Don’t Do Drugs, Unless You’re A Military Test Subject

According to Raffi Khatchadourian’s New Yorker article (“Operation Delirium,” 12/17/12), in 1969, Colonel James S. Ketchum, the head of a military drug program, believed that “the Army could study marijuana for its possible therapeutic value.” Of course, that’s not really what the article’s about, unless it’s talking about the need for therapeutic value after all of the crazy, pretty much deranged and mind-breaking testing that Ketchum performed in the years preceding that. In fairness, regardless of his own self-medicating, Ketchum at least appears sincere, hoping to develop an incapacitating psychochemical weapon that would avoid the “macabre agony which projectiles, flames and bayonets can produce,” but then again, I guess most mad scientists start out with the best of intentions, in this case the “selective malfunctioning of the human machine.” As secrecy is stripped away by no-longer-classified subjects, a lawsuit is in the works, alleging that “whether out of military urgency or scientific dabbling, the Army recklessly endangered the lives of its soldiers–naive men, mostly, who were deceived or pressured into submitting to the risky experiments,” and I’ll be damned if there isn’t a Hollywood movie in the works here about, say, two subjects under the influence of a potent new drug who escape the Edgewood facility, and two other soldiers who must apprehend them before they either cause harm to others, themselves, or the military (by inadvertently leaking information).

Calling Ketchum a mad scientist is a bit of an stretch, at least according to this balanced article: this is more a warning of the overreaches of the military-industrial complex, and the fact that the army gets away with an attempts much that is only later, if ever, revealed to be legally and morally unethical. When you allow–nay, encourage–tests with limited supervision, seemingly unlimited budgets, and soldiers who have been indoctrinated as literal yes-men, we time and time again get dangerous and/or questionable results, whether it’s in the so-called experimental uses of torture-that-is-not-legally-called-torture-for-the-purposes-of-this-torture or in the weapons of mass destruction that we create in order to save lives and are still attempting to walk backward from some seventy years down the line. Yes, being able to kill our enemies with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles is an improvement over killing our enemies and a lot of innocents and polluting the land for years with nuclear weaponry, which is itself perhaps objectively “better” than having to send soldiers in, but should we really consider lives to be so button-pressingly cheap? Likewise, while Ketchum’s idealistic vision of disarming gasses is an objectively better one than those of murderous poison gasses, one wonders if he’d ever heard the term “better off dead,” as this is the sort of feedback we get decades down the line:

The lasting health effects of the research were difficult to judge. Records were either messy or incomplete, and no experiment had collected data to determine how a drug might affect lives in the long term. In 1980, the Army published a study that found that sixteen per cent of the volunteers given LSD later suffered psychological symptoms–flashbacks, depression, and suicidal ideation–associated with the drug; the authors concluded that most of these were benign, but they also acknowledged that the study had an “insuperable” design problem, in that obtaining adequate control subjects was impossible. A later study found that a significant number of subjects had been hospitalized for nervous-system or “sense organ” disorders.

It reminds me of young Hal’s terrifying cry of “I am in here” in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (which dealt with drugs and addictions of another order), or the fact that a depression-causing nerve gas could be considered disarming as opposed to murderous, even though both might lead to the same end result. It’s revealing to read that “early efforts to make weapons from mescaline and LSD were dropped, because the drugs were too unsafe or too unpredictable,” but that later efforts with PCP, sarin gas, or VX, which sometimes caused lasting paranoia or other potentially permanent mind-altering conditions, were not only continued but poorly documented (and even then, only in the short term). What if we invented some sort of microwave-transmitter that could somehow perform lobotomies on our enemies from afar, theoretically targeting their neural pathways in the same way that surgeons do so? That would be considered less lethal than other methods of violence — perhaps even more effective, in that it would be harder to trace if its effects were gradual, or impossible to separate from naturally occurring dementia (as on a recent episode of Elementary, in which uncurable and genetically engineered illnesses were used as poisons), and yet would these high-tech methods really be any less murderous? If you change the people we are, have you not, in some sense, killed us? “There are moral imponderables, such as whether insanity, temporary or permanent, is a more ‘humane’ military threat than the usual afflictions of war,” reads a quote from E. James Lieberman, a psychiatric resident at Harvard. Another great quote from Khatchadourian’s research, from Sidney Cohen, a well-regarded LSD research from 1965: “Such degradation of a person’s mind is worse than his physical death and can hardly be considered humane warfare.”

In any case, these studies began before Ketchum, and have probably continued long past his retirement; he didn’t invent EA 2277 (3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, or BZ), and one of his first encounters with a superior of his named Sim is comically described when Sim walks in “wearing only underwear” from the waist down, explaining that he was attempting to see “if LSD has any effect through the skin,” and being totally oblivious to the fact that it was. If there’s anything to take away from this article, it’s in the general obliviousness with which this people in positions of military authority would subject others to chemical testing: mixing LSD into cocktails at a party, getting reckless with lethal doses of VX, etc. This isn’t black and white — some scientists are described as more moral and aware than others — and Ketchum defends himself from the idea that he himself may have violated the Nuremberg Code by skirting “the voluntary consent of the human subject.” But here’s where the Army runs into trouble: when you have classified information — some subjects still don’t know what they were given — and when you have a chain-of-command that leaves lowest-rung soldiers feeling as if they cannot refuse an order, or who accept simply to avoid the knowable hell of Vietnam, well . . . how voluntary or informed is this consent?

Withdrawing from a test required backing down from a commitment to one’s superior, which was anathema in the Army. “In the military, if you don’t do something you will be ostracized,” a solider given LSD in 1958 told me. “I believe they did give us the option to leave, at first, but you didn’t really have a choice once you were in.”

Consider this legal obfuscation to get them in, too (which continues to this day within a military that is ever reluctant to describe its operations or expenditures): “The forms were designed to offer few details; as one version was drafted, the words ‘mental disturbance or unconsciousness’ were replaced with ‘discomfiture.'” No doubt Khatchadourian has cherry-picked the most revealing of the anecdotal experiences from his research, but the fact that he finds so many crazy examples of the loose testing hints at just how reckless it all was. (Here’s a terrible experience: You’ve just been strapped in, the needle is in your arm, and the doctor mentions to his colleague that it’s a lethal substance; “We just gave you a little too much,” he says, apologizing to you: “Walk it off.”)

Of course, it’s easy for me to criticize: I have no affiliations with the military, and I–like many of my fellow Americans–give little thought to our overseas operations and what it takes to maintain them. Even less, in all likelihood, since the only real exposure I get is when something arts-and-entertainment related actually covers such subjects, often with its own agenda in doing so. But reading about our murky dalliance with psychochemicals chills me, especially since these mistakes from our history don’t appear to have been learned from, unless you consider getting even more secretive to have been the object lesson. I guess I’m glad that I no longer do drugs of any kind, since I have such strong fears of residual, personality-altering effects; for those who are currently addictive, perhaps this is the Scared Straight material you need. Or an opportunity for employment. Like I said, it’s not so black-and-white.

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