Yankee And Vietnamese Ingenuity

Entomologists working to convert insects into weapons for the U.S. Department of Defense could not have asked for a more propitious conflict than a war in Southeast Asia. While Korea was at the latitude of northern Colorado, Vietnam was 2,000 miles closer to the equator—and insects flourish in tropical climes. In 1965, the American military conducted Operation Magic Sword to assess the biting habits of the yellow fever mosquito after being released from a ship anchored off the warm, humid shores of the southeastern United States.1 This was the best approximation, without mounting an insect invasion of another sovereign nation, for determining if vectors released from naval vessels off the coast of Vietnam would make landfall and attack the enemy.

The scientists ascertained that the insects, assisted by sea breezes, could cross up to three and a half miles of ocean and establish a beachhead. Operation Magic Sword also revealed that the entomological-warfare folks could keep their charges in battle readiness during a transpacific journey. By cooling batches of mosquitoes to 64°F to reduce their metabolic rates and maintaining them at 80 percent humidity to prevent dehydration, the insects remained viable for 52 days. Despite their promise, mosquitoes were probably not loosed on Vietnam, although other unconventional weapons were used with abandon.

As encouraging as biological warfare seemed to be, the chemical arsenal was even more promising. While the insecticide industry had spawned the German nerve gases, herbicide research provided the U.S. military with plant killers—and in a battleground choked with vegetation that concealed a cunning opponent, eradicating the plants became tantamount to annihilating the enemy.2

Operation Ranch Hand began in November 1961, and over the next six years sprayed more than 17 million gallons of herbicide to denude 2,000

square miles of jungle and 420 square miles of crops (see Figure 18.1). The North Vietnamese were outraged by what they considered to be an overt act of chemical warfare. The Americans argued that because the targets were plants, not people, there was no violation of international laws or treaties.

With chemical weapons scorching the countryside, the communists accused the Americans of releasing the larvae of "killer insects" to ravage Vietnamese agriculture. In October 1966, the North Vietnamese News Agency reported:

These larvae were let loose on 30th September 1966 on the Cham Thanh district of In Tan province. Route 21 from Duong Zian Hoi to Vinh Cong was affected. All rice, plants, fruit trees in a band of 2 kilometers wide either side of the road have been destroyed.3

The North Vietnamese did not file official charges against the Americans, perhaps because an inquiry would likely have revealed that the infestations consisted of local pests rather than exotic creatures dropped by the U.S. Air Force. However, it is conceivable that the Americans played an indirect role in the outbreaks; sublethal doses of herbicides can weaken plants and make them vulnerable to insect attack. But there was an even more nefarious environmental effect of Operation Ranch Hand.

A 1969 United Nations study found that human disease can follow on the heels of large-scale deforestation, as occurred in Vietnam.4 The process is rather simple, if not easily foreseen. After the original trees are killed,

Figure 18.1. Operation Ranch Hand waged war on Vietnamese plant life in a controversial effort to deprive the enemy of cover and food. However, nobody anticipated that herbicides (17 million gallons applied from 1962 to 1971) would set the stage for arthropod-borne disease outbreaks. The secondary growth that followed chemical deforestation fostered the deadly trio of rickettsiae, rats, and mites that conspire to inflict scrub typhus on the people.

secondary forest or grassland develops, and these habitats are often conducive to blood-feeding arthropods and their hosts. In Southeast Asia, both the mites that transmit scrub typhus and the rats that harbor the pathogen flourish in secondary forests.5 Although the U.S. military did not plan to induce scrub typhus outbreaks among the enemy, the Americans were fully aware of another, indirect form of entomological warfare.

Savvy commanders know that whichever side better protects its troops from the diseases that flourish in the detritus of war gains a strategic advantage. But despite extensive medical efforts, at least 2.5 million U.S. troops contracted arthropod-borne illnesses in Southeast Asia between 1962 and 1973.6 At the height of the conflict, disease accounted for three-quarters of the army hospital admissions, and malaria was the primary culprit. With nearly 40,000 cases in the latter half of the 1960s, the U.S. military imposed "malaria discipline." Soldiers who were not taking chloroquine to prevent the disease—and this was evident from a simple colorimetric test of their urine in the field—were punished. Although the malaria rate dropped precipitously, the medical corps continued to battle other diseases, including Chikungunya and dengue carried by mosquitoes, scrub typhus transmitted by mites, and various enteric diseases spread by flies. But perhaps the most frightening pathogen was the military's oldest foe and ally—bubonic plague.

