Germ Wars: The Politics of Microbes and America's Landscape of Fear

Germ Wars: The Politics of Microbes and America's Landscape of Fear

by Melanie Armstrong

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The United States government has spent billions of dollars to prepare the nation for bioterrorism despite the extremely rare occurrence of biological attacks in modern American history. Germ Wars argues that bioterrorism has emerged as a prominent fear in the modern age, arising with the production of new forms of microbial nature and the changing practices of warfare. In the last century, revolutions in biological science have made visible a vast microscopic world, and in this same era we have watched the rise of a global war on terror.
Germ Wars demonstrates that these movements did not occur separately but are instead deeply entwined—new scientific knowledge of microbes makes possible new mechanisms of war. Whether to eliminate disease or create weapons, the work to harness and control germs and the history of these endeavors provide an important opportunity for investigating how biological natures shape modern life. Germ Wars aims to convince students and scholars as well as policymakers and activists that the ways in which bioterrorism has been produced have consequences for how people live in this world of unspecifiable risks.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520292772
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/17/2017
Series: Critical Environments: Nature, Science, and Politics , #2
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,043,134
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Melanie Armstrong is Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and the Public Lands Coordinator at Western State Colorado University.

Read an Excerpt

Germ Wars

The Politics of Microbes and America's Landscape of Fear

By Melanie Armstrong


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96614-7


"Smallpox Is Dead"

The Public Health Campaign to (Almost) Eradicate a Species

Disease has long been the deadliest enemy of mankind. Infectious diseases make no distinctions among people and recognize no borders. We have fought the causes and consequences of disease throughout history and must continue to do so with every available means. All civilized nations reject as intolerable the use of disease and biological weapons as instruments of war and terror.

— President George W. Bush, "Strengthening the International Regime against Biological Weapons," November 2001

In February 2002, President George W. Bush announced that the United States government would spend $6 billion on bioterrorism defense. This, the largest single bioterrorism expenditure in U.S. history, was followed by expanding allocations of resources over the next decade. In the wake of the anthrax scares in September and October 2001, Bush had declared disease to be the "the deadliest enemy of mankind." The president situated the anthrax attacks, and bioterrorism more generally, in a cultural history of disease that construed the microbe as a natural enemy of human life, thus bringing value systems centered on health and care into the service of a national biosecurity state. Bush naturalized acts of war through a narrative of human survival against disease.

Though they seem to have emerged separately, the rise of the modern security state is entwined with the rise of a new genomic biology. National security operates through the continual production of risk, and microbiology provides a potent site for cultivating risk by creating a pervasive nonhuman nature with a proclivity of its own. The dynamic and volatile qualities of nature, reinvigorated in the new millennium by biotechnologies and knowledge of microscopic life, provide a potent site for rethinking what citizens require of government in a world of unspecified risk.

Centuries ago, when scientists began looking at the world through microscopes, they began to shape the nature of the microbe according to the fears and desires of human societies. Social fears have become part of the microbe's material form and existence. Scientific study and technological innovation also inscribed in microbes the promise that they could be managed, contained, or even eliminated for the betterment of human society.

The management of disease on both the national and the personal scale has long been a component of the relationship between states and citizens. However, the promulgation of the germ theory of disease from the mid-seventeenth to the late nineteenth century specifically located the origins of disease in nonhuman life forms moving unseen around and within human bodies, changing how disease might be governed. The careful management of environments promised to separate humans from germs and even to eradicate species to alleviate human suffering. The scientific creation of microbial agents of disease fashioned a nonhuman enemy with its own volition. Because the microbes were alive, because they acted according to their own purposes, and because their invisibility and pathogenicity imbued them with an element of trickery and deception, the vibrant germs became a model enemy for militant action. The war on disease created a state of exception in which human rights could be subordinated to the overarching objective of eliminating infectious disease. This history underpins the twenty-first-century declaration of a war on (bio)terror.

When he announced the bioterrorism preparedness expenditures, Bush claimed, "History has called us into action." In targeting the nonspecific threats of terror and biology, national security practices invoke the historical formation of disease. Because there had been no major bioterrorism events in the United States except the anthrax attacks four months earlier, the president's speech reworked deeper histories of disease and military might. Bush described military successes using disease surveillance during the Korean War, proposing to "adapt" these technologies to a new mission of domestic surveillance. He cited disease-eradication programs and promised that bioterrorism preparedness would create "some incredible cures to diseases that many years ago [people] never thought would be cured." Conflating war with public health normalizes a state of emergency, disguising as quotidian practice the violations of privacy and liberty that might arise from state surveillance.

