Marching Plague

It’s not clear what qualifies an armament as a “weapon of mass destruction”; it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the capacity to cause mass destruction.  Nuclear bombs certainly have that ability, but their co-WMDs, chemical and biological weapons, can kill only a fraction of a percent as many people as can nukes.  They’re far less useful in a real fight than are conventional weapons, and they’re often more dangerous to their creator than to the target.

But because they can cause gruesome results that old-fashioned explosions, projectiles, and fire cannot, the three classes of WMD do have in common an extraordinary capacity to terrify, and that terror can be put to use not just by offically designated terrorists but by all sides in a conflict.  Biological weapons, or rather perceived threats of them, are particularly effective as a tool of government and military control.

A current work by the Critical Art Ensemble entitled “Marching Plague” mocks the notion that biological terror presents any serious practical threat, arguing instead that extravagant spending of tax dollars to defend against bioterror is no more than a means of “maximizing profit and consolidating power through the matrix of biocatastrophe.”

Like all CAE efforts, “Marching Plague” advances on several fronts at once (with an installation, a performance piece, a film, and a book) and is not explicitly identified with any individual artist.  This time out, they’ve taken on an unwelcome but highly effective artistic collaborator: the US Department of Justice, which continues its pursuit of a two-year-old case against one of the key artists behind the project, Steven Kurtz.

The prosecution of Kurtz is a work of political theater that starkly illuminates one of the chief arguments of “Marching Plague”: that microorganisms are practically useless as weapons but are a highly effective tool for scaring a citizenry into accepting tighter government and corporate control.

The FBI arrested Kurtz in 2004 on suspicion of bioterrorism, and he was eventually indicted for mail and wire fraud; he is still awaiting trial.  In the raid on his home, agents confiscated virtually all of the research materials for what would become “Marching Plague”, including an early draft of the book.  The property has never been returned, so Kurtz and CAE have had to re-assemble everything from scratch.  The hardships imposed by federal persecution, far from deterring CAE, have lent its work extra punch and immediacy.  (For the history and current status of Kurtz’s ordeal, see

In a Berlin gallery last year, CAE cut loose with one phase of “Marching Plague”, re-enacting a curious 1949 experiment in which a US biowarfare group secretly introduced the near-harmless bacterium Serratia marsescens into air ducts in the Pentagon, successfully contaminating the building and frightening generals into throwing more funds into biodefense.   Culture plates set out in the 2005 CAE exhibit indicated full contamination of the gallery space as well.

The show presented no danger to anyone; similar demonstrations have long been a staple of high school science fairs.  But CAE was well advised to hold this show in Europe, not in the United States.  This country is by now so well indoctrinated in the formula ‘bacteria = danger = weapon = terrorism’ that to display red bacterial cultures, sealed tightly in petri plates but revealed in an unapproved political context, would quickly bring down the heavy fist of the law.  Indeed, S. marsescens is one of the organisms Kurtz and University of Pittsburg professor Robert Ferrell were indicted for obtaining fraudulently.

Also in 2005, CAE commemorated a British military exercise from 1952-53, designed to test whether ships’ crews (represented by guinea pigs) could be infected with the plague bacillus (represented by the harmless bacterium Bacillus subtilis) via aerosol spray.  To, as they said, replay the original tragedy as farce, CAE sprayed a broth containing Bacillus subtilis from a boat off the Scotland’s Isle of Lewis toward a floating platform holding 30 guinea pigs and an animal-protection supervisor.  “Our results were as disappointing as the original experiment”, they report; coat swabs showed that only one animal was hit with the spray, and none were infected. The Isle of Lewis tests are the focus of a film that has shown, among other venues, at New York’s Whitney Biennial this spring.

Today, the research done by the US and other governments on bioweapons is officially defensive, designed only to anticipate threats.  But in biowar, defensive and offensive research are identical twins.  As CAE puts it, defensive research works in this way: “A technology exists only as a paranoid fantasy, but then it is designed and manufactured so that the public can be protected from it.  The bizarre notion that the need to neutralize a threat predates the threat itself is simply insane.”

