25 Apr

What Jeffery Amherst actually did or did not do is unclear. Written records suggest that this story may have been based on some advice Amherst gave in his capacity as Britain’s commander in chief in North America. In 1763, Fort Pitt, an outpost at the western edge of colonial Pennsylvania, was in danger of being seized by the local Indians, who had had quite enough of Yankee hospitality. They had already taken over all the nearby outposts and killed the inhabitants. If Fort Pitt were to fall, the Pennsylvania colony would contract to its eastern core around Philadelphia. Amherst sent a letter from his base in New York to the ranking officer for western Pennsylvania, Colonel Henry Bouquet, who was based in Philadelphia: “Could it not be Contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Strategem in our power to Reduce them.”Bouquet wrote back, “I will try to inoculate the ____________with SomeBlankets that may fall in their Hands, and take care not to get the disease myself.” Bouquet apparently deleted the name of the Indian group to protect himself or the plan.The response from Amherst makes his opinion clear: “You will Do well to try to Inoculate the Indians, by means of Blankets, as well as to Try Every other Methode, that can Serve to Extirpate this execrable Race.”The journal of the captain at Fort Pitt, however, indicates that he had already given smallpox-laden blankets and a handkerchief to the Indians before receiving such orders from Bouquet. The use of smallpox-contaminated fabrics apparently was generally recognized as an option that could be used if other methods failed, and sometimes even if they didn’t. Smallpox broke out severely among Indians the following spring, though the outbreak may have resulted from sporadic cases that had been occurring among the Indians even as the captain at Fort Pitt was preparing his blankets. The colonists, having already acquired immunity, were little affected. Fort Pitt was held and eventually grew into a hub of western Pennsylvania: the town of Pittsburgh.Not quite two hundred years later, after Nazi panzer divisions reached Stalingrad, a strange “German disease” hampered their advance. A surprisingly high incidence of tularemia soon occurred among Soviet civilians and troops in the area. Though the bacterium that causes tularemia is similar to the agent of the black plague, tularemia generally stays put in its normal transmission cycle, which involves small mammals and ticks. Human cases occur sporadically if, for example, a person is bitten by an infected tick or is butchering an infected rabbit. Three decades after the Stalingrad outbreak, a promising young medical student named Ken Alibek was asked by his Soviet professor to analyze the unusual cluster of tularemia cases. After intensive study Alibek reported his conclusion to the professor: the epidemic must have been caused intentionally. The professor then told Alibek to “forget you ever said what you just did. I will forget it too … never mention to anyone else what you just told me. Believe me, you’ll be doing yourself a favor.”In one sense tularemia was an effective weapon for the Soviet goal. It helped stop the Nazi advance. But as was the case in western Pennsylvania nearly two centuries before, the weapon was crude and unpredictable—it could fizzle or backfire. The sequence of events in Stalingrad probably began with spraying of the Germans when the winds were favorable; the collateral damage to Soviet civilians and troops may have resulted from a change in wind direction or from infection of rodents, which then dispersed freely across the battered landscape.Learning their lesson from the experience, Soviet strategists shifted their tactics to use of biological agents against targets that were further behind enemy lines. But even this alteration would not have solved the problem. If biological weapons are successful, the enemy territory may soon be the property of those who contaminated it, and a heavily contaminated prize is not very attractive; moreover, the mobility of people in war makes the site of release a poor predictor of the spread of damage.Our emerging knowledge of disease evolution, considered in the context of the biological weapons used in past wars, raises a weighty question. As we learn more of how evolution creates virulence—indeed, as we learn how to manipulate that process—are we likely to begin constructing a new military technology based on our new knowledge? There are dangers, but there are also reasons to think that the dangers can be lessened.With just a little bit of thinking, military strategists and militaristic dictators who are tempted by the low cost and destructive capacity of biological agents recognize the general lesson: biological organisms may be scary, cheap, and accessible, but they are poor military weapons. Even when biological weapons could provide a tactical victory, their use opens the door to long-range difficulties. If the stronger side initiates the use of biological weapons for a tactical advantage, it opens the door to their use by the weaker side. Though biological weapons offer little chance of victory for the weaker side, even a weak opponent can cause a great deal of retaliatory damage to troops or civilians. So the more powerful side has an incentive not to open that door. A similar incentive applies to the weaker side, which risks retaliation from the stronger side’s conventional weapons as well as any biological weapons the stronger side may have. Escalation to an air war provides a contrast: the side that has air superiority and initiates the use of air attacks may suffer little from the other side—as long as the air superiority holds up.Clearly there has been a hesitancy to deploy biological weapons. They have been used when a weak opponent has little else to lose from retaliation, as was the case with the Soviets in Stalingrad, or when a weaker opponent does not have biological weapons for retaliation, as was the case in colonial Pennsylvania. In Stalingrad, the Soviets were not risking a great deal of damage from reprisals, because their situation was dire and because the Nazis did not have a strong biological weapons program and were already using everything in their full arsenal. In western Pennsylvania the situation at Fort Pitt was dire, though the situations in Philadelphia and New York were not; but opening the door was not so risky, because the Indians had neither biological weapons nor overwhelming military power kept in reserve for retaliation.This logic provides an important though somewhat discomforting lesson: a power that wants to avoid being the target of biological weapons during wartime had better have some means for reprisal. It could do that by having biological weapons of its own, or, as the United States has done, by having such an overwhelming reserve capacity for destruction that the use of biological weapons by a less powerful adversary is deterred.Still, even in such cases biological weapons are weapons of last resort. When a city is being overrun or a fort is under siege, biological weapons may turn the tide, but they may do so at a great price and with little predictability. These problems are inherent among living microorganisms because the reproduction, spread, and modification of living organisms, and the feedback loops among these influences, are too complex to predict and control once the organisms are unleashed.The modification of disease organisms for use as weapons during wartime has been a frightening threat ever since the use of chemical weapons during World War I made observers ask whether the science of weapons development should be limited. A deeper analysis of the drawbacks of biological weapons assuages these concerns to some extent by revealing that biological agents tend to generate poor weapons for warfare. But what about biological terrorism?*51\225\2*

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