Contemporary ideas of national biosecurity are built around the modern microbe, a biological agent created over time through the work of scientists and consumers, public health institutions and governments. The presence of microbes within the human body, the collective experience of vulnerability, the communal qualities of contagion, and the hybridity of techno-natures created by the mechanical alteration of microbes form a compelling backstory for bioterror. Disease-control practices created a story of nationalism that imbued the microbe with global politics. These histories of biology matter because they are at the forefront of the many narratives available to citizens in assessing future threats. Humans draw from a range of personal and collective experiences to assess their own vulnerability and make sense of biological risk. Sheila Jasanoff defines the human effort to calculate risk as "our paradoxical attempts to cope with the irrational in rational terms." She argues that people extrapolate from their experiences of the past to predict misfortunes in the future. More than simply imaginations of the future, "risk is a disciplined projection of archived historical memory onto the blank screen of the future."

In this chapter, I present a cultural history of one virus, Variola major or smallpox, to show part of this archived memory of disease that modern Americans project onto their biological futures. I peel back the layers of experiments, technologies, field work, legislation, and values that have cohered around this microorganism to show how the smallpox eradication program viewed containment as the ultimate form of human-germ politics. The program enacted a belief that humans can manage nonhuman life and established an authoritative role for governments in shaping microbial nature. It also demonstrates how humans reshaped the ten-thousand-year-old Variola virus, dramatically altering its global presence and then remaking the virus in laboratories and by synthesizing DNA sequences. The biopolitics of smallpox today exemplify how people imagine the future of microbes based on social histories of disease and science.

In the absence of a major historical bioterror event, people seek other rationalizations for their fears of bioterrorism. An organism like smallpox carries meanings of vulnerability and contagion while still being open to new meanings. Precisely because the virus is both contained in laboratory freezers and continually remade in cultural discourse, smallpox has become a potent actor in the biopolitics of terrorism. While the world was engaged in a global war against smallpox in the middle of the twentieth century, the United States was also rehearsing the logics of containment in the Cold War. Through this conflict, Americans imagined a totalizing threat and experienced the militarization of civilian daily life. The chapter concludes by examining how the establishment of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as an institution of the modern security state, created new biopolitical subjects for the war on terror. These narratives illustrate how government systems take shape around fear, laying the groundwork for further conversations about the natures of national security. Bioterrorism, rooted in the ongoing politics of life, risk, and government, binds natural histories to the politics of war. This chapter lays the foundation for exploring the transformations wrought by war and science on the socioecological relations between humans and their microbes. The work of managing threats has created material natures that change the calculation of risk for citizens. This story begins with a cultural history of execrable disease, singular immunity, and collective social action.


Smallpox was always present, filling the churchyard with corpses, tormenting with constant fear all whom it had not yet stricken, leaving on those whose lives it spared the hideous traces of its power, turning the babe into a changeling at which the mother shuddered, and making the eyes and cheeks of the betrothed maiden objects of horror to the lover.

— Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, 1800

Though the virus would not be seen under a microscope for another century, Macaulay's vivid description of the presence of smallpox in English society indicates the grim fear created by the disease. Smallpox has been responsible for much of the suffering, blindness, scarring, and death in human history. The disease is only moderately contagious, requiring close contact with an infected body to spread to a new host, but it is fatal to 30 percent of people who contract it. Historians estimate that the smallpox virus killed three hundred to five hundred million people in the twentieth century alone.

Variola major has long been known by its expression on the body, and much of its cultural effect comes from its gruesome transformation of human flesh. Flu-like symptoms emerge within two weeks of infection, and then small lesions appear in the mouth, growing and rupturing, spewing the virus into the body through the saliva. After this surge of infection, the characteristic rash emerges, with pustules — smaller than those of syphilis — developing during a final phase, descriptively named "ordinary," "flat," "modified," or "hemorrhagic." Lifelong scars mark bodies that have hosted Variola major and survived.

Jessica Stern describes bioterror as a "dreaded risk" because its depiction of the future hinges on experiences of infection that evoke visceral horror and cannot be avoided or expelled. Smallpox produces just such a reaction. However, the worldwide campaign to eradicate smallpox and the integration of smallpox prevention into the public health economy have produced another way of knowing smallpox, in terms of social control and the management of collective life. As modern science practice revives smallpox with narratives of a transgenic mutation of the virus that could escape control, the primal experiences of disgust rise again.

Smallpox's origin story narrates both the benefits and the consequences of human intimacy with nonhuman nature. Domestication brought livestock into human societies, putting people in physical contact with mammals and birds and their accompanying microbes. Crowding among humans and animals then enabled the disease to spread. This narrative of infectious disease emerging as a consequence of living too closely with animals persists today in discourses about avian flu in Asia or swine flu in Mexico. Biologists and historians theorize that continued interspecies interactions over time build a population's collective immunity, making individual bodies less susceptible to disease and inscribing in them a genetic code that is transmitted to successive generations for the survival of the population. Domestication of animals made the disease, but the interspecies encounter also remade the human body such that it could endure infection.

