'Operation Delirium:' Psychochemicals And Cold War
In the latest issue of The New Yorker, journalist Raffi Khatchadourian writes about a secret chemical weapons testing program run by the U.S. Army during the Cold War.
Throughout the 1950s and '60s, at the now-crumbling Edgewood Arsenal by the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, military doctors tested the effects of nerve gas, LSD and other drugs on 5,000 U.S. soldiers to gauge the effects on their brain and behavior.
"People who were getting sarin, people who were getting other nerve agents that the Nazis had developed, they would ... experience giddiness, lassitude, depression, and at some point, someone said, 'Can we just focus on these side effects? Can we make a weapon that will incapacitate people mentally and not kill them?' " Khatchadourian tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
A class-action lawsuit, brought by the surviving soldiers against the federal government, goes to court next year and accuses the Army of, as Khatchadourian writes, "recklessly endanger[ing] the lives of its soldiers — naive men, mostly, who were deceived or pressured into submitting to the risky experiments."
Though the soldiers did sign consent forms to participate in the experiments, they didn't know that they were being exposed to dangerous nerve gases or psychochemicals such as LSD. Some of the soldiers have suffered physical and psychological trauma since the tests. There was no followup by the Army.
Khatchadourian's article, "Operation Delirium," profiles Jim Ketchum, one of the military doctors who helped lead the project. To this day, Ketchum maintains that the tests were conducted in the interest of a greater good.
Khatchadourian calls him "an unreconstructed advocate of chemical warfare," and says that he "went about his work in the belief that chemicals are more humane instruments of warfare than bullets and shrapnel."
Khatchadourian asks in the piece, "Were the human experiments [at Edgewood] a Dachau-like horror, or were they sound and necessary science?"
On the effects of BZ, one of the chemicals tested on soldiers
"It sends the subject into a state of delirium. ... It causes the person to jolt from one reality to the next, and the illusions are extremely vivid. The person is in the moment and not even aware that a drug experience is occurring. Animals might appear, disappear. They might see miniature people; they might think that they're smoking a cigarette [or] eating a ham sandwich when they have a shoe in their hands."
On how the doctors would test the effects of LSD
"There was one subject I had spoken to who walked me through the nature of that test. He was told to come into this room ... where there was an apparatus set up, and he said, 'They asked me to stick my head into a culvert-type thing, and they sprayed some kind of mist into my face, and I thought it was water. I had no idea what it was.'
"This man, it was determined, had gotten a fairly high dose of LSD. He was taken back to the padded ward, and [was] studied and [was] asked to do tests, but he got very aggravated; and they asked him to start doing math problems, and it felt to him that the pencil that he was using had turned into rubber; and he said, 'I can't do it.' He started becoming paranoid, and he thought the doctors were laughing at him, and he eventually grew violent and punched one of the doctors out."
On why the military gave LSD to Army personnel without telling them
"The Army asked a group of academics to advise it on how to proceed, and the academics came back to the Army and said, 'We think that you should begin with field trials with groups of people, but we ... very much recommend that you inform these people about the nature of this drug and what it can do.'
"And the Army responded in an interesting way ... [On] the one hand, Van Sim, who was heading the program at that time, felt discomfort about initiating trials with groups of people right away because he said ... '[The] effects of LSD are not really that well understood.' ... He felt that would be foolhardy to do that.
"At the same time, people at Edgewood looked at the drug and what they were trying to do, and they said, 'You know, the LSD experience is so subjective that if we inform people about it too much, it will blur or it will confuse the results; and so ... we want to at least give the drugs to some people who don't really know what its effects are or will be.' And they made good on that promise, and they started doing that."
On Ketchum's filming of the tests
"One of the early films that Jim Ketchum made was called "The Longest Weekend," and it was meant to demonstrate how BZ could render a unit ineffective. And so what they created was this fake communications outpost that was entirely self-sufficient. There was enough food in there — clothes, toilet, a medicine cabinet — for four men to stay in there for three days.
