You've probably heard a little bit about the top secret experiment the Army conducted during the Cold War. A room glowing that flourescent blue, with an unwitting soldier seated in the middle. A doctor wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smoking a cigarette walks in with a syringe. He mutters something softly as the needle goes into the soldier's arm. Cut to the outside of the building and the sound of breaking glass, as the soldier's body falls to the ground. (Pro tip: Stay away from windows when experimenting with LSD.) This is what it's like in the movies, anyway.
Turns out these experiments were worse in real life. Raffi Khatchadourian's sprawling exposée on the Army's psychochemical warfare program in this week's New Yorker details well the collective confusion and chaos that took hold of the armed forces as they imagined the worst during the Cold War. The program was underwritten by an utter disregard for human dignity and medical ethics: Many of the young soldiers who volunteered for the program weren't told anything about the medical tests they would undergo at Edgwood Arsenal, the Army's classified facility on the Chesapeke Bay. And many say they were scarred for life after what happened to them inside.
"Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching" (National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md./Photographer unknown/date unknown)
At the center of the full story behind the psychochemical weapons program is a colorful character named Col. James S. Ketchum. For years he ran the Edgewood facility, watching his subordinates pump unknowing soldiers full of potentially lethal chemicals like sarin, XV, PCP, and 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, also known as BZ.
The drug fascinated him. Exposed soldiers exhibited bizarre symptoms: rapid mumbling, or picking obsessively at bedclothes and other objects, real or imaginary. “Subjects sometimes display something approaching wit, not in the form of word-play, but as a kind of sarcasm or unexpected frankness,” he wrote in a report for Sim. The drug’s effect lasted for days. At its peak, volunteers were totally cut off in their own minds, jolting from one fragmented existence to the next. They saw visions: Lilliputian baseball players competing on a tabletop diamond; animals or people or objects that materialized and vanished. “I had a great urge to smoke and, when I thought about it, a lit cigarette appeared in my hand,” a volunteer given a drug similar to BZ recalled shortly after the experiment. “I could actually smoke the cigarette.”
Soldiers on BZ could remember only fragments of the experience afterward. As the drug wore off, and the subjects had trouble discerning what was real, many experienced anxiety, aggression, even terror. Ketchum built padded cells to prevent injuries, but at times the subjects couldn’t be contained. One escaped, running from imagined murderers. Another, on a drug similar to BZ, saw “bugs, worms, one snake, a monkey and numerous rats,” and thought his skin was covered in blood. “Subject broke a wooden chair and smashed a hole in the wall after tearing down a 4-by-7-ft panel of padding,” his chart noted. Ketchum and three assistants piled on top of the soldier to subdue him. “He was clearly terrified and convinced we were intending to kill him,” his chart said.
Ketchum also did some pretty questionable things to cats during his early years as an Army doctor. He once "opened up a cat’s brain and embedded electrodes in it, to see if he could give the animal a new way to communicate. He left to play tennis, thinking that a veterinarian would care for the animal," but when he returned a week later, he found the cat half-dead from an infection. He tried to nurse it to health in his bathtub, but the brain damage was permanent.
"Inside? I don't have any inside": In another set of experiments in 1956, Dr Sidney Cohen was dosing volunteers at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Los Angeles.
In other words, it was a heady time for brain science. To his credit, some of Ketchum's counterparts at Edgewood sounded just as, well, ecccentric, like something out of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (In 1960, Ken Kesey was a test subject for mind-altering drugs at the VA hospital near Palo Alto). The facility's former chief medical officer and Ketchum's superior, Col. Douglas Lindsey, evidently liked to drive his pink convertible in the rain with the top down and carried around a cane made out of a human fibula.
