I’ve always liked projects I could embark on with easily available materials, which makes the idea of waging war with bugs rather than bombs appealing. On the other hand, torture by insect has made me shudder since I first read, sometime in childhood, of prisoners staked out on anthills. In Six Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a professor at the University of Wyoming who teaches in the departments of Botany and Philosophy, writes crisply and engagingly about these relatively straightforward methods of inflicting pain on one’s enemies as well as the far more sinister practices that took place in the last century and will certainly happen again.
The final tally was greater than the number killed by all the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.
There are so many good stories in this book it is tempting to try and tell them all, from the one about King Richard the Lionhearted catapulting beehives into Moslem strongholds during the 3rd Crusade to the one about the defeated Greek tyrant Mithridates who, hiding in the Turkish region of Colchis, routed a pursuing Roman general by strategically abandoning jars of honey made from local bees that fed exclusively on Rhododendron leaves (a neurotoxin).
But there are two stories that do most to capture the appalling nature of insects as weapons. In the years before WWII, a Japanese doctor and microbiologist, Ishii Shiro, who had the political skills to work his way into the top echelons of the military, spent years of study and planning, involving thousands of doctors, nurses, scientists and army staff (as well as Chinese laborers working, literally, with blinders on) to build a vast, secret laboratory/prison camp complex outside of the city of Harbin, in Manchuria. Chinese “criminals” and later Chinese and Allied POWs were infected with the plague, allowed to sicken until near death, then vivisected while still alive (death muddies the bacteriological picture). When Shiro had the requisite data, he ordered the release of clouds of infected fleas over residential neighborhoods, as well as fields of battle. After a few false starts, he succeeded in the city of Quzhou in Zhejiang province. Plague struck and the dying continued for years after the war ended. The final tally was greater than the number killed by all the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. The good doctor’s postwar reward was safe haven in the US in exchange for his know-how. As far as Lockwood can determine, our government didn’t do anything with the data other than salivate over possibilities, though one can never know what was attempted, perhaps on a small scale by men good at covering their tracks.
Not as evil but far more destructive was the decision by Janibeg Khan that ended the siege of Kaffa, a Genoese Cathedral City on the Crimean Penisula. In 1346, after the siege had lasted three years, plague struck the Mongol camp. Janibeg knew he was beaten, but as a final shot he catapulted corpses over the wall into the town. The bodies were quickly removed, but the disease took hold in a city weakened by siege. Attempting to escape, four ships set sail for Italy. End result: the Black Death, 25 million dead. Perhaps the plague would have reached Europe in any case. Nevertheless, not many get a chance at revenge on that scale.
The bodies were quickly removed, but the disease took hold in a city weakened by siege. Attempting to escape, four ships set sail for Italy. End result: the Black Death, 25 million dead.
Genghis Kahn may be a name we all remember from childhood, but this Khan of the Golden Horde arguably had as much impact on history.
Janibeg Khan didn’t know that fleas carry plague, just as nobody knew until very recently that mosquitoes spread malaria, yellow fever and other diseases. But people did know that contact with the ill and with fresh corpses could spread disease, and they knew that marshy conditions caused sickness. Many, perhaps most, of the great battles of history were decided not by the relative numbers or skill of the armies involved but on the prevalence of illness. Long invasions were inherently dangerous, as men slept outdoors, with inadequate sanitation, and meager, often spoiled food. But where the men camped made all the difference, and commanders from ancient days to the 20th century worked to maneuver the enemy into marshy spots where the “bad air” would quickly thin the ranks.
Insects have a natural flaw as weapons; they have minds of their own. You have to understand their habits very well to use them properly, and even then they can come back and bite you in the ass. For this reason, and perhaps because Americans love technology, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is now deeply interested in robotizing insects for use as spies, to detect various chemicals, and for search and destroy missions. Some of the designs in the works are true hybrids with manipulated DNA, others are robots that mimic the structure of insects, particularly the fast and rugged cockroach. It’s everyone’s nightmare: the creepy-crawlie with a brain, albeit remote, better than yours.
Lockwood is very careful to remind the reader throughout the book of the limits of his knowledge. He’s not an historian or investigative journalist but an entomologist, and makes it clear that he relies on secondhand sources. These caveats, honorable as they are, make the sections about what governments might have done in the last fifty years, or might be doing now, thin reading. He suggests that The West Nile virus might have been lab created. Maybe at this moment terrorists are patiently assembling insect armies for use against civilians. We don’t know, and that leaves this book in the same place as countless articles on the threat of weaponized smallpox. On the other hand, Lockwood’s chapter on the ways insects have been used in torture is graphic enough to make you marvel anew at the sadistic ingenuity of the human mind. I’m not being sarcastic when I use the word ‘marvel.’ Only a species that can feed a man milk and honey to bring on the diarrhea that will attract the flies that will lay eggs in his anus and devour him from the inside could have invented religion, antibiotics and central plumbing.
So forgive that line of ants on your kitchen counter. Things could be so much worse.