"And three soldiers were given BZ, and there was one who was not given BZ as a placebo, and one of the soldiers who was given an incapacitating dose, which was the highest dose — a dose that would be enough to render that person completely ineffective. ... And they installed cameras, and they watched these people function as [the doctors] gave them messages to interpret, and encoded codes, and other things and fake scenarios — [for example] a train is going to come by the post with chemical weapons, it might be attacked. In fact, the experience took so long that they had to improvise as they went along ... because they were running out of script."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In secret experiments during the Cold War, the U.S. Army tested nerve gas, hallucinogenics and other chemicals on its own soldiers to see if these chemicals could be used during wartime to incapacitate the enemy. My guest, Raffi Khatchadourian, writes about this secret research in his article "Operation Delirium" published in the current edition of the New Yorker.
A group of veterans who volunteered for these experiments have filed a class-action suit. Khatchadourian says their argument aligns with broader criticisms of the tests, that they recklessly endangered the lives of the soldiers who were deceived or pressured into participating.
The article also profiles Colonel James Ketchum, the psychiatrist who headed the psychopharmacology branch at Edgewood Arsenal, the facility where these tests were conducted. Khatchadourian got access to Ketchum's archive from Ketchum himself. Khatchadourian also conducted interviews and got files through the Freedom of Information Act.
Raffi Khatchadourian, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of the range of drugs that were tested on soldiers.
RAFFI KHATCHADOURIAN: So prior to World War II, what was of interest were the drugs of the era, and in that case largely mustard gas, which is a blistering agent, it causes burns on the skin. And so what they did was they actually constructed a gas chamber. Basically President Roosevelt appointed a guy named Alfred Richards to spearhead this research, and he went to the secretaries of the Army and the Navy, and he said look, this mustard gas is something, we don't understand how it affects the human skin, and we can only really test it on human beings.
And the secretaries of the Army and Navy were like well, you know, this causes us some discomfort, only if no harm can come, if you can assure us that no harm can come to human beings will we OK it. And he says yes, and they initiate these tests. And it's quite striking. They built this gas chamber in a building. Above it is the officer's club, in the same building. They used materials from a Navy ship. You can imagine a big steel door and a porthole, and they constructed this thing.
It was nine feet by nine feet. And they had soldiers go in there, and mustard gas was released into the gas chamber, and often they would come out with burns, or some of the tests were designed to create burns because that's what they were trying to measure. And, you know, some people were injured.
GROSS: So you write in your article after World War II, when the victors of the war became aware of what the Germans had in their arsenal and the chemicals that they were working on, both the Soviets and the Americans wanted some of that. What did the Americans take from the German chemical warfare program?
KHATCHADOURIAN: These weapons were - these chemicals were astoundingly potent, and both sides in the Cold War rushed to attain them and study them. They were called nerve agents because they basically function by allowing a certain neurotransmitter to overflow throughout the body. And the Americans mainly concentrated on sarin, which was extremely lethal, about 25 times deadlier than cyanide, and they began to try and figure out how to both create a weapon out of this chemical, as well as how to develop antidotes for it. And there again, human volunteers were used in that effort.
GROSS: To me one of the most shocking parts of your story is the extent to which soldiers, American soldiers, were used to test these nerve gases and to test hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and mescaline. What were the soldiers told when they were asked to volunteer for these tests?
KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, they were told, from the many soldiers - or many veterans, I should say, that I was able to contact - the initial recruitment process, which would have occurred off of Edgewood Arsenal, where this testing occurred, at the various sort of Army facilities throughout the country, recruiters would come out there, and they would have a small movie that they would show, and they would give a presentation.
And unfortunately I don't have my hands on one of those movies, and I don't know exactly what was said, but I do know what many of the veterans came away with, an ambiguous sense of what they were asking to volunteer for. It would be presented as medical research, sometimes even chemical warfare research or equipment testing, or human behavioral research.
And so even a number of the volunteers who ended up at Edgewood and did not necessarily have a bad time there recall not being certain exactly about what it was they were going to be participating in once they arrived.
GROSS: And in fact, a lot of those soldiers still don't know, and there's a class action suit that several of those soldiers are bringing, against - against the military?
