warfare procedures. This prompted and interest in chemical warfare defense including field detectors (in which I was involved for a short time - one of my projects was to help develop a gas sensor for the American army).

Out of this evil then, can come good; because the USSR was thought to be interested in certain viruses during the cold war this caused an interest in certain vaccines to combat these - which in turn can be used to save lives. Out of the quest for death comes a hope for life.


Blogger jem said...

Thanks for sharing your reading. I enjoy a more unsettling read from time to time. I've never forgotten the descriptions of the woods where they let corpses mature to study decomposition (as discussed in 'Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach).

Sun Nov 25, 06:02:00 pm  
Anonymous Clare said...

That sounds an interesting read too! It's strange which topics do turn out to be interesting - sometimes they sound quite unpromising.

Sun Nov 25, 09:18:00 pm  
Blogger Jacob Russell said...

"Out of the quest for death comes a hope for life."

Could there be a better example of our capacity for delusional wishful thinking... of filtering all that doesn't fall on the right side of the balance.

... we're doomed

Mon Nov 26, 12:59:00 am  
Blogger Dewey said...

What a frightening sounding book!

Mon Nov 26, 01:41:00 am  
Blogger joeB said...

Clare, maybe a podcast for next Salon about this creepy book?
Inflection..Inflection..Inflection.Best Regards,

Mon Nov 26, 05:14:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

Jacob: Research initiated by concerns about biological warfare has yielded useful vaccines and has saved hundreds of lives. Of course war is dreadful, appalling, evil... but sometimes something good comes from it. This small glimmer never pardons the rest but it gives me hope.

Yes, it is frightening, Dewey and Jacob - yes a podcast is an excellent idea but unfortunately my brain seems to be much better connected to my fingers than my mouth so I think I'll give it a miss.

Mon Nov 26, 12:45:00 pm  

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