Testing out weapons of war at Porton Down
By Michael Mountain
In a post in the News & Views section, we write about the use of animals in military experiments.
Growing up in England in the 1960s, one of my favorite TV shows was the famous British TV series The Avengers, where John Steed and Mrs. Peel regularly found themselves uncovering conspiracies and fighting mad scientists at secret government facilities.
It was all good fun, but the mad scientists at these fictional secret laboratories were based on reality. At the top-secret laboratory at Porton Down in the west of England, British government scientists were testing weapons of war on unsuspecting subjects – mostly non-humans, but sometimes humans, too.
Originally set up during the World War I to manufacture and test chemical weapons, Porton Down quickly expanded into testing anthrax, botulism and sarin agents.
The super-secret lab landed in the headlines when people began to tell the newspapers how they had been used as subjects in grotesque experiments. Not even the entertainingly absurd episodes of The Avengers could conjure up the horror of Porton Down. Hundreds of people were secretly exposed to nerve gas. One of them, Ronald Maddison, age 20, died moments after having liquid sarin dripped on to his arm in 1953. His family told investigators that the young soldier had been told the tests he was going to participate in were part of a search for a cure to the common cold.
Beyond these few hundred humans, countless numbers of animals were – and are to this day – being tortured to death in the bowels of this bizarre facility.
On May 14, 2006, The Independent newspaper reported that the number of military experiments on animals had doubled in the previous five years, and that live animal tests were now being conducted at Porton Down on behalf of foreign governments.
Monkeys were being exposed to anthrax, pigs were having their blood drained, being injected with E Coli, and being shot with bullets to test out the efficacy of body armor. At least 100,000 other animals, from pigs to primates, and marmosets to mice, were being exposed to poison gas and lethal nerve agents.
The Iraq war was in full swing at this time, and, the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection noted that, “It’s bitterly ironic that the only victims of weapons of mass destruction in this conflict turn out to be animals.”
Should we or shouldn’t we?
If you or I had a son or daughter fighting in a war, and their lives could be saved by experimenting on a pig, would we go for it?
Frankly, I’d probably even agree to experimenting on the guy down the street, on my neighbor – even on you. (Sorry about that, but wouldn’t you do the same if it were a case of your kids or mine?)
And that’s precisely why the question is irrelevant. That’s why we have laws … moral imperatives … deep cultural inhibitions – precisely to stop ourselves from doing things we know are wrong, however badly we want to do them.
Testing out weapons of war on unconsenting individuals – human or other animals – is simply wrong.
But how else, you ask, can we protect our soldiers from the horrors of war?
Again, it’s the wrong question.
We won’t find a way to replace testing on animals – we won’t even bother to look for one – until we take that entire option off the table. We’ve already taken the option of experimenting on humans off the table. That’s we do it to animals. (Doing it on humans would be far more efficient.) And as soon as we take the animal option off the table, too, ingenuity and necessity will again take over, and we’ll find a better approach.
Of course, the real answer to all this is staring us in the face. If we don’t want our sons and daughters to be killed, mutilated, disfigured and traumatized by the horrors of war, then we don’t need to find better ways of testing out weapons; we need to find better ways of settling our disputes.
Incidentally, that’s what most other species have managed to do. If we humans pride ourselves on being more intelligent, more moral, more “human” than our fellow animals, then it’s time to start doing what most of them learned to do long before our species ever even came to be.
The way to save ourselves from the horrific wounds of war is not by inflicting them on other, more peaceful animals. It’s to take a lesson from these animals, consign the horrors of places like Porton Down to silly TV shows like The Avengers … and grow up.