Biological warfare (also called germ or bacteriological warfare) is the use of living disease-causing agents such as viruses, germs, or fungi—or toxins derived from them—as a weapon of war against an enemy’s soldiers, civilians, animals, or crops. Examples of potential biological agents include the smallpox virus and the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes plague. Such weapons could be used for either killing or incapacitating people. The term also refers to defensive measures against such attacks.
Biological weapons have been called the “poor nation’s atomic bomb” because they could be developed by nations too poor to create or deploy nuclear or chemical weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons require rare materials, and both nuclear and chemical weapons require significant scientific infrastructure to develop and deploy them. But biological weapons do not require rare materials, significant infrastructure, or esoteric knowledge. On the contrary, biological weapons can potentially be developed and even massproduced by commercially available equipment found in many high school or college science classrooms. Actual germs can be purchased from universities and other institutions or derived from natural sources. The fact that so many different nations and groups possess the capability to create biological weapons makes it more probable that they will be used in the near future. Scientist Steven M. Block argues that “someone, somewhere, sometime seems bound to try something. . . . It would be tragic if it took the biological equivalent of Hiroshima to muster our response.”
Biological warfare is a modern threat with a long history. Ancient peoples often placed corpses in the drinking wells of their enemies to gain a military advantage, or have thrown diseased bodies over city walls. One recorded case was the siege of the Crimean seaport of Caffa (now Fiodosia, Ukraine) in 1347. Mongol invaders used catapults to hurl dead bodies of plague victims into the walled city. When defenders of the city withdrew and fled to their home in Genoa, Italy, they took the disease with them; some historians blame the subsequent massive epidemic in Europe known as the Black Death on this biological attack. In another infamous case of biological warfare, British soldiers in North America in the 1700s used gifts of blankets to spread the smallpox disease to Native Americans.
These examples of biological warfare predate scientific understanding of how diseases are spread. In the nineteenth century, medical scientists developed the germ theory—the idea that contagious diseases are caused by microscopic infectious organisms. In the late 1800s microbiologists made significant advances in discovering and cultivating specific types of germs responsible for specific diseases, such as anthrax. These scientific advances would prove invaluable in treating and eradicating many diseases, but they also created the potential that such germs could be deliberately cultivated for use as weapons.
Germ theory was firmly established as the twentieth century began—a century that would experience two world wars, numerous other conflicts, and the invention and use of chemical and nuclear weapons. But in spite of science’s new knowledge about how germs caused disease, the actual usage of them in warfare in the twentieth century has been relatively rare. In World War I, Germany tried to infect sheep destined for export to Russia with anthrax, while the French may have tried to infect German horses with a contagious disease called glanders. However, biological weapons played a very minor role compared with chemical and other weapons. In World War II biological weapons were used by Japan against Chinese targets. Although both Germany and the Allies researched and developed some biological weapons, these nations never used them during the war.
Biological weapons research programs begun during World War II by the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union continued after the war was over. During the long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union both sides traded unsubstantiated accusations of biological warfare. The United States was accused of using biological weapons in the Korean War—a charge the United States strongly denied, and which has never been proven. The Soviet Union was accused of biological warfare when a mysterious “yellow rain” appeared in Laos and Cambodia in the 1970s, but these charges have also lacked corroboration. One reason why biological weapons may not have been used more often, despite the fact that many countries researched and stockpiled them, is that they could be a twoedged sword. Once a disease is introduced and begins to spread in a target human population, it may turn back on the attackers. Japanese efforts to spread cholera, plague, and other diseases in China were eventually stopped after they resulted in hundreds of deaths among Japan’s own troops. Another reason that biological weapons have not been used is that they have long been stigmatized in the international community as being outside the norms of “civilized” warfare. Such an understanding was codified in the 1925 Geneva Protocol. Signatories of the protocol pledged not to wage biological warfare.
The perceived impracticality of biological weapons and the moral revulsion against their potential for mass casualties are among the reasons that the United States decided to renounce them in 1969. The United States stopped its biological weapons program and destroyed its stockpiles, which by then included agents that caused anthrax, botulism, tularemia, and other diseases (American research programs on biological warfare defenses continue to this day). Since 1972 more than one hundred nations have signed the Biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty that went beyond the 1925 Geneva Protocol by prohibiting the development and stockpiling of biological weapons and the means to deliver them.
Despite the relative scarcity of biological warfare in the twentieth century, several developments have raised alarms for many that biological warfare may well be used sometime in the twenty-first century. One is the growing realization that the Biological Weapons Convention has not succeeded in its goals of weapons eradication. The Soviet Union, despite signing the BWC, created an impressively large biological weapons program in the 1970s and 1980s prior to the country’s dissolution in 1991. The extent to which elements of the Soviet biological weapons complex are still operating in Russia (and perhaps making biological weapons technology available to other countries and groups) remains unknown. In the 1990s United Nations inspectors in Iraq uncovered evidence that that nation, another BWC signatory, had developed its own large biological weapons program. Other states believed to be aggressively pursuing biological weapons include Libya, North Korea, and Iran.
A second development raising concern about the possible use of biological weapons is the rise of terrorist groups that are not bound by the BWC or by norms governing countries. Some experts have argued that a “new breed” of terrorist has appeared in recent decades who is more willing to create mass casualties in ways unrelated to clear political goals. While traditional terrorist groups with negotiable political demands may avoid biological weapons as ultimately damaging to their cause, this new breed of terrorist may not. Terrorism expert and author Walter Laqueur writes, “The state of affairs is different with regard to terrorists of the lunatic fringe, certain religious fanatics, and terrorist groups that are not interested in negotiations but want to destroy the enemy tout court.” Americans might not be comforted to know that one notable terrorist, al-Qaeda leader and alleged mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden, has been quoted as saying that “we don’t consider it a crime if we tried to have nuclear, chemical, biological weapons” in the holy war against the United States.
A third development concerning the threat of biological warfare is the continuing impressive advances in biological science and in biotechnology. “Modern bioscience has led to the development of many powerful tools for manipulating genes,” writes scientist Block. “Such tools hold the key to revolutionary medical advances. . . . But they make equally possible the creation of entirely new WMD [weapons of mass destruction], endowed with unprecedented power to destroy.” Scientists can now not only isolate and cultivate germs and viruses, they can also change their genetic makeup. They can potentially be engineered to be more powerful, more easy to use, and more difficult to detect. Scientists can even theoretically design weapons to act against certain targeted ethnic groups by creating germs that attack particular genes or cell receptors found only in certain populations.
Whether or not these developments mean that the nightmare scenario of a large biological attack is now a likely possibility remains unknown. But journalist Madeline Drexler notes that U.S. experts on both sides of that question “do agree on two points: The threat of biological weapons is indisputably growing, and our public-health system would buckle under a massive epidemic.” The viewpoints in this volume examine the prospective threat of biological warfare in the following chapters: How Serious a Danger Do Biological Weapons Pose? What Nations and Groups Constitute the Greatest Biological Warfare Threat? What Measures Should the United States Take to Prepare for Biological Warfare? How Can Biological Warfare Be Prevented? The contributors provide a diverse assortment of arguments responding to the disturbing possibility that advances in medicine and biology may be used for destructive ends.
Did this raise a question for you?