Rats, fleas, and bacilli lie in wait throughout much of Southeast Asia, with a few people killed by plague every year. But with the devastation of war, hundreds of civilian cases began to swamp medical clinics. In short order, U.S. troops were vaccinated and the military undertook a large-scale hygiene campaign that involved applying insecticides to infested sites and reducing filth in friendly villages and army camps. Such measures would seem to fall into the realm of good soldiering, but cleanliness can be next to wickedness. The key to turning the rubble of war into a strategic asset lay in ensuring that the enemy was more vulnerable to disease.

While only a dozen American troops contracted plague during the war, the situation was dire in areas controlled by the Viet Cong, where vermin thrived. While plague was reported in just a single province of South Vietnam in 1961, 22 of the 29 provinces north of Saigon were afflicted in 1966. The flea-bitten communists were surely suffering from a lack of medical supplies and infrastructure, but whether the Americans exploited the logistical difference to wage passive entomological warfare can be debated.7 What can't be doubted, however, is that the North Vietnamese were ready, willing—and able—to use entomological weapons.

The communist forces lacked technological sophistication, but they possessed a sort of anti-Yankee ingenuity. Large sectors of Vietnam were riddled with an underground network of first-aid posts, armories, kitchens, dormitories, classrooms, and even small theaters. From the miles of tunnels, the Viet Cong could decide when and where to fight—sometimes lobbing wasp and hornet nests into U.S. positions to disrupt defenses before launching an attack.8

After unwittingly building a camp on top of the tunnels near Cu Chi, the Americans realized that their subterranean enemy had to be defeated if there was any chance of controlling the region. Special volunteer commandoes, armed only with pistols and knives, descended into the narrow passages. These "tunnel rats" encountered a nightmarish assortment of booby traps.9 Feeling his way through a dank tunnel, the lone commando might overlook a thin trip wire. Suddenly a load of poisonous arthropods would rain down from a hidden cavity in the roof. While sharing a two-foot-wide, three-and-a-half-foot-high burrow with a few dozen angry scorpions was not as bad as stepping into a pit of punji sticks, the scuttling creatures provided a horrifying ambience. Indeed, at least in peacetime, psychologists have found that people rank spiders and insects on a par with snakes, bats, terrorists, and—according to one survey—death. The Viet Cong, however, did not limit their entomological weaponry to subterranean venues.

In Rudyard Kipling's Second Jungle Book, Mowgli sees his forest threatened by a pack of ferocious red dogs. The hero enlists the aid of the Little People of the Rocks—a colony of bellicose bees. The clever boy lures the vicious dogs into the domain of the bees, who kill the invaders. Although Kipling did not provide a scientific name for Mowgli's entomological weapons, the creature that he had in mind might well have been Apis dorsata.10

The giant honeybee of Asia, occasionally called the "rock bee," has been described by tropical entomologists as "the most ferocious stinging insect on earth." This insect is far more aggressive than its cousin, the European honeybee, which accounts both for the vast majority of honey produced in the United States and for more deaths than any other poisonous animal. Not only is the giant honeybee 50 percent larger than its placid cousin, but the Asian species attacks in huge numbers (colonies build a single, open comb that can be as much as ten feet across) and pursues an intruder for 100 yards or more (see Figure 18.2). The distribution of this belligerent bee stretches from Mowgli's forests of India to the jungles of Vietnam. And real guerrillas are just as cunning as fictional boys.

Figure 18.2. Giant honey bees cover a single, exposed comb up to ten feet across. Colonies high in the forest canopy served as "tree mines" for the Viet Cong, who would set off a small charge near the bees and convert several thousand enraged one-inch workers into living shrapnel. Realizing the potential of conscripting these fierce insects, the Americans attempted to develop chemicals that could be used to direct the bees to attack the enemy. (Photo by Stephen L. Buchmann)

Figure 18.2. Giant honey bees cover a single, exposed comb up to ten feet across. Colonies high in the forest canopy served as "tree mines" for the Viet Cong, who would set off a small charge near the bees and convert several thousand enraged one-inch workers into living shrapnel. Realizing the potential of conscripting these fierce insects, the Americans attempted to develop chemicals that could be used to direct the bees to attack the enemy. (Photo by Stephen L. Buchmann)

The Viet Cong carefully relocated colonies of these bees to trails used by the enemy and then attached a firecracker to the comb.11 When a patrol passed within striking range, a patiently waiting VC would set off the charge. The infuriated insects delivered painful stings and drove the soldiers into dangerous disarray. There were also intriguing but unconfirmed reports that the North Vietnamese trained their insect conscripts to attack anyone wearing an American uniform. Such a tactic is not implausible, given that bees are capable of associative learning (for example, relating particular colors and shapes with rich sources of nectar). While communist forces were running training camps for bees, the Americans were using their scientific acumen to turn the tables on the enemy.

