The Coward's Way of War Afterword
[I wrote this book when I had access to my notes in the UK, but I have written this afterword from memory. Any mistakes are my fault.]
I’m pretty sure that quite a few readers will recoil in horror from the scenario I outlined in this book. They won’t want to believe it possible – and, to be honest, I would prefer not to believe it possible too. There will be a strong tendency to consider this book nothing more than another work of fiction, without a strong factual background. Unfortunately, the book is firmly lodged in reality.
It is a point of historical fact that the Soviet Union researched bioweapons intensively ever since its foundation. (It has been alleged that the Russians attempted to use biological warfare in both World War Two and Afghanistan, although I don’t believe that it was ever conclusively proven.) The Russian project was far larger than any other biological research program and, despite a series of disasters that resulted in hundreds of deaths, kept going right up until the fall of the Soviet Union – and beyond. And they chose to concentrate on diseases that had no known cure.
Smallpox was one such disease. The Russians saw the extermination of smallpox (outside the handful of research compounds) as a golden opportunity to turn it into a weapon, correctly believing that the absence of the disease would eventually lead to the abandonment of the vaccination program and the creation of a virgin field for smallpox to spread freely. As I noted in the text, smallpox is extremely dangerous purely because the average citizen today has no resistance to it. Outside the military, very few people are vaccinated against it.
[I worked out a second scenario that involved a disease that had no vaccine or cure. That one ended with the extermination of the entire human race.]
The Russians were aided and abetted by Westerners who were desperate for arms control treaties and chose to ignore the clear evidence that the Russians were not only cheating, but had also moved ahead on a far greater scale than the West. Right from the start, the Russians considered the treaties to be ineffective – and they were correct. Unlike monitoring tanks or nuclear warheads, monitoring the production of biological weapons (which, at base, require nothing out of the ordinary for a normal medical complex) is an extremely difficult task. The Westerners believed that they could claim an achievement. This was absolute nonsense.
The Russians never took the treaties seriously – which a cursory examination of the inspection program makes plain. The inspectors were wined and dined before the tours began (purely to waste time), then systematically misled by the Russians, who achieved a far better record at fooling international inspectors than Saddam’s desperate attempts to conceal a far smaller program after the Gulf War. There are simply too many unanswered questions about the history and current status of Russia’s biological warfare program.
Even during the height of the Soviet Union’s power, there were accidents that infected researchers and civilians living near the biological warfare labs. The Soviet Union was never known for taking safety precautions at the best of times; they were quite lucky that the accidents didn't spread further than they did. As it was, they were astonished by how easily the West accepted their cover stories, rather than pressing for the truth.
The Fall of the Soviet Union brought a new series of concerns about the safety of Russia’s massive stockpile of WMD. Most attention was focused on nuclear warheads; rogue states and terrorists were attempting to buy the warheads or hire former Russian scientists to work for them. This may sound like the plot of a technothriller, and there is no shortage of thrillers that revolve around just that, but it is a very real concern. The Russian scientists were never paid very well during the Cold War. Afterwards, they were hardly paid at all. Why should they not take their expertise elsewhere?
There will be people who will question their willingness to share their secrets with terrorists or rogue states. Surely no one would be so insane as to give WMD to rogue states? But these people often miss the important point; these scientists were starving, along with their families. They moved from being part of the aristocracy in the Soviet Union to being penniless. It is astonishing how one’s hunger – and the hunger of one’s children – can break down moral and ethical barriers. And scientists who worked on turning deadly diseases into weapons might not have had strong moral barriers in the first place. The Russians carried out experiments on political prisoners that would make the Nazis blanch.
Smuggling out a nuke from Russia, even during the Yeltsin era, wouldn't be easy. Taking a vial of smallpox, on the other hand, would be far more straightforward. Did any vials go missing during that period – or even afterwards? The truth is that we honestly don’t know.
The Russians aren't the only offenders when it comes to creating biological weapons. Iraq experimented with them during Saddam’s time in power, along with both chemical and nuclear weapons. Iran is rumoured to have a program using scientists from Russia. China’s program remains a mystery. North Korea is believed to have a stockpile of smallpox of its own. Even if the Russians have managed to successfully prevent anything from escaping their labs, there are plenty of other sources. Making a crude biological weapon is not difficult.
There is no shortage of excuses. The Russians knew (the West didn’t) that they were critically behind in nuclear warheads and missiles. Using bioweapons as a threat – which requires the ability to actually carry out the threat (or at least convince outsiders that you can) – might have seemed a solution to their quandary. Unlike the West, the Russians didn't develop a concept of limited nuclear war. They believed that the war would be total – and that they would lose badly, a very valid belief. Biological warheads allowed them to take the West down with them.
I don’t see those excuses as valid. Producing such weapons, on such a large scale, was grossly irresponsible. We have been very lucky that we have not all had to pay the price for their stupidity.