KHATCHADOURIAN: That's right. Beginning in 2009, several of these veterans, and they call themselves test vets, got together, and they put together a packet of material that they sent to a law firm in San Francisco, Morrison Foerster, and they said, you know, this was our experience, this is what we went through, and we are living with the grave uncertainty that these tests affected us in ways that might have been profound, and we don't really know fully what the outcome of that is on our health.
And that initiated this long lawsuit that's going on to this day.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Raffi Khatchadourian, and in the current edition of the New Yorker, he has a piece called "Operation Delirium" that's about the chemical and hallucinogenic testing that the U.S. military did using soldiers as the subjects. And this was an attempt to find chemicals that could be used in warfare.
I want to talk about some of the experiments that were actually done on soldiers. Like one, you give an example that soldiers were in a wind tunnel and basically had to inhale clouds of gas. What was in the gas?
KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, I think what you're referring to is a chemical that was known as BZ. And BZ causes a powerful dreamlike experience. It causes - it sends the subject into a state of delirium. It's not an experience that is akin to LSD, where you might have insights or where disparate things might somehow be integrated in your own mind in a kind of way that will cause some kind of religious experience or anything like that.
It is - it causes the person to jolt from one reality to the next, and the illusions are extremely vivid. A person is in the moment and not even aware that a drug experience is occurring. Animals might appear, disappear. They might see miniature people. They might think that they're smoking a cigarette, eating a ham sandwich when they have a shoe in their hand.
It's a very powerful experience, and that particular drug, BZ, can last up to three days. Different variants of it can last up to two weeks. So you mentioned the wind tunnel. Soldiers would be asked to stand in a wind tunnel because obviously if you're going to use a gas of this kind, you have to know that it will work in a kind of realistic situation.
And a canister of BZ would be opened up, or a grenade constructed for this purpose would be released. And they would be inhaling the chemical, and they would be tested on their reactions.
GROSS: And what kind of reactions did they have?
KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, it ranged. They would move from experience to experience. So, they could look out the window and see a childhood friend. They could believe that they were riding a horse across the plain. They could look into the bottom of a pitcher and see an entire baseball game played out.
Typically as the drug began to wear off, what you would see is a blending of real and unreal, and at that point paranoia, anxiety and - could be very terrifying, and some of the BZ subjects at that point could become very aggressive.
GROSS: I imagine it was especially terrifying because the Army didn't tell them what to expect. So they might have thought they were truly losing their minds.
KHATCHADOURIAN: They did know that they were part of a test, but yeah, for many of these people it was a very difficult situation. What's interesting is that with the BZ-type delirium and to some extent with delirium in general, there is an amnesia that occurs after the experience. It's almost like waking up from a dream. You remember a fragment here and there, but you don't remember the totality of what happened over the course of the three days.
And some of the men actually came out of that experience somewhat euphoric for a few days. And so they didn't always come out of it, let's say, terrified, but some did. They remembered some fragments of their experience, or they recognized that three days had gone by, and they had no memory of what had happened, and that in itself was anxiety-producing.
GROSS: So with these BZ tests, they had to inhale the gas cloud in a wind tunnel. Did they stay in the wind tunnel? Where were they put after they inhaled the gas?
KHATCHADOURIAN: So after Jim Ketchum arrived, he basically took over the study of BZ and came to lead the psychopharmacology branch. The process changed a little bit. He very aggressively worked to construct padded rooms, where soldiers could be kept so they wouldn't injure themselves.
He arrived in 1961, where those rooms, if they existed, didn't really exist in quite the same way. And what had happened was that a soldier on BZ had kind of fallen back onto a heating pipe, and he burned himself. And Jim said look, we've got to come up with a safer way to do this. And so they constructed these padded cells.
And so whether a soldier was given BZ by injection or by inhalation, he was then taken to the padded cell, where he was kept for the duration of the experience and monitored.
GROSS: So that could be like for three days. I think you could become delirious just being in a padded cell for three days.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah, yeah, definitely. It's an odd place to be, but again many of these soldiers were living in their own heads, so to speak. And so they would look at the floor of the padded cell, and they would see a set of staircases descending down, or they would see other things in there. So I don't know. I haven't taken BZ, so I don't know what the experience was like.
