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 A Reporter at Large

Operation Delirium

by        December 17, 2012

At an Army research facility, a soldier given a  powerful mind-altering drug said, “I feel like my life is not worth a nickel  here.”

Colonel James S. Ketchum dreamed  of war without killing. He  joined the Army in 1956 and left it in 1976, and in that time he did not fight  in Vietnam; he did not invade the Bay of Pigs;  he did not guard Western Europe with tanks, or  help build nuclear launch sites beneath the Arctic ice. Instead, he became the military’s leading expert in a secret Cold War  experiment: to fight enemies with clouds of psychochemicals that temporarily  incapacitate the mind—causing, in the words of one ranking officer, a “selective  malfunctioning of the human machine.” For nearly a  decade, Ketchum, a psychiatrist, went about his work in the belief that  chemicals are more humane instruments of warfare than bullets and shrapnel—or,  at least, he told himself such things. To achieve his  dream, he worked tirelessly at a secluded Army research facility, testing  chemical weapons on hundreds of healthy soldiers, and thinking all along that he  was doing good.

Today, Ketchum is eighty-one years old, and the facility  where he worked, Edgewood Arsenal, is a crumbling assemblage of buildings  attached to a military proving ground on the Chesapeake Bay. The  arsenal’s records are boxed and dusting over in the National Archives.  Military doctors who helped conduct the experiments have  long since moved on, or passed away, and the soldiers who served as their test  subjects—in all, nearly five thousand of them—are scattered throughout the  country, if they are still alive. Within the Army, and in  the world of medical research, the secret clinical trials are a faint memory.  But for some of the surviving test subjects, and for 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? As veterans of the  tests have come forward, their unanswered questions have slowly gathered into a  kind of historical undertow, and Ketchum, more than anyone else, has been caught  in its pull. In 2006, he self-published a memoir,  “Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten,” which defended the research.  Next year, a class-action lawsuit brought against the  federal government by former test subjects will go to trial, and Ketchum is  expected to be the star witness.

The lawsuit’s argument is in line with broader criticisms of  Edgewood: that, whether out of military urgency or scientific dabbling, the Army  recklessly endangered the lives of its soldiers—naïve men, mostly, who were  deceived or pressured into submitting to the risky experiments. 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. Ketchum’s specialty was a family of  molecules that block a key neurotransmitter, causing delirium. The drugs were known mainly by Army codes, with their true formulas  classified. The soldiers were never told what they were  given, or what the specific effects might be, and the Army made no effort to  track how they did afterward. Edgewood’s most extreme  critics raise the spectre of mass injury—a hidden American tragedy.

To read further on this article please follow link to ” The New Yorker ”

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2 thoughts on “Decades after a risky Cold War experiment, a scientist lives with secrets.

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