In 1990, movie audiences were captivated by director Adrian Lyne’s psychological horror film JACOB’S LADDER. The story of a Vietnam veteran whose combat experience left him suffering from flashbacks and strange hallucinations, the film put a spotlight on the American military’s use of chemical and biological weapons during the Vietnam War. In the film, they talk about a drug referred to as “the Ladder”, a powerful hallucinogen they believe the government was testing on them. Although only a movie, the premise behind the types of chemical warfare and drug tests discussed in the film isn’t all that far from truth, and “the Ladder” bears a striking resemblance to a real chemical weapon/drug known as BZ.
BZ, also known as 3-Quinuclidinyl Benzilate, is a what the military refers to as an incapacitating agent. A strong hallucinogen, BZ was designed to render combatants confused and lethargic, as well as cause severe, but temporary, memory loss. It was originally developed by a Swiss Pharmaceutical company as a possible ulcer treatment. The company quickly decided that it was unsuitable for ulcers due to excessive hallucinations.
Around this same time, the United States military began investigating BZ as a possible non-lethal psychoactive incapacitating agent. For years, the US military had been researching psychoactive, psychedelic, and dissociative drugs in search of the perfect weapon they could somehow administer to the enemy. At the Edgewood Arsenal Army facility in Edgewood, Maryland, there were several military research projects concerning the use recreational and pharmaceutical drugs. Others experiments focused around the use of THC, ketamine, phencyclidine, fentanyl and LSD, There was even a program focused on developing an LSD artillery shell that would rain the drug down on folks below. Though many of the drugs were tested on both civilian volunteers and the military alike, in the end, BZ was the only biological agent to be weaponized.
By 1964, the United States Military had begun building its stockpile of weaponized BZ. The drug was placed in cluster bombs and was designed to spray out as an aerosol when detonated. Although never used in actual combat, the US military held on to their supply of BZ bombs until it was destroyed in 1989. Then in 1998, the British Ministry of Defense accused Iraq of still having a stockpile of BZ.
A class-action lawsuit on the behalf of the military veteran test subjects was filed in 1990. In 2009, another lawsuit was filed by the veteran’s rights groups, Vietnam Veterans of America, along with eight Edgewood veterans and their families against the CIA, US Army, and various other government organizations. The lawsuit stated that US troops were used to test nerve gas, psycho-chemical drugs, and various other chemical and biological compounds. They also cited that the facility failed to secure informed consent and did not follow US and international law when it came to the use of human test subjects and that the facility had deliberately destroyed files documenting their illegal actions. In the end, the court granted a summarily adjudication in favor of the plaintiffs and vacated the trial.
It’s not hard to imagine these clandestine and often nefarious actions being conducted by a US government agency, considering up until the 1960s the powerful and dangerously carcinogenic insecticide DDT was sprayed regularly on military bases. Also, the deforestation compound Agent Orange was dropped repeatedly on Vietnam, sometimes directly on top of US troops. Decades later, the effects of this unfettered use can still be seen in the increased cases of cancer and birth defects in both the veterans and civilians exposed to both the chemicals usage and testing. Although at the end of the movie JACOB’S LADDER, (*SPOILER) the audience learns that Jacob may have died on the battlefield leaving some ambiguity over whether he was dosed with the test drug or not, the film does a great job bringing to light some of the frightening chemical and biological warfare tactics used during the Vietnam War.