Book Review: Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War by Jeffrey A. Lockwood

Review by Sid Perkins

Sometimes the deadliest weapons are the most unobtrusive: Cholera-covered flies in the ceramic containers that Japanese bombers dropped on southern China in May 1942 triggered epidemics that ultimately claimed more than 200,000 lives — similar to the short-term death toll from the two atomic bombs that ended World War II.

Six-Legged Soldiers is a fascinating account of the many ways that scientists and military strategists have used insects to torture, starve and kill targets. As Lockwood notes, many techniques of modern germ warfare would depend in large part on disease-ridden insects such as flies, fleas and mosquitoes.  Microbes often can’t survive long periods outside of their hosts, but insects can act as delivery vessels.

Sometimes, however, the insects themselves have been the weapons. Combatants including Romans and pirates heaved beehives at their enemies, and the Viet Cong often created booby-traps from nests of wild bees along well-traveled trails.

Human diseases aren’t the only possible downside to insect-based biowarfare: The economic impact of crop-destroying pests successfully deployed by bioterrorists could easily measure in the billions of dollars.

In this book, Lockwood thoroughly and objectively assembles an engaging chronicle on a topic for which official documentation is often sparse and the opportunity for propaganda is rife. —Sid Perkins

Oxford Univ., 2009, 377 p., $27.95.

SIX-LEGGED SOLDIERS: USING INSECTS AS WEAPONS OF WAR Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War by Jeffrey A. Lockwood