This story is over 5 years old.

Cluster Headaches: Inside the US Army's Would-Be Mind-Control Bombs

Cracking open the M43 and M44 cluster bombs, the short-lived weapons technology at the center of America's post-World War II psycho-wars.
June 18, 2013, 8:05pm
Photo via Flickr / CC

It's been the Holy Grail of American defense for generations: War without death. Buying into this oxymoron requires either a stubborn faith in the moral compasses of those in power or an ample dosing of, say, 3-Quinuclidinyl benzilate, the military incapaciting agent commonly known as BZ. Or both.

But there was nevertheless a time when the US took the idea of deathless war to its then-logical endpoint by actively seeking to not just minimize battlefield casualities but to completely do away with the notion of dying in combat. The dust was settling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the boys were coming home (at least those who made it out alive), and all the carnage and horror of global warring were at long last shrivelling into history's ditches like a slug in salt. Americans were tired of death. Done with it, even.


Of course, conflict is seemingly unavoidable. So if wartime death, and thus lethal weapons, was suddenly passé by 1945, how were weapons researchers and developers with the Department of Defense to go about setting the theatre of war to stun, not death? If all the just wars of the future were to do away with death, what sort of weaponry would provide the luxury of an otherwise non-traumatizing means of quashing enemies without slaughtering them?

Easy: Drugs. Specifically, nasty stuff like sarin, SV, PCP, and incapacititating compounds like BZ. This shift toward mind- and behavioral-control became the preserve of the Army Chemical Warfare Service, whose soldiers by the end of WWII "believed they were proprietors of an awesome weapon with yet unrealized potentials," as Reid Kirby writes in Paradise Lost: The Psycho Agents (.pdf). The trick was figuring out just how to drop all tomorrow's psycho-bombs. How do you covertly dose a mid- to full-sized enemy brigade?

The Army had been tinkering on a few potential vehicles--small-arm grenades, smoke machines, flying spray tanks and ballistic-missile warheads, among others--for administering the goods. But only two--the 175-pound M44 generator cluster and the 750-pound M43 BZ cluster bomb--would reach mass production. Both were designed to be dropped from the air, spraying out bomblets on descent. Both utilized BZ.

It's called Buzz for a reason. BZ is odorless and virtually undetectable. Unless you were standing directly next to the M44 cluster bomb (pictured at right; full schematic here), which could carry 40 gallons of BZ; unless you were in close enough proximity to either the M44's main vessel or one of its 126 bomblets to get a good look at those billowing white plumes of mystery smoke, there's small chance you'd have known you were about to go full-on crazy for a while.


Once it takes hold, the Buzz can be long-lasting and beyond disorienting. For sometimes days on end, subjects dosed with BZ remain locked in a stupor that at turns stokes hallucinations, auto-phantom behaviors (picking, plucking, stripping naked, etc.), anxiety and terror and, perhaps most crucially, a blotting out of certain memories of the trip, which not surprisingly could be marked by a near-total loss of will power.

It is a hell of a drug. Of all the far-flung cocktails and chemicals coloring the US military's sordid history of drugs experimentation and mind-control projects on unwitting and/or exploited research subjects, BZ holds a particularly grim place.

The compound not only fascinated Col. James S. Ketchum, the military doctor who headed up the Army's so-called psychedelic Manhattan Project at Edgewood Arsenal throughout the 50s and 60s. But eventual doses of cluster-bomb BZ, Kirby notes, would have to be ramped up higher than originally anticipated in the brainstorming stages of the M44 and M43 (pictured at left). Turns out your lungs retain only 45 percent of "the inspired agent instead of the 50 percent originally believed." Oops.

Only 1500 M43 and M44 munitions were ever stockpiled. There was more leftover than anyone knew what to do with: Between 1963 and 1964, Millmaster Chemical cooked up 100,000 pounds of BZ for the US Army. (All this was stored in 16-gallon drums and shipped by rail to Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas, where it would await being pumped into one of the two cluster-bomb models.) Although only a scant 10 percent of this massive batch of BZ would be used in weapons-dev field trials through the 1960s, the initial 100,000 pounds, according to Kirby, was more than adequate "for a single action of a brigade or town-sized target." That's roughly 15km2.


In the end, the cluster duo would be scrapped. For all its stunning potential for incapacitating adversaries and otherwise ushering in the age of war without death, BZ's operational problems got the best of the Army's would-be mind-control bombs.

There's those white plumes, for one, which blew covers. Makeshift armor as simple as a wadded up shirt over the nose and mouth was enough to have unsuspecting targets gritting their teeth through the fog. BZ's so-called envelope-of-action was also weak: "The rate-of-action was delayed (5 percent within 2 hours, 50 percent within 4.5 hours, and 95 percent within 9.5 hours)," Kirby notes, "and the duration-of-action was variable from 36 to 96 hours." Hardly consistent. The Army labelled BZ obsolete in 1977. All M43 and M44 munitions, together with the remaining 90,000 pounds of BZ, were dearmed by the late 1990s.

Forty years on, the specter of chemical weapons still looms. We may never know the full truth behind allegations that Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Even still, the great irony of the US government warning of military action if  the Assad regime crosses the proverbial "red line" by dousing citizens with BZ is that the US pioneered chemical and psychological warfare. Something like the moral high ground long ago got buzzed before going up in smoke and forgetting everything.

Reach Brian at @thebanderson


Read more about military experiments (and actual cluster headaches):

The Doctor Behind the Army's Psychedelic Manhattan Project Has Some Regrets (Weed Isn't One of Them)

After Years of Secrecy and Denial, American Cyber Weapons Are Coming Out of the Closet

Gulf War Syndrome Is Appearing in Veterans of the Most Recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

The Worst Pain