GROSS: So this gas, BZ, that creates delirium, how did the people conducting the experiments evaluate the use of this for combat?
KHATCHADOURIAN: So the initial set of experiments was to measure, in a very narrow sense, incapacitation. BZ was one of many drugs. LSD was also used, mescaline, other drugs. They were never interested in how these drugs affected insight or their sort of broader psychological experience. What they wanted to know is how could a soldier exposed to this type of chemical function.
And they did this by asking them to do math problems, to do other tests of that kind, memorize cards or whatever, but they just wanted to see OK here we can establish a baseline. You can do this set of math problems in this amount of time before the drug, you can do it this set of times afterwards. Or they would have soldiers sometimes draw a picture of a man over the course of the experience, like at every hour or every two hours.
I've seen some of these pictures, and, you know, over time the image degrades to the point where it's just scribble, and then it kind of returns to the image of a man again. So they were trying to find objective measures of performance, and those were some of the ways.
GROSS: So Colonel Ketchum, who you write about, who headed the psychopharmacology branch at this testing facility, at this military testing facility, is - he's still alive. He still defends the program. He's kept the archives. He gave you access to the archive. And...
KHATCHADOURIAN: I'm sorry - he gave me access to his archive.
GROSS: To his archive, the papers that he took with him, yeah.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah, and they didn't really involve nerve agents. You know, one of the key insights that I learned in the research of this piece is the way in which this notion of using psychochemicals, of pyschochemical warfare, grew out of the study of these lethal nerve agents. And it was a really sort of strange, counterintuitive, interlocking set of ideas, where people who were studying these extremely deadly substances, again at non-lethal doses, noticed this odd cognitive side effect.
Even in the late '40s, they were beginning to observe that people who were getting sarin, people who were getting nerve agents that the Nazis had developed prior, they would experience giddiness, they would experience other forms of - there was lassitude, depression. And at some point someone said: Can we just focus on these side effects? Can we make a weapon that will incapacitate people mentally and not kill them?
GROSS: My guest is Raffi Khatchadourian. His article "Operation Delirium" is in the current edition of the New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: We're talking about how the U.S. Army secretly tested nerve gas, LSD and other chemicals on its own soldiers during the Cold War. When the soldiers volunteered, they didn't know what they were getting themselves into. My guest Raffi Khatchadourian writes about these tests in his New Yorker article "Operation Delirium."
So we've been talking about drugs that are lethal and that have side effects, like mental side effects that aren't lethal but that are - you know, make you like delirious or paranoid or giddy. So what did the military people who were testing these drugs make of those side effects: the delirium, the giddiness, the depression?
KHATCHADOURIAN: So in 1949, Edgewood's technical director introduced this concept of psychochemical warfare. What he did in a paper is he looked back at the study of these lethal nerve agents that had been brought back from Nazi Germany, and he said these chemicals have very serious but potentially debilitating mental side effects.
And there was an academic at Johns Hopkins who helped sort of develop this idea for him in a letter that kind of spurred him to write this paper, and he said, you know, we could potentially create non-lethal weapons that would trigger uncontrolled hysteria and sort of other forms of mania but that could potentially reshape warfare altogether.
We wouldn't have death. We wouldn't have destruction. We wouldn't have serious casualties. We could essentially...
GROSS: The idea that people would be mentally incapacitated, and so they wouldn't be able to function on the combat field, but they wouldn't be killed, either.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yes, yes, and that was considered a very sort of promising, avant-garde idea that very much sort of fit within the whole spirit of chemical warfare that was being developed at the arsenal already.
Long story short, it catapulted a whole new line of research, which is this notion of psychochemical warfare that began mainly with mescaline and LSD and then developed into this sort of, I guess, maybe, almost a decade-long pursuit of BZ and drugs like it.
GROSS: So describe what one of the LSD experiments was like.
KHATCHADOURIAN: So I'll give you an example. Basically this is an example of the study of LSD as an aerosol, and there was one subject I had spoken to who walked me through the nature of that test. He was told to come into this room, I guess, where there was an apparatus set up, and he said they asked me to stick my head into a culvert-type thing, and they sprayed some kind of mist into my face.
