We All Fall Down: The Prospect of Biological and Chemical Warfare – Robin Clarke (London, 1969).
The Pelican train chugs on! This time we move from the rather pleasant (poaching aside) subject of elephants to the rather unpleasant subject of chemical and biological warfare (CBW for short). We All Fall Down, which takes its name from the nursery rhyme Ring a Ring O’Roses (apparently wrongly attributed to the influence of the black death), provides an overview of the late-1960s state of play where CBW weapons were concerned, and offered suggestions on what to do about them.
So for those not in the know, what are chemical and biological weapons? According to Clarke and the received wisdom at the time, the difference is that biological agents were alive and chemicals were inorganic, though there was some crossover between the two. At the time of writing, chemical weapons – most infamously mustard gas – had been used extensively by all powers in the First World War and then subsequently sort-of banned by the Geneva Convention whereas bio-warfare agents were still in the experimental phase.
Clarke, who is quite obviously opposed to CBW from the off, nevertheless manages to present a considered and balanced appraisal of the situation as it was at the time. He dwells at great length on the military’s arguments that CBW could actually be much more humane than other forms of warfare, because it was more targeted and much less destructive (at least in terms of property and infrastructure). However, on the flip-side of this was the fact that these were the first kind of weapons specifically designed to wipe out human populations and nothing else. If a nuclear bomb was an act of wanton destruction, a chemical or biological weapon could be an insidious way of depopulating an area allowing an aggressor to quickly move in and nab the opponent’s territory.
A sense of urgency underpins the whole book because at the time the US was making extensive use of chemical weapons in Vietnam, most famously the defoliant (plant-killing) chemical Agent Orange. Defoliants, the US military reasoned, help denude their Vietnamese opponents of jungle cover and crop supplies. Clarke notes how many scientists had written in protest of this policy, concerns that were ultimately proved justified. The US now offers compensation to servicemen exposed to Agent Orange (but not to the much greater numbers of Vietnamese who were subjected to it). As Clarke noted, rather depressingly, the use of CBW was likely to expand in the secretive proxy wars that were starting to characterise the Cold War.
Consequently, Clarke touches upon but does not directly deal with the issue of CBW as a weapon for non-state actors. In the era of great superpower-against-superpower wranglings, before international terrorism became prominent in the 1970s and ’80s, Clarke was only thinking in terms of small states. These states were (at least ostensibly) bound by international treaties, protocols, and conventions regulating the use of CBW. As disturbing as chemical and biological weapons were in a conventional conflict or proxy war (the “Cold” war burned fiercely beyond Western Europe), they become even more unsettling as a tool in the arsenal of criminal or terrorist organisations.
Indeed, as the twentieth century became the twenty-first a series of high-profile attacks, including the 1995 Sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway and the post -9/11 Anthrax attacks across America, put “bioterrorism” at the heart of countries’ security agendas. CBW has increasingly become part of the popular cultural landscape in TV shows such as 24, and the global obsession with zombies, which are frequently created by or as a form of biological warfare. Though it has died down a bit recently, Zombies have recently occupied the pinnacle of pop culture in films (World War Z, Dawn of Dead – itself a remake of George A. Romero’s cult classic, 28 Days Later, and the incomparable ZomRomCom Shaun of the Dead), books and comic books (The Walking Dead, Pride and Prejudice with Zombies), computer games (my beloved Resident Evil series, Day-Z, Left4Dead), and TV shows (The Walking Dead – adapted from the comic book, and iZombie). Consequently, less people these days could be accused of ignorance of biological warfare as a phenomenon than the citizens of 1950s America who had this handy and terribly-acted public information film to help them out. It is unlikely, of course, that CBW would produce a Zombie epidemic, it’s much more likely to kill or incapacitate on a wide scale, but hopefully you see where I am coming from.
The world’s zombie obsession aside, Clarke warning about the much greater accessibility of CBW to smaller states unable to get a place at the nuclear table has proved depressingly true. Recently, there has been some grim confirmation of this stark warning with news of potential chemical weapon attacks in Syria and South Sudan, which go to show – as Clarke himself bemoaned – that sometimes the conventions limiting weapons use were not worth the paper they were written on (he points out several times that the US Senate had failed to ratify the Geneva Convention – which included important prohibitions of CBW weaponry).
Clarke saw all this coming in the 1960s. He also saw a chance to put a stop to the development of CBW for offensive purposes, but recognised the difficulty inherent in halting what had already begun in the early twentieth century and continues today. He offered a simple, if idealistic, solution to the problem – scientists should simply stop working with defence officials to work on weapons which had a potential offensive capability. Clarke deals at great length with Pugwash, a charmingly-named international scientific community, and their attempts to limit CBW research. The fact that they are still at it today, 47 years later, probably tells you all you need to know in that regard.
So why hasn’t it happened? Perhaps the scientists who work on CBW have a similar mindset to those in that apocryphal tale of scientific folly – Jurassic Park (any excuse to mention it) – and were so preoccupied with whether or not they could create these weapons that they didn’t stop to think if they should. Perhaps it was just the best way to get grant funding. Who knows? What we do know is that the “prospect” of chemical and biological war remains a very real one in the modern world.
In conclusion, while it deals with a very grim subject, We All Fall Down is an important work which, usefully, renders a pretty complicated subject understandable (and terrifying). Like my previous Pelican, Elephants, it has dated. One notable emission for potential weaponisation was the horrible and then-unknown Ebola virus, which would not be discovered until 1976, seven years later. A more up-to-date companion piece to Clarke’s work would be Tom Mangold and Jeff Goldberg’s Plague Wars. I give it four d0uble (poisoned) daggers ‡‡‡‡.
I am so bloody organised that next week you can look forward to an exploration of Britain’s industrial dereliction in John Barr’s Derelict Britain. I hope you like spoil heaps (spoil-er alert, John Barr doesn’t!)