R: 10 / I: 1
NA, ABC TV, 2004
There has been much interest in biological weapons in recent years, stoked by ongoing debates over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and by fears that such weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists. The threat came to feel increasingly real when envelopes prepared with pulverised anthrax spores of unknown origin started to appear in the post (along with many more copycat envelopes containing harmless powder), causing panic and chaos in the United States and elsewhere in the West. Historians are becoming increasingly interested in the subject, and it is also slowly finding its way into syllabi in the history of science, technology and war. While usually no substitute for lectures, documentary films provide students with access to original footage on issues in recent history, as well as quick and easy access to interviews with main historical actors. In some (rare) cases, imaginatively produced films can grant students unique insights that they would not get by any other means.(1) Deadly Enemies, however, is of a more conventional variety.
Susan Lambert’s film tells us above all about the science behind biological warfare. It starts with the British anthrax trials in the Second World War, very briefly, and without much discussion of the research at Porton Down and its origins. The story moves on swiftly to the laboratories of the US biological weapons programme at Fort Detrick during the Cold War. The film makers introduce us to Bill Patrick, a veteran of the programme, who reminisces about how impressed the researchers were with the research opportunities they encountered in the facility (‘…it was fascinating work, really fascinating work…’), allowing and encouraging them to pursue research on germs and diseases which could not be handled safely in conventional university laboratories. Patrick remembers Fort Detrick as an ideal research and development facility. We learn about the controversy unfolding during the Korean War, when the Soviet government accused the Americans of using biological weapons. This controversy, rather than slowing it down, led to an intensification of the US programme. When penicillin and other antibiotic agents threatened the effectiveness of bacterial weapons, the use of myxomatosis to kill scores of rabbits in Australia (‘an experiment in the mass extermination of mammals’) pointed the researchers to the possible use of viruses as weapons. We also hear about the testing of biological agents in the Utah desert and see newsreel footage of happy ‘human guinea pigs’ playing piano in a Fort Detrick common room: conscientious objectors, pacifists and Seventh Day Adventists, for whom Bill Patrick expresses his highest regard. According to the veteran researcher, these experiments yielded ‘very, very important findings’ which could not have been produced otherwise. We do not hear what the volunteers thought about their role – none seem to have been interviewed for the film.