And I thought it water. I had no idea what it was. This man, it was determined, had gotten a fairly high dose of LSD. He was taken back to the padded ward and studied and asked to do tests, but he got very aggravated, and, you know, they asked him to start doing math problems, and it felt to him, that the pencil that he was using had turned into rubber, and he said I can't do it.
He started becoming paranoid, and he thought the doctors were laughing at him. And he eventually grew violent and punched one of the doctors out. So that was not a very happy experience for him. I'm not - I don't want to imply that that was - everyone who was given LSD in this context had an unhappy experience, but those kinds of reactions definitely did occur.
GROSS: Is this a test in which you saw a film clip of the test?
KHATCHADOURIAN: No, that's a different test.
GROSS: Well, describe that one, too, because that one, I thought your description of that was, you know, pretty amazing.
KHATCHADOURIAN: So LSD is a very unusual drug, I guess, in that the subjective mindset of the person taking it has a big impact on its effect. And it can create what's called somatization, in other words a person can have the feeling that it's having a very profound physical effect when it may not necessarily on a physiological level.
And with one of the test subjects, this is what was happening. A physician was asking him to basically count down from seven serially from some number, I don't know, 98 or 100, to judge his mental abilities. And he was in great physical distress, and he was unable to do that. And the question was put to him again and again and again, and he just was not capable of answering.
GROSS: The way you describe it in the film, it's like I think it's actually Colonel Ketchum himself who's sitting next to this soldier, who's African-American, and the soldier's kind of like doubled over in agony, and he's totally disoriented. And Ketchum's saying: OK, so let's count down by sevens from 98. I'll get you started: 98, 91.
And the soldier's just like - I mean, he's high on this drug that he doesn't understand, his body's in pain, his mind isn't working in a mathematical way. And here's this, like, superior officer telling him: Nope, 98, 91, keep going. It's crazy.
KHATCHADOURIAN: And it poses a really interesting sort of question, which is, you know, one of the precepts of the Nuremberg Code is that an experiment should end when a subject wants it to end or when the person carrying out the experiment sort of realizes that there's a chance of injury.
Now, you know, on one hand Jim Ketchum could have looked at that situation and said OK, I can see the subject is not going to be permanently injured, necessarily, by the experience, or one could make that case. But on the other hand this is someone who is in a moment of extreme discomfort, and whether or not that test should've continued, you know, is something that he's going to have to wrestle with and, you know, other people who are thinking deeply about what the Edgewood testing means are going to have to wrestle with.
GROSS: But the other thing is, like, how do you stop an LSD trip? Is there an antidote you can give for LSD? Once somebody is on that bad trip, they can't say uh, you know, please, like, stop this, I want to get off now.
KHATCHADOURIAN: You're 100 percent correct, but the test doesn't necessarily need to continue. The test can perhaps shift to an atmosphere of care rather than, you know, trying to gather data, and that's probably where the spirit of the Nuremberg Code, you know, requires some interpreting.
GROSS: Raffi Khatchadourian will be back in the second half of the show. His article "Operation Delirium" is published in the December 17th edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about how the U.S. Army secretly tested nerve gas, LSD and other chemicals on its own soldiers during the Cold War to see if these chemicals could be used to incapacitate the enemy in combat. Some of the vets who volunteered without being informed of the dangers have filed a class-action suit against the federal government.
My guest, Raffi Khatchadourian, writes about these secret tests in the New Yorker article "Operation Delirium." When we left off, we were talking about the LSD experiments.
In the attempt to find out more and more about how LSD does, you mentioned that one of the people organizing these tests started spiking people's water with it. Describe what he did.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, just to explain little bit about where that comes from and why, Van Sim, who was heading the program at that time, felt discomfort about initiating trials with the group because he said, you know, the effects of LSD are not really that well understood. And you have to go back, now, to 1953, '54, '55 when, you know, all the things that we know about this drug today were still being wrestled over and there was competing information. And does LSD cause psychosis? Does it integrate the mind? Some people were using LSD as a form of therapy. So there was a lot of ambiguous information that people at Edgewood acknowledged.
