> Biblical Reference > Historical Precedents > Quotations & Writings > Commentary
> Home > Current Trends > Government > Peace & War > "Biological Warfare"
> Category

Biological Warfare

Biological warfare is an old nemesis. In the sixth century B.C., Assyrians used rye ergot, and the Athenian’s used a purgative herb, black hellebore, to poison water supplies. Fourteenth-century Tartars tossed plague dead over Crimean city walls. And it is reported that fifteenth-century Spaniards and eighteenth-century English used smallpox-infected blankets to kill Native Americans.1

Grim events, but military training toward the end of the twentieth century paid them scant attention. A typical U.S. Army course in nuclear/biological/chemical (NBC) defense in the 1980s noted them briefly, but quickly moved on to detailed discussion of nuclear weapons and chemical agents (e.g., nerve gases such as sarin and blister agents such as mustard gas). Students learned the intricacies of MOPP (mission oriented protective posture) suits, decontamination slurries, downwind fallout reports, rad dosimeters, and atropine injection—nuclear and chemical, without the biological.

The reasons for this omission were simple. Biological warfare was dangerously unpredictable, maddeningly fragile, and morally revolting. First for the unpredictability: Unlike the rifleman, the one who disperses biological agents may well fall victim of his own weapon. It only takes a shift in the wind, polluted ground water, or an infected animal bite. He may end up killing more of his own troops, or the civilian population, than the enemy.

As for fragility, sunlight and other weather elements will kill a host of bacteria. Air and water purification technology also play a protective role. Those microbes that do get through then face the antibodies created by various inoculations and vaccinations. The smallpox (or anthrax) blanket won’t work anymore; the trooper has had his shots.

Finally, biological warfare is manifestly abominable. Even at the height of the Cold War, both NATO and the Warsaw Pact forces (with a host of other nations) renounced their use.2 They violate the canons of just war which prohibit indiscriminate targeting and weapons of torture. Of course, any weapon can be used to violate these standards, but a biological weapon essentially does so.

Unfortunately, terrorists do not share these scruples; they seem capable of any abomination. Furthermore, they are suicidal as well as homicidal; weapons “blowback” doesn’t much bother them. To compound the horror, genetic engineering is flowering right along with the growth of worldwide terrorism. Current vaccines and filters may soon be dated.

Some just war theorists are reluctant to endorse pre-emptive strikes, especially since they require nations to judge motives and estimate potentials. Intelligence is so fallible, whether in proclaiming or dismissing peril, that caution is imperative. Calculations are much cleaner when the enemy has just crossed your border, guns blazing. But with terrorists and their microbes, the calculus of borders and guns (and “neutrality” and “cease fires”) goes out the window.

In World War II, Allied bombers attacked the ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt, Germany, and the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. These facilities alone were not immediate, direct threats to the people of Britain and America, and their products could serve peaceful purposes in better days. But they fed the German war machine and had to be stopped. How much more should germ weapons labs and stockpiles be destroyed, since their products are essentially nefarious, and once unleashed, their harm is incalculable. This is no fastidious moral point but a matter of survival. To think otherwise is to play the fool in answer to the terrorists’ dark prayers.


From Edward M. Eitzen and Ernest T. Takafuju, “Historical Overview of Biological Warfare,” Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Washington: Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Dept. of the Army, 1997), 415-424.


The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, ratified by 103 nations in 1972, prohibited the stockpiling of such weapons and the pursuit of related research.