Ketchum was referring to his work at Edgewood Arsenal, headquarters of the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, in the 1960s, when America’s national security strategists were high on the prospect of developing a nonlethal incapacitating agent, a so-called humane weapon, that could knock people out without necessarily killing anyone. Top military officers hyped the notion of “war without death,” conjuring visions of aircraft swooping over enemy territory releasing clouds of “madness gas” that would disorient the bad guys and dissolve their will to resist, while U.S. soldiers moved in and took over.
Ketchum was into weapons of mass elation, not weapons of mass destruction. He oversaw a secret research program that tested an array of mind-bending drugs on American GIs, including an exceptionally potent form of synthetic marijuana. (Most of these drugs had no medical names, just numbers supplied by the Army.) “Paradoxical as it may seem,” Ketchum asserted, “one can use chemical weapons to spare lives, rather than extinguish them.”