At the same time, though, people at Edgewood looked at the drug and they looked at what they were trying to do, and they said, you know, the LSD experience is so subjective, that if we inform people about it too much, it will blur or it will confuse the results. And so we're not so keen, necessarily, on - we want to have - at least give the drug to some people who don't really know what its effects are, or will be.
And they made good on that promise, and they started doing that. And so Van Sim was someone who was involved in this. And what they would do is they might tell a person, OK, you're going to be involved in a drug test, but they might not tell them when. Or, you know, some of the volunteers were also involved in this. And the antidote that you mentioned is a case where a commanding general of the Chemical Corps was given LSD in his morning coffee and, you know, he had agreed at some earlier point to be part of a drug test, but the conditions of when it was occurring or knowing much more about it were obscure to him, and he wasn't too pleased about that.
GROSS: So what were the researchers hoping for in these tests with LSD, and what did they get?
KHATCHADOURIAN: To some extent, LSD seemed like a really promising candidate. It was not as potent as nerve agents, which, you know, in just very small amounts, can have this debilitating effect. But it's pretty potent. I mean, LSD is measured out in micrograms, which is very small amounts. And it seemed to produce in some people the kind of psychosis that the technical director was hoping to initiate.
I'm not saying that LSD is fairly described as psychosis, the experience, but for soldiers in the 1950s, it seemed to have that effect. And they were hoping that if they could create a cloud of LSD or if it can be inserted into a water supply, they could debilitate masses of people and pursue this dream of psychochemical warfare. At the same time, there was concern that the Soviets, if they did something to us of that nature, you know, how would we respond? And so some of their tests were geared towards trying to find antidotes to LSD, which was - I don't think they got very far on that. But it was one of the things that they pursued.
GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like they decided to abandon the LSD experiments, because they figured out that even if you're hallucinating that a person is, say, a monster from outer space and that their purple and green, you're still capable of killing them if you perceive them as the enemy.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. And LSD's effect was just really unpredictable. You could give LSD to one person, and it would have one effect. And you could give it to another person and it might have a completely different effect. Jim Ketchum, when he was at Edgewood, did LSD, and he didn't have any hallucinations. He didn't see any visual effects. He didn't have any grand insights, and it was kind of disappointing experience for him.
That general whose coffee was spiked, he was able to actually carry out most of his functions throughout the day, as the story goes - whereas you could give the same amount of LSD to someone else and it would be completely debilitating. So as a weapon, anything that would be that unpredictable is something that you would want to shy away from, just because it would be tactically ineffective.
GROSS: You say that Colonel Ketchum, who ran many of these experiments, wanted to create a Hollywood-style set and film some of the experiments. Give us an example of what he filmed and what results he wanted from being able to capture the experiments on film.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Sure. Well, I can't - I mean, I think there was a part of Jim Ketchum that very much liked to document this stuff on film that was very personal. But Edgewood Arsenal was also a research facility, and it was trying to sort of tell the Army-at-large about its work and get the Army-at-large interested in its work, so some of its films were certainly geared toward that kind of audience.
One of the early films that Jim Ketchum made was called "The Longest Weekend," and it was meant to demonstrate how BZ could render a unit ineffective. And so what they created was this sort of fake communications outpost that was entirely self-sufficient. There was enough food in there - clothes, toilet and a medicine cabinet - for four men to stay in there for three days.
And three soldiers were given BZ, and there was one who was not given BZ as a placebo. And one of the soldiers who was given BZ was given an incapacitating dose, which was the highest dose - a dose that would be enough to render that person completely ineffective.
And they just watched these people. They installed cameras, and they watched these people function as they gave them messages and to interpret, encoded codes, and other things and fake scenarios - a train is going to come by the post with chemical weapons. It might be attacked.
But they put it to film, and they - and that was one of the films that Jim Ketchum gave me. And it's just a fascinating Cold War document. And I should say, it does show that in this highly controlled environment - these soldiers were injected with BZ at very measured-out amounts - it certainly did render this unit ineffective. And so in that kind of ideal circumstance, I guess it showed some kind of success.
GROSS: My guest is Raffi Khatchadourian. His article, "Operation Delirium," is in the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Raffi Khatchadourian. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, and in the current edition, he has an article called "Operation Delirium." That's about the psychopharmacological experiments conducted on soldiers in the '50s and '60s. And included in these tests were, like, nerve gas, LSD and other drugs.
