More than anything, it seems, Ketchum had wanted to do something good and meaningful with his life, even something celebrated, but he never paused to consider if the limits of the Army’s chemical-warfare program would allow for such a thing. After leaving Edgewood, he had opportunities. He took on an associate professorship at the University of Texas Medical School, but in both academia and private practice, he told me, he always chose at the last minute to back away from success. He considered this a character trait, but it was hard not to see in it the caution of a man who had pursued success without restraint and found himself in ethically contested territory. As he grew older, he came to live “with psychic pain, and a tendency to be depressed,” he later confessed. Free-associating at his typewriter, he wrote, “I am about to be consigned to the junk heap of mediocrity and obscurity. So be it.”
By this time, the Army was running a “crash program” to turn BZ into an operational weapon. The test with Zadrozny may have demonstrated that BZ could render a unit ineffective, but in battle the chemical would need to be sprayed, and aerosols are difficult to control, even in test conditions. Ketchum estimated that the “incapacitating dose” was forty times lower than the lethal dose. Yet some soldiers in wind-tunnel tests were getting more than intended. What would happen if a volunteer sensitive to the chemical received too much of it? Psychochemical warfare was based on the idea that the drugs had no meaningful effect on the body. But, as Ketchum’s tests progressed, the results began to suggest that BZ might be more dangerous than had been imagined.
Today, Ketchum is eighty-one years old, and the facility where he worked, Edgewood Arsenal, is a crumbling assemblage of buildings attached to a military proving ground on the Chesapeake Bay. The arsenal’s records are boxed and dusting over in the National Archives. Military doctors who helped conduct the experiments have long since moved on, or passed away, and the soldiers who served as their test subjects—in all, nearly five thousand of them—are scattered throughout the country, if they are still alive. Within the Army, and in the world of medical research, the secret clinical trials are a faint memory. But for some of the surviving test subjects, and for the doctors who tested them, what happened at Edgewood remains deeply unresolved. Were the human experiments there a Dachau-like horror, or were they sound and necessary science? As veterans of the tests have come forward, their unanswered questions have slowly gathered into a kind of historical undertow, and Ketchum, more than anyone else, has been caught in its pull. In 2006, he self-published a memoir, “Chemical Warfare: Secrets Almost Forgotten,” which defended the research. Next year, a class-action lawsuit brought against the federal government by former test subjects will go to trial, and Ketchum is expected to be the star witness.
Colonel James S. Ketchum dreamed of war without killing. He joined the Army in 1956 and left it in 1976, and in that time he did not fight in Vietnam; he did not invade the Bay of Pigs; he did not guard Western Europe with tanks, or help build nuclear launch sites beneath the Arctic ice. Instead, he became the military’s leading expert in a secret Cold War experiment: to fight enemies with clouds of psychochemicals that temporarily incapacitate the mind—causing, in the words of one ranking officer, a “selective malfunctioning of the human machine.” For nearly a decade, Ketchum, a psychiatrist, went about his work in the belief that chemicals are more humane instruments of warfare than bullets and shrapnel—or, at least, he told himself such things. To achieve his dream, he worked tirelessly at a secluded Army research facility, testing chemical weapons on hundreds of healthy soldiers, and thinking all along that he was doing good.