26th April 2017
(Originally published 2015)
The fate of any American captured by the Islamic State group seems clear: They will be brutally murdered with much fanfare, and footage of their tortuous death will be widely circulated in a well-produced propaganda film.
The group has beheaded American, British and Japanese journalists and humanitarians on tape and earlier this month released a film showing the grisly death of a Jordanian pilot burned to death in a cage after his plane went down while participating in U.S.-led airstrikes.
With the grim prospect of capture in mind, analysts say the military should at least consider offering some of the troops working against the jihadi group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, the means to take their own lives with a so-called “suicide pill.”
U.S. pilots bombing Islamic State locations in Syria and Iraq currently are not provided pills that would cause a quick death, nor are the 3,000 on-the-ground troops helping shore up an unreliable Iraqi military and guarding U.S. facilities, military officials say.
Suicide pills are a common element of spy thrillers and works of fiction, but only decades ago they were manufactured and distributed by the U.S. government, with shellfish poison and cyanide pills provided to pilots and spies for use to avoid capture by Nazis and Soviets.
Today, armed forces spokesmen say providing troops such pills would be inconsistent with military values, even in the face of excruciating alternatives at the hands of the sadistic self-declared caliphate that gleefully flouts Geneva Convention principles on prisoner treatment.
“Pilots are trained to evade capture or resist and escape,” says U.S. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek, who confirmed the force’s in-theater command does not provide such pills. “If pilots do go down, the Air Force will employ all its resources to locate, protect and recover them.”
Thus far, U.S. attempts to rescue Americans, such as journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aide workers Peter “Abdul-Rahman” Kassig and Kayla Mueller, have failed. In one publicized rescue attempt, commandos stormed a suspected dungeon but were too late. And, unlike other countries who have met financial demands from the Islamic State, the public position of the U.S. government is that it will not pay ransoms to free hostages.
Like the Air Force, other military branches say they don’t provide suicide pills. Army spokesman Matthew Bourke says “suicide pills aren’t included in the solider kit bag” for troops working near the jihadis. Lt. Col. John Caldwell of the U.S. Marine Corps says it “seems highly unlikely” the service – which has about 320 members on a western Iraq air base ISIS recently attacked – would do so.
Maj. Curtis Kellogg, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, the military entity coordinating anti-Islamic State actions, says he “would bet your children’s college fund” no branch of the U.S. military offers – or would offer – suicide pills to at-risk personnel.
“The mere thought of it is not congruent with our military values whatsoever nor our code of conduct,” Kellogg says.
The government lacked such lofty convictions at various points in the last century. During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services – the CIA’s forerunner – produced two types of suicide pills for sensitive operations, and research and development continued into the first half of the Cold War
In 1975, CIA Director William Colby told Congress the agency had worked with the Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at Fort Detrick, Maryland, to build on OSS’s work, developing a shellfish toxin-based suicide option to supplement the agency’s cyanide “L-pills.”
Colby told members of the Church Committee – a Senate panel headed by Democratic Sen. Frank Church of Indiana that investigated intelligence practices – that “a considerable amount of work was done in developing concealment schemes” for the shellfish poison, which kills in seconds at low doses.
Colby admitted to just one instance where the shellfish poison was dispensed, in 1960, when poison hidden in a silver dollar was issued to U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over the Soviet Union but declined to kill himself.
Francis Gary Powers Jr. says his father removed the poison from the coin while in his parachute and contemplated using it to avoid torture. Instead, he “decided to hide it in one of his flight suit pockets in case he needed to use it once on the ground.” Powers told KGB agents what it was during a third strip search, his son says, to ensure they didn’t accidentally kill themselves. He was exchanged for a Soviet spy in 1962.
“He obviously did not use it, and was not instructed to do so; it was offered to him to provide him with the option,” said Colby, who said other pilots had been issued cyanide pills.
An inventory of a CIA building’s toxic wares published by the Church Committee recorded 18 cyanide L-pills and more than 11.4 grams of shellfish poison – enough for hundreds of thousands of lethal doses – which former CIA chemist Nathan Gordon testified was retained to “prepare supplies of suicide pills and/or any other uses.”
Some experts say it might be worth considering equipping troops with suicide pills in the present conflict – but point out it would neither be an easy decision or one that would necessary accomplish its goals.
“Perhaps the military could consider, quietly, making such [pills] available if an individual wants to have them,” say Richard Kohn, a military history expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “even if it somehow seems to buy into this awful enemy’s cult of death.”
But Kohn sees competing interests.
“We’re a society that believes in individual choice,” he says, but suggesting suicide to troops may seem to violate “the norm of ‘leave no one behind.’”
Retired Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, a Vietnam War veteran who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, says “perhaps the issuance of such a pill … should be made a voluntary matter for the troops involved.”
But Wilkerson points out there would be “many problems and complexities” doing so
“For example, some no doubt will refuse to use the pill, believing they will survive,” he says. “Or, indeed, a soldier might use it and rescue be possible but useless since the pill has been used.”
Wilkerson, now a professor at the College of William and Mary, says on-the-ground members of the military in conflict zones almost certainly are armed and suicide pills may not augment their options.
A gun “is always an ‘out’ to prevent capture – it always has been,” he says.
Martin Cook, a professor of professional military ethics at the U.S. Naval War College, says military leaders he’s spoken with are against the idea.
Widely dispensing the pills could contribute to the military’s existing problem with suicide among members, he says.
“At most, you’d be thinking about issuing it on the eve of a specific mission that’s high-risk,” Cook says, such as on-the-ground personnel guiding of airstrikes or perhaps embedded missions with Iraqi troops.
But Cook says troops are highly trained to resist detention and generally would view suicide as needless while potential opportunities for escape exist.
“Even when they’re walking you out to the execution site, there might be a SEAL team inbound,” Cook says, adding a Navy SEAL admiral told him he’s never heard of suicide pills as a consideration.
U.S. airstrikes began against the Islamic State group in August as militants plunged into Iraqi Kurdistan after seizing Mosul. The strikes were expanded to Syria in August after the group released videos of Foley and Sotloff being beheaded
John Hall, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a military historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says he could see some members of the military carrying suicide pills, but doubts the practice would be widespread.
“Spies and soldiers are distant cousins with some of the same attributes but vastly different professional ethics,” he says in an email. “The expansion of the Special Operations community has, however, complicated this distinction, and the idea of deep ‘black ops’ personnel carrying suicide pills does not strike me as outrageous – nor would it anyone else, as their deaths will never be publicly acknowledged.”
But, he says, beyond that narrow category, “I don’t think American military – let alone civilian – culture would tolerate such measures.”