So how did the psychopharmacological testing in the Army end?
KHATCHADOURIAN: So, basically, at around 1968, I should say, you know, political atmosphere in the country was changing - not just about psychochemical warfare, but about chemical warfare in general. Obviously, there was a lot of popular opposition to the Vietnam War at that time. And the sense that these chemicals could be practical was also beginning to be challenged by, you know, people who were looking at what they really did and how they functioned.
GROSS: Practical in a combat setting.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah, practical in a combat sense. So, for instance, we developed - eventually we developed, actually, 50 or 49 tons of BZ, and they were put into huge cluster weapons - I think I read somewhere that it was like 750-pound cluster bombs - and they were just sitting there and, you know, the Vietnam War is rolling forth, and we're using teargas and defoliants in that context.
And you don't see officers on the ground clamoring to use BZ. And, you know, the reason why involves some of the things that we discussed, which is that, you know, the weapon - like other mind-altering weapons - can create this unpredictable effect. It lasted very long.
What would you do, for instance, if you had gathered a group of people on BZ and had to then manage a group of delirious people for three days? Just think about how logistically challenging that would be. So a lot of questions were being raised. People's attitude towards the morality of getting into people's heads for this purpose was beginning to be challenged.
And many of the doctors at Edgewood were drafted, and they weren't so keen on this work, either. And so there was a lot of internal strife, and they were trying to slow the project down. And, basically, in 1974 and 1975, some congressional investigators began to sort of take an interest in this topic. There was, you know, some volunteers who were coming forth and complaining, and the project very quickly - once the sort of the spotlight of public attention was given to it in this political atmosphere - was shut down almost within a matter of hours.
GROSS: I think it's remarkable that the military tried all these, you know, lethal drugs and mind-altering drugs on its own soldiers without telling soldiers what was going on. Equally remarkable is that there was no medical follow-up. I mean, deadly nerve agents were given to soldiers who volunteered for these tests - volunteered without understanding what they were volunteering for. And then after like the immediate effects of the drug subsided, there weren't medical tests over the years to follow up. Were there any lasting effects on the nervous system, migraines, sleep problems, nightmares, any number of problems that might have resulted? No medical follow-ups.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, they would basically follow up on these soldiers for a few days after their test, you know, using a set of metrics, you know, whether their EEG was this or that, or look at their blood and just, you know, talk to them before they left.
But then once they had left Edgewood, there was no follow-up that was built into the program. And, you know, again, people who were working there - especially in the late 1960s, some of the doctors obviously were aware of this and were unhappy about it.
Even Jim Ketchum during the 19 - I think it was 1969, campaigned for a follow-up very briefly, and it went nowhere, he told me. And it was only after congressional investigators began to give this attention and it began to get some bad press did the Army sort of very quickly initiate a follow-up, first with LSD and then some of the other drugs. And for some of the volunteers, when they received a letter telling them that we're doing this LSD follow-up, you know, please come into hospital such and such so that we can take a look at you, that was, for some of them, the first time that they knew that they had been given LSD.
GROSS: So Colonel James Ketchum - who ran a lot of the drug experiments that we've been talking about in the military - still justifies those experiments. What's his justification?
KHATCHADOURIAN: I would say that he justifies it by asking or urging people to look at it in the historical context in which the experiments occurred. This was the Cold War. The Soviet Union definitely did have a chemical weapons program that was better funded, more extensive than the American program at the time. And, you know, some of these programs may seem quaint or odd, you know, one has to get into the mindset of the period to sort of understand the threats that motivated this kind of experimentation.
He also very much, you know, sort of urges people to think of it in terms of the kind of standards that occurred at the time through medical experimentation and clinical research more broadly in the civilian world - which also, by the way, wouldn't, in many instances, hold up to our current set of medical ethics and standards.
And, finally, he very much understood what he was doing as a noble cause, and he even has used that term. This was an effort to eliminate death from war - at least in the way in which the program was conceived - to eliminate maiming, bloodshed, all of the sort of agonizing results of using weapons, mortars, guns, that kind of thing. So he, you know, he felt like he was driven, ultimately, by a goal that was good.
