Colonel James S. Ketchum, was the U.S. military’s leading expert in a secret Cold War experiment: to fight enemies with clouds of psychochemicals that temporarily incapacitate the mind, reports Raffi Khatchadourian in a lengthy profile for the New Yorker:
…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.
Ketchum, an unreconstructed advocate of chemical warfare, believes that people who fear gaseous weapons more than guns and mortars are irrational. He cites approvingly the Russian government’s decision, in 2002, to flood a theatre in Moscow with a potent incapacitating drug when Chechen guerrillas seized the building and took eight hundred theatregoers hostage. The gas debilitated the hostage takers, allowing special forces to sweep in and kill them. But many innocent people died, too. “It’s been looked at by some skeptics as a kind of tragedy,” Ketchum has said. “They say, ‘Look, a hundred and thirty people died.’ Well, I think that a hundred and thirty is better than eight hundred, and it’s also better, as a secondary consideration, not to have to blow up a beautiful theatre.”
Not long ago, while debating critics of Edgewood on a talk-radio show, Ketchum argued that the tests were a sensible response to the threats of the Cold War: “We were in a very tense confrontation with the Soviet Union, and there was information that was sometimes accurate, sometimes inaccurate, that they were procuring large amounts of LSD, possibly for use in a military situation.” The experiments, he has said, were no more problematic in their conduct than civilian drug testing at the time.
But Ketchum is an unpredictable apologist. His default temperament is that of an unbiased scientist, trying to solve a stubborn anomaly that just happens to be his life’s work. He accepts criticism of Edgewood thoughtfully and admits the possibility that he is seeing the experiments through a prism of benign forgetfulness. At the same time, as Edgewood’s sole public defender, he must relive history under an unforgiving spotlight…
[continues in the New Yorker]
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