US Army as Drug Pusher

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It was called research. The program, Operation Delirium, consisted of giving hallucinogenic drugs to soldier volunteers, often without fully informed consent. The purpose was to find a chemical agent which could disorient enemy troops. If successful, the thinking was that these non-lethal agents could spare the lives and property normally destroyed in warfare. And now, decades after the Cold War era program was cancelled, the soldiers involved want to know just what was done to them.

In a detailed expose in the New Yorker, investigative reporter, Raffi Khatchadourian, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at this secret program. Operation Delirium was run under the auspices of a psychiatrist, who even today says there were benefits. He points out that some of the antidotes soldiers carry into a chemical warfare zone have been derived from the work at Edgewood Arsenal.

The substances tested, including LSD, make modern drugs of abuse seem lame. Imagine a hallucinogen so powerful that random, completely convincing visions and delusions would spring up for as long as three days. That one was called “BZ.” And there were others, all selected for testing because of their powerful effects with the idea of putting them in grenades or dispersing them with bombs.

The reason this program is in the spotlight is because of a class action lawsuit underway by some of the victims. These soldiers are wondering just what was administered to them and whether there are long-term effects. Some didn’t even know they had been administered drugs (amnesia was sometimes a result) and found out only when notified about the lawsuit.

The program was shut down after a congressional investigation into complaints from soldiers who felt they had been mistreated. Not all did. Doses ranged from very strong to minor. To keep from hurting themselves, some soldiers were put in padded rooms until the effects wore off.

War without death seems like a laudable goal, but incapacitating agents—like other, lethal chemical warfare materials—have been banned since 1992 under the Chemical Weapons Convention adopted by the United Nations. The U.S. is a signatory.

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