Like many insects, bees use an elaborate system of chemical messages, or pheromones, to coordinate their behavior. Odors are used to attract mates, identify colony members, and mark food sources. But perhaps the most spectacular olfactory signal is the alarm pheromone. This chemical cocktail is contained in tissues surrounding the sting, although a worried bee can send an alarm without actually stinging; just opening the sting chamber in preparation for unsheathing the barbed lance will emit the odor. The primary component of the honeybee alarm pheromone was discovered in 1962. Isopentyl acetate, a chemical with the odor of bananas, functions like a cavalry bugle drawing bees into the battle. And the Pentagon was also enticed.

The U.S. military funded a top-secret research program to devise an apparatus to spray the enemy with the alarm pheromone of bees, thereby converting the local insects into fierce allies.12 Such a tactic might seem a bit absurd, but this is the same military that was pursuing Project Aquadog, an aborted attempt to train dogs to swim underwater on seek-and-destroy missions against enemy frogmen. The thought of turning the giant honeybee against the communists was tempting, but the idea of stinging swarms chasing black-clad, banana-scented guerrillas never came to fruition (so to speak). However, bee pheromones may still be part of the American arsenal. In 2003, Harper's magazine published a portion of the glossary from a report on "Nonlethal Weapons: Terms and References" by the U.S. Air Force's Institute for National Security Studies that included this entry:

Pheromones: The chemical substances released by animals to influence physiology or behavior of other members of the same species. One use of pheromones, at the most elemental level, could be to mark target individuals and then release bees to attack them.13

Although bees were hardly decisive weapons, these insects played one of the strangest roles in the history of unconventional weaponry in the days following the ignominious end of the Vietnam War. In 1981, U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that "for some time now the international community has been alarmed by continuing reports that the Soviet Union and its allies have been using lethal chemical weapons in Laos, Kampuchea [Cambodia], and Afghanistan."14 This stunning accusation was based on accounts of "yellow rain" falling on the Hmong people, who suffered tortuous deaths.15 American government experts isolated a fungal toxin from field samples and claimed that this was the basis of the chemical attacks. But the case fell apart when independent scientists identified the yellow residue as pollenladen insect feces. Bee poop, to be precise. It seems that the giant honeybee spatters the forest during a colony's morning constitutional—and fungi can grow in these insect latrines, although not at dangerous levels.16 Perhaps the allegations by the United States were an expression of a frustrated superpower that had, at least officially, abandoned its biological weapons.

As the Vietnam War was reaching a low point for the United States, President Nixon announced the unilateral cessation of his country's biological warfare program. Historians continue to debate Nixon's political rationale (nobody seems to suspect a moral motive), but whatever the reason, the U.S. disarmament stimulated a series of international discussions.17 These culminated in the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which banned the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and acquisition of biological arms. In 1975, the United States ratified this treaty along with the 50-year-old Geneva Protocols. But by this time, flaws in the BTW Convention were becoming widely recognized.

In making compromises to get the accords passed, the signatories relented to Soviet pressure and weakened the verification provisions. The ink had not even dried on the signatures before the Russians were violating the treaty.18 For the next 20 years, the Soviet Ministry of Medical and Biological Industry produced weapons-grade anthrax and smallpox by the ton. When a 1991 British-American inspection team asked about the fermentation tanks at one site, the Soviets claimed that the facility produced insect pathogens for pest management. So even when insects weren't being used in weapon systems, they were providing alibis.

With regard to entomological weapons, the treaty seemed clear, but no wording can prevent bureaucrats from muddying the waters. Although insects would seem to be "biological agents," the United Nations, along with counter-proliferation agencies and the U.S. military, interpreted the ban to include only microbial agents and biological toxins. On the other hand, the United Nations also expressed concern that mosquitoes and ticks could be used as vectors, so perhaps these creatures would fall under the convoluted provisions that prohibited biological "weapons systems."

The bottom line is that a nation could pursue entomological warfare and contend that insects fell through the cracks of international law. And if the Cubans are to be believed, this is precisely what the Americans were doing.

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