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Book Review: A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan’s Biological Warfare Program by Daniel Barenblatt

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My husband Dan has a fantastic imagination. He always likes to tell stories, especially those involving his days growing up in New York City. One of the people he’s told me about is a Chinese woman he calls “Grandma Chin.” He’s even written a poem about her, and one of the main points he relayed was that Grandma Chin always used to speak of how much she hated the Japanese. It seemed that even to her grandson and his friend, youth was no boundary when it came to telling how much she despised “the damn Japs,” as she called them. And while I am in no position to condone any kind of racism, Daniel Barenblatt’s book, titled A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program, offers some insights into why Grandma Chin might have felt the way she did. All one can do, after all, is empathize, and Barenblatt’s book gives some history into the atrocities that went on within the Imperial Japanese Army, and noting the underlining problem: that these scientists who performed these horrific and inhumane experiments upon live human beings obviously lacked the very empathy needed in order to relate, understand, and ultimately value the lives of any other culture but their own.

Japan’s unit operation was ultimately a secret one, at least, one it tried to keep secret, even though word leaked out amid the locals regarding their fellow citizens and how they would suddenly “disappear” and never be heard from again. The book begins with an overview of the sicko scientist mastermind, Shiro Ishii, and how he was born into privilege (and thereby earned an early sense of entitlement), possessed a great intellect, and yet at the same time lacked any kind of empathy for his fellow man. While many were put off by the idea of biological warfare, Ishii was drawn to it, and destined to utilize this technique not only for Japan’s own defenses (such as the improvement of vaccines) but also Japan’s offenses (which would be done abroad, or in other words, in disposing of deadly biological weapons upon innocent Chinese, Korean, American and Russian civilians and soldiers).

The book details how the culture thrived on fear, and it was by way of this fear, how the Japanese enabled themselves to become the power that they did. Entire Chinese villages were raped and mutilated (as in the case of The Rape of Nanking), homes were burned and many civilians were left homeless and penniless. Chinese and Korean children would be handed chocolates laced with anthrax, as well as other foods offering a variety of life-threatening diseases. Cities were “bombed” not necessarily traditionally, but via way of infected fleas that harbored bubonic plague. As result, citizens became very ill and died, and as if that was not already enough, there were also cases where the Japanese would offer “aid” to the sickened citizens, and instead inject them with something even more deadly, or perform live vivisections without the use of anesthesia.

A Plague Upon Humanity discusses many of the same instances noted in Hal Gold’s Unit 731 Testimony, only A Plague Upon Humanity gives more of a broadened background, as in the history behind the biological weapons program, the mentality behind it, as well as the multiple units that were also performing these inhumane experiments. The book also discusses more background as far as American involvement, and how and why these atrocities were covered up, and the many ways in which these murderers prospered following the war. There are also a number of photos illustrating some of the techniques that were used, the individuals involved, various sketch maps and testimony paperwork.

A Plague Upon Humanity journalistically describes what went on beneath the destructive hands of the Japanese scientists, including things like injecting seawater into a patient’s body, the sawing off of limbs and then reattaching them on opposing sides, the painful frostbite experiments where prisoners would lose entire limbs and suffer gangrene, the forced sex between prisoners (most often one that was infected with a STD while the other was healthy) the dehydration experiments, the vitamin depletion experiments, and the horrid what if? experiments that appear to have been performed if for no other reason than due to the boredom of the Japanese scientists. (Such as how long can a person hang upside down before choking to death? And what would happen if horse serum got injected into the body of a human?) Yet if all that isn’t bad enough, think about how living people were being kept in cages, left to rot, while the scientists enjoyed a nice recreation center within the facility, plenty of food and comfort, and even a built-in movie theatre for the scientists’ families who visited.

People were disposable, and many excused their actions simply by stating, “that was war.” Some of the testimonies of those involved are remorseful and others are not. A Plague Upon Humanity is a very well researched, well documented and well written account of this terrible time, and I recommend it highly.

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