Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Carella Incident and Operation Cauldron: related book review

Originally published in Medicine, Conflict & Survival (minor changes possible here).
Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health by Critical Art Ensemble.
Autonomedia, New York, 2006, 148pp., $9.95 / £7.99 (pbk), ISBN 1-57027-178-X.

That Marching Plague made its way into print, and performance, at all is something of a triumph for anti-warfare-state defiance in the face of considerable odds. Its appearance, originally due in the United States in the late autumn of 2004, had to be deferred because the Federal Bureau of Investigation held all the authors’ materials, so that they had to reconstruct their research. The associated legal case became another strand in the story to be told, reinforcing their perceptions about the administration’s paranoia and persecution of dissent. Details may be found in Appendix I, ‘When Thought becomes Crime’, and at the defence fund website: <www.caedefensefund.org> (accessed 02 February 2007). Appendix II continues with reflections on the case and how it relates to the wide swathe of crimes considered terrorist, with dire implications for critics of the present regime in the United States.  

The main thrust of the book, however, is to explore and expose the way the fear engendered by the idea of ‘bio-terror’ has been fostered and utilised to divert money, expertise and attention from useful objects, especially public health, into wasteful and unnecessary research efforts, at the same time as strengthening authoritarian tendencies in the state. This process is investigated and analysed in depth, with many examples, statistics adduced to back up the assertions made, and carefully referenced documentation. In places the argument may become a little repetitive, but this is acceptable when there are sometimes complex points that need to be hammered home to build up an overall convincing case. This the book successfully does, at least with respect to its powerful critique of present US policy and its consequences, actual and threatened.  

Those who have campaigned and warned against biological warfare (BW) research since long before the invention of bio-terror will probably be less impressed when it comes to the authors’ tendency to be dismissive of the dangers of this type of weapon. Although they refer to the historical record (with some photographs), they fail generally to make the distinction between the risks posed by government-led and -financed preparations for war on the one hand and what might be done by terrorist groups on the other. Thus in a related film presentation by the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, on 29 July 2006, an alleged re-enactment of BW sea trials during Operation Cauldron near Stornoway in 1952 was ludicrously out of scale and instead of confronting, rather trivialised the reality and implications of what was done. It was still useful, however, for attracting an audience, to many of whom it was no doubt a revelation that such things went on at all, and starting discussion in which among other points the war/terror distinction was acknowledged.  

It is not difficult to agree that when exhorted by those in power to be very afraid, a modicum of scepticism is advisable, and that we should rather fear power itself. The book’s analysis clearly demonstrates the intensification of repression and authoritarianism, along with the detriment to public health nationally and internationally as the US becomes a ‘proto-fascist nation’ making nightmares into reality in perpetuity for profit. It extends the indictment to those who benefit and are complicit, targeting notably the near-ubiquitous complacency of academic institutions faced with and infiltrated by escalating militarisation.  

This situation nevertheless gives a pointer to the kind of remedial action that might be undertaken, in the hope that it may not be too late, for the aim is not mere negative criticism or defensive pleading but to bring forward a number of firm proposals. First and foremost the task is to enhance public awareness, leading to possible tactics of resistance and alternative ways of proceeding, of which practical examples are given. Ideally, the authors suggest, these might culminate in a general strike of all scientists in the life sciences and the creation of a popular front around the demand to exclude the military, and for declassification of disease research, ultimately to put people before profits.  

Remote as such a prospect may seem, there are at least other signs of dissent even in the US, and the CAE has not been without support in its courageous struggle against the dominant ideology. 

E. A. Willis
 March 2007
This is how the BBC summarised the Carella Incident: in advance of a Radio 4 programme broadcast in 2005, after they became aware of historians’ discoveries in the files:-
Bubonic plague tested off coast
Thursday, 22 September 2005, 07:49 GMT 08:49 UK
Scotland was used as a testing ground for weapons containing bubonic plague, according to secret defence papers which have been made public.
“A fishing boat crew from Fleetwood in England was accidentally exposed during testing and then covertly monitored.
The exposure happened during MoD tests of biological weapons in 1952.
Pontoons containing live monkeys and guinea pigs were moored off the coast of Lewis and clouds of bubonic plague were exploded above them.
But a trawler unwittingly steamed into the danger zone and Ministry of Defence ships shadowed the craft for weeks to monitor any emergency calls about the health of the crew.
All documents about the affair, apart from a sanitised Admiralty report, were ordered to be destroyed and the incident remained secret until now.
The tests were part of a biological weapons research programme based at Porton Down in Wiltshire conducted between the second world war and the mid-1950s.
However, islanders said the tests were an open secret locally at the time.”
[The assertion in the last sentence is extremely dubious. Although islanders were to some extent inured to militaristic intrusions and, perhaps, to the apparent futility of protesting against or questioning them  – this was only 7 years after the war – there were many who would have been horrified to know the details of these operations].

 Around the same time the Incident was included in a TV programme, in a BBC4 series produced by Windfall Films, and the story was taken up in the press. See Trawler steamed into germ warfare site and no one said a word, by Ben Fenton. Filed: 19/09/2005 (Daily Telegraph): http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2005/09/19/nplag19.xml (accessed September 2005)

Cellar Head, site of the Carella incident, is marked

Not that remote really

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