This genetic rewriting of humanity is often used to describe the European body on the verge of colonial expansion: teeming with germs but empowered by its own immune system. The vulnerability of native people has also been written into the landscape. Stereotypes of nomadic, game-following bands of people moving through wild lands without domestic animals depict the opposite conditions as Europe. Under these circumstances, native people could not cultivate immunity and became vulnerable to foreign diseases. This simplistic, deterministic argument exemplifies how readily the biological experience of nature is used to explain imperialism as a natural process and thereby naturalize unjust social relations. That scholars and citizens alike have used microbes to explain the outcome of the colonial encounter indicates the power we ascribe to germs to shape relationships.

The smallpox virus has been credited with powerful transformations of human society through narratives that naturalize cultural injustice. Historians attribute the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in the 1520s to the disease, because the more-numerous Tenochtitlán warriors contracted smallpox from Spanish corpses and succumbed to the disease. From 1520 into the 1800s, smallpox spread throughout North and South America, Australia, and the Pacific, leaving behind diminished empires — Aztec, Inca, Cherokee, Eskimo, and others — where peoples devastated by disease could not defend their homelands. Scholars estimate that measles, flu, and smallpox killed up to 95 percent of the native populations.

The lack of immunity to European disease, an outcome of a particular relationship with nature that did not expose them to animal diseases and build genetic immunity over time, is characterized in these narratives as weakness. Describing the colonial conquest in these terms displaces the violent act onto the microbe and attributes a racial superiority to a particular genetics produced by living at close quarters with animals. In this accounting of history, microbes remake human genetics to create cultural power. Although the genetic perspective came centuries after the colonial encounter of the Americas, the social effect of disease was known at the time. Some saw it as an unfortunate consequence of cohabitation, but to others it embodied divine will. As one Methodist minister declared, "Providence designed the extermination of the Indians and that it would be a good thing to introduce the small-pox among them!" — an opinion assumed to be shared by "most white people living in the interior of the country." Vulnerability to disease was equated with weakness and the devaluing of human life.

Perhaps the overdetermined fear of bioterrorism in the United States can be partly explained by the belief that the nation itself was constituted through the spread of disease. William H. McNeill and Alfred W. Crosby describe the devastation that smallpox brought to native people in the Americas as it spread ahead of the colonizing powers. Crosby estimates that native populations in what is now the United States were once comparable in size to the populations of Aztecs and Incans at the time of European contact. Though rich in resources, the fertile areas of the Southeast were comparatively deserted when white settlers arrived from France and Virginia. With no evidence of major ecological shifts, it seems likely that disease was the cause of this depopulation. Because smallpox lingers in the body for up to two weeks before causing symptoms, the virus could have been carried along trade routes or between settlements in asymptomatic bodies, both European and Native American. Smallpox created the conditions for conquest. Current inhabitants of North America need not look far to see that disease can play a powerful role in changing regimes and shifting the undercurrents of war.

From this naturalized dynamic of racial warfare also emerge accounts of smallpox being manipulated as a weapon of war. The legend of British soldiers passing smallpox-contaminated blankets to native tribes in the Ohio Valley during the French and Indian War is often cited as an example of the early use of biological weapons. Though historians question whether a deliberate strategy of biological infection was ever used successfully (because smallpox was already known to be sweeping through native populations), the British may have attempted it. In 1763, when the Delawares laid siege to Fort Pitt for more than a month, the British general Jeffrey Amherst suggested, "Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them." Colonel Henry Bouquet offered to "try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself." Notably, the flight of people from nearby communities to Fort Pitt for refuge had led to cramped quarters that facilitated the spread of disease. The officer in command of the fort wrote, "We are so crowded in the fort that I fear disease ...; the smallpox is among us." The soldiers sought a measure of justice by transferring the disease that was crippling them to their enemies.


Excerpted from Germ Wars by Melanie Armstrong. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Political Ecologies of Bioterror 1

1 "Smallpox Is Dead": The Public Health Campaign to (Almost) Eradicate a Species 30

2 Microbes for War and Peace: On the Military Origins of Containment 68

3 The Wild Microbiological West: Fighting Ticks and Weighing Risks 97

4 Agents of Care: Bioterrorism Preparedness at the CDC 139

5 Simulation Science: Securing the Future 167

6 Bioterror Borderlands: Of Nature and Nation 203

Conclusion: "Freaked Out Yet?" 223

Acknowledgments 231

Notes 235

Selected Bibliography 263

Index 283

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