Throughout history, biological warfare has been a weapon of choice for many militaries and empires. From the use of plague-infested corpses to the deployment of deadly chemical agents, the story of biological warfare is a gruesome one. The consequences of these attacks have been devastating, both for those directly affected and for the broader societies they were meant to harm. In this article, we will explore the history of biological warfare, from its earliest origins to its modern-day manifestations.
The Dark History of Biological Warfare
Biological warfare has a long and troubling history. Some of the earliest recorded instances of biological warfare date back to ancient times, when attacking armies would sometimes catapult diseased corpses over city walls in an attempt to infect the enemy. During the Roman siege of the city of Hatra in 198 AD, the Roman army under the command of Septimius Severus was repelled by the defenders who reportedly used a form of biological warfare. According to some accounts, the defenders catapulted clay pots filled with scorpions, venomous snakes, and other poisonous creatures onto the Roman soldiers, causing chaos and panic in the ranks. Some of the Roman soldiers were reportedly bitten or stung and suffered severe pain or even death. Although this account is not universally accepted and the extent of the use of biological weapons in this conflict is disputed, it is an interesting example of the potential use of animals and toxins as weapons in ancient warfare.
In the Middle Ages, European armies used plague-infected corpses to try to spread the disease among their enemies. During the siege of the city of Kaffa (now Feodosiya, Ukraine) in 1346, the Mongol army under the leadership of Jani Beg catapulted the bodies of their own soldiers who had died from the bubonic plague into the city in an attempt to infect the defenders. The tactic was successful, as the disease quickly spread among the population, forcing the city to surrender. This is considered one of the earliest recorded uses of biological warfare, although it is worth noting that the use of plague-infected corpses was likely not a deliberate strategy, but rather a desperate act in the midst of a brutal siege.
During the siege of the city of Candia (now Heraklion, Greece) by the Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, the defenders reportedly used a form of biological warfare to fend off the enemy. The Venetian forces defending the city were suffering from a shortage of food and other supplies, so they decided to release infected prisoners and plague victims into the Ottoman camp. The disease quickly spread among the Ottoman soldiers, causing widespread sickness and death. The tactic was successful, and the Ottomans eventually retreated from the siege.
During the American Civil War, there were reports of Union soldiers using smallpox as a biological weapon against the Confederate Army. In 1862, Union General Henry Halleck proposed the idea of sending blankets contaminated with smallpox to Confederate soldiers, in hopes of spreading the disease and weakening their forces. However, the plan was reportedly never put into action due to objections from the Union medical community, who believed that the tactic would be inhumane and could potentially spread the disease to Union soldiers as well. Despite this, there were several documented instances of both Union and Confederate armies intentionally exposing each other to various diseases, including measles and typhoid fever, by sending infected soldiers into enemy territory.
Chemical Warfare in the Modern Era
As technology advanced, so too did biological warfare. During World War I, both sides used poison gas to devastating effect, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands of soldiers. One notable incident occurred in 1915, when the German army used chlorine gas against Allied troops in Ypres, Belgium. However, the use of biological weapons was not limited to military targets. In 1918, a German U-boat fired shells loaded with anthrax spores at the port of Odesa, Ukraine, which was a major civilian center. Fortunately, the attack was not very effective, as the spores were not dispersed effectively and the outbreak was contained. The incident is considered one of the earliest known cases of an attempt to use biological agents against a civilian population.
In World War II, Japan’s Unit 731 conducted horrific experiments on prisoners of war, testing biological and chemical weapons on live subjects. The Cold War saw the development of weaponized anthrax and other biological agents, with both the United States and the Soviet Union stockpiling vast quantities of these weapons.
The Allies also conducted research into biological weapons, but they did not use them in combat. One example of this research was the development of a biological agent known as “weaponized wheat,” which was intended to destroy German wheat crops and cause food shortages. The project was led by the United States Department of Agriculture, which developed a strain of wheat infected with a fungus that produces toxic chemicals. The wheat was then shipped to Italy and dropped from airplanes over German-occupied territory. However, the project was ultimately deemed ineffective, as the fungus did not spread as quickly as anticipated and had little impact on German crop yields. The project was eventually abandoned after the war, and the remaining contaminated wheat was buried in a landfill in Virginia.
During the 1960s, the Rhodesian government (now Zimbabwe) reportedly used biological weapons against black guerrilla forces fighting for independence. According to reports, the Rhodesian army used a biological agent called mycotoxin, which is produced by a type of fungus and can cause illness and death in humans. The Rhodesian government initially denied using biological weapons, but in the 1980s, a former Rhodesian military officer admitted to conducting experiments with mycotoxin in the 1970s. The experiments reportedly involved infecting livestock with mycotoxin and then observing the effects on humans who consumed the infected meat. The Rhodesian government reportedly hoped that mycotoxin could be used to disrupt the supply of food to guerrilla fighters, as well as to cause illness and death among the civilian population.
In the 1980s, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan attempted to develop and use biological weapons as part of its campaign of terror. The cult’s leader, Shoko Asahara, believed that a global apocalypse was imminent and that the use of weapons of mass destruction was necessary to bring about the end of the world. The cult attempted to produce anthrax and botulinum toxin, but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. In 1995, the cult carried out a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 people and injuring thousands. The incident led to increased scrutiny of the cult’s activities and raised concerns about the potential use of biological weapons by extremist groups.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein developed and stockpiled biological weapons, including anthrax and botulinum toxin. Iraq used these weapons during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and also against Kurdish civilians in Halabja in 1988.
The Brutal Consequences of Biological Warfare
The consequences of biological warfare can be devastating. In addition to the immediate deaths and injuries caused by attacks, there can be long-term health effects that last for years or even decades. Biological agents can also have a profound impact on the environment, disrupting ecosystems and killing off large numbers of animals. And the psychological toll of biological attacks can be enormous, with survivors often suffering from PTSD and other mental health issues.
Biological warfare is a horrifying weapon that has been used throughout history. While there have been efforts to ban the use of biological weapons, the threat of an attack continues to loom large. As we continue to grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to take steps to prevent the spread of disease and to work together to address the root causes of conflict. Only by working together can we create a safer and more peaceful world for all.