Biological Weapons: Friend or Foe? By Dom Harris
There is great debate about whether biological weapons are good or bad, and whether the world should be concerned about their development. This argument has become a very prominent one and is a big scientific issue in science today.
Some of the earliest forms of biological weapons can be dated to around 590 BC when Solon of Athens allegedly poisoned water from the Pleistrus River rendering it inconsumable. Other accounts of early biological weapon use include Hannibal hurling poisonous snakes at boats and the ancient Chinese pumping toxic smoke into enemy’s tunnels. Often, accounts of such poisonings are blamed on divine intervention.
In the present era, the world has developed methods of containing disease and releasing it on enemies. In World War II, grenades containing botulinous toxins were used and in 1986 the USA spent US$86 000 000 on researching biological warfare defences. The USA was also accused by China and Korea of testing biological weapons on their peoples in the Korean War.
There is, however, currently a ban on such weapons. In 1925 the Geneva Protocol outlawed the use of biological weapons. In 1972 the production, storage and transport of biological weapons was also forbidden. Of course, not everyone obeyed and modern-day Russia, Israel, China, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea are all currently suspected of having illegal biological weapons programs.
There are many different types of biological weapons and numerous biological agents are used to engage the targeted victims or enemies. Such agents include anthrax, botulin toxins, the Ebola virus and smallpox. All these are extremely lethal and are very real threats. There are many, many more agents that are used and any disease can be stored and used to inhibit the enemy’s ability to attack.
Should these programs be allowed and the ban lifted? Or should the ban stay in place and let the world see this law enforced much more strongly?
There are some people that would insist that biological weapons should be allowed, saying that they are cheaper weapons for military programs to build compared to nuclear weapons. They are also much faster to produce and are highly effective, spreading rapidly through battlefields.
Biological weapons have proven to be much cheaper to produce than nuclear weapons. This means that militaries will be able to spend the same amount of money on a larger weapons arsenal or alternatively spend much less of their budget buying biological weapons that are cheaper than their nuclear counter-part and are arguably just as effective. This also means that smaller countries and other militaries can afford more weapons and to defend themselves more. This is a great thing for weaker countries that are less capable of defending themselves against larger nations or militant groups.
They are also coincidentally much faster to produce than nuclear warheads. This combined with their low costs makes them the ideal weapon for governments to purchase. It also makes them very useful in times of war when militaries need to keep a tight budget and need powerful munitions that can be manufactured rapidly, especially in long wars where militaries do not know how long they will have to keep fighting. It is an excellent type of weapon because of its rapid manufacture compared to other devastating weapons.
The biological agents inside the weapons are highly infectious and the weapon can spread its diseases for miles without having to actually come in contact with the area it is attacking. Many biological weapons spread massive distances such as when the Japanese spread plague infected rice over China and Manchuria. This is a highly effective way of using biological warfare. If an army could infect a certain area rather than killing individuals then it would be much easier to win battles. They are also extremely rapid to produce. The biological agents within, reproduce very rapidly enabling a larger arsenal sooner.
Another argument for the use of biological weapons is that many innovations come during war time. If biological agents are used then people will work to find preventions and cures to these and many other diseases. In the Vietnam war many innovations were made in medicine due to the devastating effects of the well known chemical weapon Agent Orange. Many discoveries were made due to people looking at the effects of carcinogens and other disease causing things. Some of the most common viruses and bacteria could well be eliminated as a result of scientists working to counter a specific biological strain of germ.
During times of peace, research continues, however the threat of war is a powerful motivator for governments to pour funds into research which could stifle an enemy.
Then, of course, there are those that would passionately dispute this, arguing that it is one of the most inhumane methods of winning a war, being lethal to civilians and soldiers alike and being highly dangerous arms that present a massive terrorism threat.
Biological warfare is highly inhumane when used wrongfully and also can be harmful unintentionally. In World War II Japan was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Chinese peasants and many of these are thought from the use of toxins and biological agents being spread across China, as demonstrated in the above example (the use of infected rice). It can also be a highly inhumane method of killing a victim, with many suffering intense pain and agony in an unnecessarily slow death. Many biological agents may not necessarily be the cause of death but may instead infect people with diseases that in turn take their lives.
Some biological agents may well infect people without them even knowing, so intervention may be missed.
Biological warfare is also a massive threat when in the care of irresponsible people. There was a large argument about the dictator Saddam Hussein and whether or not he had biological weapons in his arsenal. There is also currently an illegal biological weapons program in North Korea, as well as illegal nuclear and chemical warfare programs. Biological weapons present a great threat with terrorist groups as well, and in the present day we are seeing many more terrorist groups and threats. If these terrorist groups had possession of biological weapons then the results could be disastrous. The use of these would mean loss of civilian life in vast numbers.
Not only are biological weapons easy to use, they are extremely simple to make as well. Kathleen C Bailey said that “a major biological arsenal could be built with $10 000 worth of equipment in a room 15 foot (4.5 metres) by 15 foot”. Because biological agents will reproduce themselves rapidly you can have one billion of bacteria within 10 hours. The bacteria anthrax requires an individual to inhale less than one thousand bacteria. If two billion anthrax bacteria can be created in 24 hours and a military program breeds anthrax colonies for one year then they will have 8 736 000 000 000 bacterium to infect people with. This means that with this one year program they could kill 8.736 billion people. Any militant movement or biological weapons program could easily cultivate enough bacteria to wipe out the entire world’s population!
A final argument against biological weapons is the uncontrollable nature of these weapons. It is immensely difficult to target any one group of people without unwanted casualties. This means that if a military released the Ebola virus in hope of wiping out any enemy forces in the area they would struggle to prevent the virus from infecting their own troops as well.
Of course, the threat of releasing a biological agent could be just as concerning to society as a real release. As we now know, many sophisticated cities were held to ransom, under the threat of anthrax. Most set up elaborate structures to secure sites which received hoax letters, including suited hazardous substance officers, special trucks, testing laboratories and procedures.
Which side of the argument should society take? Do they decide to legalise the use of biological agents as weapons or do they continue to enforce a ban on these lethal and often inhumane executioners? We must all think very carefully before we decide in favour of or against biological weapons.
In conclusion, there are both positive and negative sides to biological warfare, as with anything. These factors should be weighed carefully before deciding for or against these weapons.