BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A grim read ...

The most remarkable thing about this book is that it was written by two reporters from The New York Times (Judith Miller and Stephen Engelberg) and an editor from The Oregonian (William Broad) ... if ever there was a team that one would suspect of hard-Left spin, it would be a combination like that, and yet (except for a bit at the very end) there is little, if any, evident Liberal Bias. Needless to say, a title like Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War sets one up to expect one of those Marxist-inspired screeds against the USA's "military-industrial complex", but the thrust of the book would have been better presented with a subtitle along the lines of "how our trusting nature got us into trouble again". I suspect that the phrase "America's Secret War" is only on the cover to get the Che t-shirt crowd to buy it ... as the core thesis is more about how we spent a quarter century not fighting a war that nearly all our opponents were deeply engaged in.

While Germs is not a historical over-view per se of America's experience with biowarfare agents, it does paint a fairly full picture of that, if having much of the "historical" material in background and asides to the specific events and characters being detailed. It is noted that the U.S. swore off all bio-agent work in Richard Nixon's 1969 announcement, and was a key signatory (and one could argue, solitary actual participant) to the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention, a bit of diplomacy on the par with Neville Chamberlain's that put our ability to recognize and react to biowar incidents (let alone retaliate) far behind our traditional foes, and even many 2nd and 3rd world regimes.

The book starts out with a little-known story, that of the "bioterror" efforts of the Rajneesh followers to attack local residents who opposed their huge compound in Oregon back in 1984 and 1985. At the time it was thought best to cover up the story, so as to not cause "copycat" attacks, which in this case primarily involved introducing Salmonella into salad bars in surrounding communities. One thing that this scenario made very clear was that the U.S. was almost totally blind to the use of bio agents, and the investigation went on a considerable time before it dawned on authorities that these had been deliberate attacks. Not only had there not been a "mental model" that this was a possibility, there was virtually no infrastructure to support an investigation.

The book continues with a look at the few people in government, who had been part of the pre-1969 germ programs, and how they were trying to keep some aspects of preparedness available. This then spins into the "cracks in the wall" of the Soviet's massive bio-weapon build up, as shown by news leaking out of major "accidents" and a number of key defections. When I say "massive", the USSR was producing five thousand times the amount of germ agents that the U.S. was (and had aggressive programs in things like SmallPox and Bubonic Plague that we weren't even messing with) back before '69 ... and they really hadn't pulled back any despite the '72 convention!

When I noted that I was surprised that this book came from the people it did, that is largely due to the next part, detailing just what Saddam had in Iraq. Obviously, today the Times would NEVER allow their reporters to vary from the "party line" that there were no WMD in Iraq, yet here are very specific trails of what germs (as well as when, how, and to a certain extent where) the Hussein regime had acquired or developed, and the grim scenarios that our military was having to deal with in the months leading up to Desert Storm, where it was fully expected that the Iraqis would use these agents on our troops. There is also some conjectures that "Gulf War Syndrome" is largely due to the destruction of a number of Saddam's ammo depots, and the inadvertent release of bio agents from munitions stored there!

About 1/3rd of the book is a paean to the Clinton administration, describing how it engaged the threat. It appears that Bill Clinton took the bio-war scenario very seriously, and tried to get a structure started for dealing with this. Unfortunately, after so many years "out of the game", this became a project with no "home" and no "core constituents", and the responsibility for bio preparedness is spread out over a dozen or so competing and uncooperative government bureaucracies. This was, of course, driven home by the 2002 anthrax attacks in Washington and Florida, where it took weeks to recognize the "accidental" infections (of mail handlers, etc.), and then dealing with the various copy-cat "hoaxes" that followed (I guess there was something to the Oregon response after all), including an envelope filled with baby powder that one of the authors opened at their desk!

Germs paints a very grim picture of the future, as we are simply not prepared to deal with this sort of an attack, and our enemies are quite capable of delivering one. If you're interested in finding out just how dire this situation is, the book is still in print (so could be obtained from your local brick & mortar book vendor), but Amazon's new/used guys currently have "like new" copies of both this paperback and the hardcover for a penny (an even $4 with shipping), so that would certainly be the way to go. Again, it's a grim, yet engaging, read ... but it is definitely a subject that more people need to know about!

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Tags: book review
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