Fortunately, there are practical problems with actually deploying such weapons. A disease that kills quickly – like Ebola – is useless for anything other than a terror weapon; it simply wipes out its hosts too quickly for the disease to spread very far. (But there were programs for combining the virus with another virus, one that would delay death until the virus had a chance to spread.) Introducing disease into a water reservoir is not easy – and the water is purified before it is inserted into the pipes. The Russians found it hard to produce a missile warhead that could deploy disease spores, although they eventually produced a viable system that could be used as a final blow against the West if they lost a war. Finally, there is the very real danger that the disease might mutate and spread back to the launcher’s society.
Ok, the weapons exist. But surely no one would be foolish enough to try to use them, right?
Most modern states are aware of the dangers of using bioweapons against their enemies. Should they happen to get caught – and outbreaks of smallpox would look extremely suspicious right from the start – there will be very unpleasant consequences. (I’ve heard that Saddam was warned in 1991 that any use of WMD would result in a nuclear response, although I have no source for it.) A state that risks using bioweapons against the West would be risking its total destruction.
Terrorists, however, and rogue states cannot be counted upon to behave rationally.
In many ways, both groups set out to create fear in the minds of their enemies. Fear corrodes, fear prevents people from making rational calculations. The periodical bursts of nuclear sabre-rattling from North Korea and Iran serve the purpose of concentrating minds on their fear – and not on the simple fact that neither state could survive a total war with America, let alone the rest of the world. Terrorists, having few state connections, can act with even more impunity. And they are often quite happy to compromise their host states for their own ends.
This was amply demonstrated by Al Qaida’s time in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Their attack on America on 9/11 brought Afghanistan into conflict with the United States, not something in the Taliban’s best interests. Indeed, AQ was so firmly wedged into the more radical parts of the Taliban’s power structure that more rational voices couldn't either speak out against the terrorists or dislodge them. The offer to try Bin Laden in front of an Islamic Court was, in some ways, an admission of helplessness. Having taken him into their homes and allowed him to gain influence, the rational part of the Taliban leadership couldn't stop him.
Bin Laden expressed interest in obtaining nuclear, chemical and biological WMD before and after 9/11. Did he succeed? The only sign that he didn’t succeed is that such weapons weren't used, although in the murky world of counter-terrorist operations such absence of evidence doesn’t always prove anything. In 2002, for example, there was a strong report that AQ had a nuke somewhere in America. Was the report actually genuine? If so, did the nuke fail to detonate, or was it quietly recovered and destroyed by the security forces? There is no way to know.
It is clear that Bin Laden and his successors, those who share his perverted version of Islam, would not object to deploying biological weapons, even though they would almost certainly spread into the Middle East and devastate the population. They were not only happy to send Muslims to commit suicide attacks (suicide is a mortal sin in Islam and there is certainly no redeeming factor in deliberately setting out to take others with you) but to kill other Muslims who didn't live up (down?) to their standards. The fact that diseases are no respecters of religion would not, I suspect, bother them. Their worldview includes the concept of a final war and a massive slaughter of all those in the wrong.
This is at least partly because of the devil’s bargain the House of Saud made with the religious leaders of Saudi Arabia. In exchange for supporting the regime the fundamentalist leaders were allowed to spread their creed throughout Saudi Arabia and beyond. Saudi oil money funds the spread of religious schools throughout Central Asia, Europe and even America, schools where pupils are taught intolerance and a harsh creed that allows no questioning. It should not be surprising that these pupils often become recruits for the Taliban or other fundamentalist groups.
In Saudi Arabia itself, the attempt to use religious leaders to bolster the monarchy’s position – by providing an excuse to crush democrats, feminists, etc – has badly undermined the government. Right now, there is a growing population of youngsters who are largely unemployable – and radical preachers who want to take power for themselves, rather than obey the monarchy. There is a tension in the region that will make slow reform extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. Is it impossible that a faction in Saudi Arabia will seek to trigger a war that might thrust them into power?
Why not? Bin Laden certainly tried.
And what would happen if these weapons were actually used?
Society is fragile. This may seem odd, but consider; the vast majority of people are honest, law-abiding and unwilling to act to undermine society. In the West, this is true because there is a tradition of good governance and plenty of other outlets for human expression. Fear, however, can corrode away basic decency, destroying trust in government and society alike. When that happens, the bonds of law and order can simply snap.
Humans are social creatures; we live in groups. When we are inside the group, we see ourselves as a collection of individuals; when we are outside the group, we see them as one vast hive mind. There is a certain tendency to condemn every member of a particular group for the crimes of one or two of them. This is relatively simple for hate-mongers to exploit, as branding all members of a particular group as ‘The Enemy’ is good for unity – and for their political power. Hitler was neither the first or last to designate a particular section of society as official scapegoats for everything that was wrong with the world.
Think about how many faultlines there are in society. All the ‘us vs. them’ problems there are that pop up whenever something happens and others seek to take advantage of it. If faith in society is crushed, and that will happen if there is a massive disease outbreak, those faultlines will explode. And then a serious problem will become much worse, threatening to overwhelm us all.
Your mileage may vary. I hope you’re right.
Christopher G. Nuttall
Kuala Lumpur, 2013