The man who had established the Medical Research Volunteer Program was an internist named Van Murray Sim, a former football player who made a point of trying drugs before they were tested on soldiers (he received the Army's highest civilian award, in part “for volunteering to be the first to expose himself to several new chemical agents at the risk of grave personal injury”), but he also liked to slip people drugs without telling them. It happened to Ketchum once while they were playing tennis -- nothing like a little acid with your morning coffee -- and later to an entire cocktail party. Sim really outdid himself when he contaminated the entire base's water supply with LSD, though.
The researchers also worked with marijuana, and the year he arrived at Edgewood, Ketchum would administer a new cannabinoid compound, dubbed "EA 2233," that had been syntheiszed with the help of Dr. Alexander Shulgin, then a brilliant young chemist employed by Dow Chemical, later a guru of psychochemical experimentation. When ingested at dosage levels ranging from 10 to 60 micrograms per kilogram of body weight, EA 2233 lasted up to 30 hours, far longer than the buzz that typically comes with weed. The effects were similar (lots and lots of laughing).
Ketchum conducting an experiment on a soldier volunteer at Edgewood
When the drug, a mixture of eight stereoisomers of THC (an isomer is a rearrangement of atoms within a given molecule; a stereoisomer entails different spatial configurations of these atoms), was separated into its most powerful stereoisomers and delivered in low doses in intravenous form, the synthetic cannibis triggered a dramatic drop in blood pressure to the point where test subjects were left incapacitated. The tests were soon suspended, never to begin again.
In a 2008 interview with Metro Active, Ketchum wondered whether the Army made the right decision. "This hypotensive [blood-pressure-reducing] property, in an otherwise nonlethal compound, might be an ideal way to produce a temporary inability to fight, or do much else, without toxicological danger to life," Ketchum said. "A safe drug that knocks people down—what more could you ask for?" (See the effects of hasish on Afghan soldiers in this 2009 VICE video.)
Ketchum also hoped, for instance, that the Army would study marijuana for its possible therapeutic value. “For any medical laboratory to limit itself to weapons-oriented work would be most unacceptable to the great majority of physicians,” he added. By 1969, as Army support for the program was unravelling, he was often using the stuff himself. ”I was smoking dope and having sex every night,” he tells Khatchadourian. Later, Ketchum would become a mild advocate for drug liberties, and in 2008 drove his RV out to the desert to sit on a panel at Burning Man alongside Shulgin. There he told the assembled, "one can use chemical weapons to spare lives, rather than extinguish them."
Thanksfully, not all things that came out of the experiments were bad. Evidently, bulletproof Kevlar vests were invented by Edgewood technicians (to protect them from crazy patients who were high on drugs perhaps?) as were the basis for chemotherapies used to treat cancer, and the antidotes to chemical weapons that US soldiers will carry if and when they land in a place like Syria.
A 2008 interview with Ketchum, after he published his memoir, Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten
Still, a group of former test subjects is pursuing a class action suit against the US government over what they call "diabolical" experiments. Ketchum, 81, defends the value of the program, as a man dedictated to the pursuit of non-lethal warfare. But he isn't without regrets, conceding that the experiments--which continued years after Nixon decided that the U.S. would not use such chemicals--weren't always exactly scientifically sound or ethical. He writes to Khatchadourian:
“This morning I pulled out my notebook containing lists for each BZ-like compound, and was stunned when I found 3834 was indeed given in one hundred and fifty-six cases!” he wrote. “Some were done while I was actively in charge, but many while I was not.” He had searched his archive for more information. Some of the protocols, he said, were poorly designed. “I feel bad about what appears to be an inefficiency of testing,” he said. “I can imagine a fair criticism for this sloppiness and its accordingly excessive stress in terms of number of volunteers required. I must take blame for at least a significant fraction of the suboptimal design.”
Ketchum was never celebrated for his work, nor did he reap many benefits from it, often shirking away from paths toward success. He now lives “with psychic pain, and a tendency to be depressed." Khatchadourian describes him at home one day, on his typewriter, free-associating: “I am about to be consigned to the junk heap of mediocrity and obscurity. So be it.”
-- with additional reporting by Alex Pasternack @pasternack