GROSS: And he still does feel that way?
KHATCHADOURIAN: I think so. It's very hard. He has very complex feelings, as far as I'm able to judge. He's kind of wrestling over it. I think that he wishes that certain aspects of the program were carried out better. He's not a fan of the fact that the follow-up did not occur at the time, but he does...
GROSS: The medical follow-ups? Mm-hmm.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Mm-hmm. But he does feel that the science was, on the whole, rigorous and well-managed - at least while he was overseeing it. There are certain things about the way the program was run before he arrived that he's not happy about. But I don't think that he sees long-term damage there.
GROSS: And just to put this into context, like, he takes over these experiments after nuclear weapons are used that not only, like, kill such a large amount of people - I don't know the exact number but, you know, like meltdown whole cities. And he sees - I think it's fair to say he sees this as an alternative, where it would be possible to fight war without killing so many civilians and destroying cities.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yeah. That's true. And, you know, I mean, we have come to use "nonlethal weapons," quote-unquote. You know, they've become more acceptable in our everyday lives. I mean, people use - police departments use tasers now. They use teargas. So, in general principle, we do see elements of this today. You can, if you look at the Army research now, you can find all kinds of kooky nonlethal ideas from, you know, heat ray guns to foams that are sprayed on the ground. So the general ambition and the dream of this is not necessarily a dead one. It's just that the work that he pursued is now considered to be anachronistic.
GROSS: Is there anything that the Army ended up using in combat or was prepared to use it in combat as a result of the experiments that you describe?
KHATCHADOURIAN: Yes. There are some things that are in sort of common practice. For instance, if we were to send our troops to, you know, into Syria tomorrow and had to worry about whether or not they had the right antidotes with them if Syria was going to use chemical weapons or nerve agents of that kind, what they would have with them in their auto-injector set, you know, kit would be antidotes that were developed in the '50s and '60s. The kinds of experiments that we talked about.
Likewise, throughout many developing countries there are insecticides that share some of the properties of nerve agents and insecticide poisoning is a real issue. And some of the antidotes that are used in those cases in emergency rooms, or what have you, were also developed at Edgewood or at the British counterpart, Porton Down.
So they did come up with things that do sort of exist today and you can find them.
GROSS: So in 2013 a class action suit comes to the court and it's test vets, these vets who had volunteered for psychopharmacological experiments, not fully understanding what they were volunteering for. And what they want to know now was what drug was I given? What are the effects of that drug? What kind of medical follow-up should I have and you should pay. You the military, the government should pay for the medical follow-up.
So what kind of questions do you think this class action suit is going to raise? And do you think that the, like, the Nuremberg Code, is that going to figure into it?
KHATCHADOURIAN: Well, it's going to be an extremely challenging case, I think, for sort of either side to wrestle over because so much history has passed between now and then and judging whether the effect of one drug or another in someone's life had long-term repercussions is extremely challenging. These people were given what is called a short-term exposure to a drug.
They might have been given one or maybe two or maybe three at the most. Some, I guess, on rare occasions got more than that. But, you know, it's very hard to say, hey, this event that happened 30 years ago in my life is responsible today for my whatever disease - Parkinson's, cancer, what have you. And so that's going to be very difficult to work out.
The Nuremberg Code will feature in the case inasmuch as the Nuremberg Code was incorporated almost word for word into Army policy. And what the complainants are attempting to illustrate is that that Army policy that was guided by the Nuremberg Code was violated by the people who were carrying out the experiments.
And that also is going to be a challenging, difficult thing to wrestle over. Just because the documentation is so fragmentary at this point. But, you know, it's very much at the heart of the case because whether or not people's rights were abused is to some extent what this is all about.
GROSS: Well, Raffi Khatchadourian, thank you so much for talking with us.
KHATCHADOURIAN: Thank you very much, Terry.
GROSS: Raffi Khatchadourian is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article "Operation Delirium" is published in the current edition. You'll find a link to it, as well as a link to a video with excerpts of the films documenting the Army's psychochemical tests on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.