CAE’s intention with the “Marching Plague” project is not just to poke fun at half-century-old military fantasies but to warn that in recent years, biowarfare research has “returned to its glory days of the 1950s and 1960s”, and in an even more virulent form.  The reasons for, and consequences of, that revival are laid out in their book “Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health“, which was issued two months ago, close to the two-year anniversary of the FBI raid on Kurtz’s home.

The book argues, eloquently, that for organized armies and freelance terrorists alike, biological weapons are militarily next to useless — but highly serviceable if the goal is to win “votes for politicians, viewers and readers for the media, research funds for Big Science and Medicine, a vastly expanding budget for the military, and perhaps most importantly, the consolidation of power for the dominant political party…”

The small book is filled with accounts from the past six decades showing that the body count from any biological attack can generally be done on one hand; the real casualties, argues CAE, are the rights of citizens, as exemplified by the Kurtz case, as well as the millions of people who die of preventable diseases every year.  Why would capitalism, famed for its ruthless efficiency, tolerate the waste of billions of scarce dollars on defense against a toothless threat like biowar?  CAE’s view:

“Capital has perverted the redeeming power of the nonrational by stripping away anything positive that could emerge from it. and leaving only its authoritarian possibilities.  In the case of public health, fighting disease and intensifying public preparedness for real, ongoing health crises is no longer a valued, humanitarian initiative; instead, we have a military flight of fantasy that prioritizes the fantastic and improbable over the real and certain.”

What is real and certain?  The global numbers given by CAE are widely known and even more widely ignored:

Respiratory infections: 4 million
Diarrheal diseases: 3 to 4 million
AIDS: 2.5 million
Malaria: 1 to 1.5 million
Measles: 1 to 1.5 million
Hepatitis B: 1 to 2 million

Such numbers are irrelevant to the US government’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which has installed new, state-of-the-art biosafety level 3 and 4 labs at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana, Fort Detrick, Maryland, and at its headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland — at, says CAE, a total cost of $358 million — and has funded Regional Centers of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease Research at Harvard, Duke, the Universities of Chicago, Texas, and Washington, and five other universities.  And, asks CAE, what are the top priorities for NIAID research?

Smallpox: no cases since the 1970s
Anthrax: 236 US cases between 1955 and 1999, and five deaths in the 2001 attacks
Ebola: 683 known deaths since the first in 1976

As CAE notes, 683 deaths constitutes the work of “a typical hour” for the team of AIDs and tuberculosis.

Meanwhile, the more research that’s done on bioweapons — either “offensive” or “defensive” — the higher the death toll from those weapons.  One outcome of “defensive” research has been that bioweapons have killed fewer opponents than members of the home team.  By CAE’s count, 419 US military personnel became ill with biowar diseases through friendly-fire accidents in the 1942-69 heyday of germ warfare spending.  In the 1970s and 1980s, with spending at its low ebb, the illness count was 5.

CAE doesn’t provide a body count for the 1990s, when spending again escalated.  Recall, however, that the anthrax used in the 2001 attacks almost certainly originated in a US military laboratory.  With Pentagon spending on “biological defense” having bloated up to $1.5 billion in the House-passed version of the 2007 Defense Appropriations Bill, more illness and death is, unfortunately, almost inevitable.

Unfortunately, “Marching Plague” will remain a work of current relevance for years to come.  And the government’s bio-comedic performance piece will continue its long run as well.  The prosecution of Kurtz and Ferrell grinds on, and the Department of Homeland Security is still recommending that you and your family stockpile plastic and duct tape in preparation for a terrorist attack that could, as they put it, “send tiny microscopic ‘junk’ into the air”.

Or you can take the view of the Critical Art Ensemble: that the only “junk” in the air is the “symbolic abstraction of fear” being pumped out by Homeland Security, the Pentagon, and their private-sector pals.

STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kanas.  You can reach him at:



Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought.