This story is probably 30 years old. as best I recall, the UN has determined to not work towards eliminating internal strife in Lebanon (which arguably it could do), because they felt it was better to let the civil war continue as a way to know how to contain such wars and thereby prevent the equivalent from happening anywhere else. so Lebanon is permanently sacrificed to the UN's protection of the "greater good".

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    In what way was this story sci-fi or fantasy?
    – jwodder
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 4:05
  • Arguably the UN cannot eliminate internal strife, and is the cause of much strife in the middle east. Economist - Why the United Nations cannot end wars in the Arab world etc
    – Jon
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 14:51
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    @jwodder Because "liquid war" is the new normal, it is not contained at all and the UN is AWOL on all serious issues in the real world? Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 15:03
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    @jwodder it takes place in a fictional future in which war has been eliminated except for the "Petri dish". Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 19:11
  • @OrganicMarble -- we interpreted jwodder's comment differently; I wonder which he meant. A question about whether this is sf/fantasy (and thus relevant to this site)? (which you answered) or, a somewhat sarcastic comment on current events (as I read it)?
    – Basya
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 10:47

1 Answer 1


This is the 1989 story War Fever by J. G. Ballard.

In the future the world is at peace, but the UN uses Beirut as a 'Petri dish' allowing war to flourish there and be studied, as the UN allowed smallpox to survive in a small third-world country. (I don't know whether or not this is true about smallpox, but the claim is made in the story.)

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database link: https://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?48153

Here is the relevant conversation from the story.

“Don’t worry, Ryan, I’ll explain it all to you. Tell me first, though—have you ever heard of a disease called smallpox?”

“It was some sort of terrible fever. It doesn’t exist any more.”

“That’s true—almost. Fifty years ago the World Health Organization launched a huge campaign to eliminate smallpox, one of the worst diseases mankind has ever known, a real killer that destroyed tens of millions of lives. There was a global program of vaccination, involving doctors and governments in every country. Together they finally wiped it from the face of the earth.”

“I’m glad, doctor—if only we could do the same for war.”

“Well, in a real sense we have, Ryan—almost. In the case of smallpox, people can now travel freely all over the world. The virus does survive in ancient graves and cemeteries, but if by some freak chance the disease appears again there are supplies of vaccine to protect people and stamp it out.”

Dr. Edwards detached the magazine from Ryan’s rifle and weighed it in his hands, showing an easy familiarity with the weapon that Ryan had never seen before. Aware of Ryan’s surprise, he smiled wanly at the young man, like a headmaster still attached to a delinquent pupil.

“Left to itself, the smallpox virus is constantly mutating. We have to make sure that our supplies of vaccine are up-to-date. So WHO was careful never to completely abolish the disease. It deliberately allowed smallpox to flourish in a remote corner of a small third-world country, so that it could keep an eye on how the virus was evolving. Sadly, a few people went on dying, and are still dying to this day. But it’s worth it for the rest of the world. That way we'll always be ready if there’s an outbreak of the disease.”

Ryan stared through the plastic windows at the wall map of Beirut and the TV monitors with their scenes of smoke and gunfire. The Hilton was burning again.

“And Beirut, doctor? Here you're keeping an eye on another virus?”

“That’s right, Ryan. The virus of war. Or, if you like, the martial spirit. Not a physical virus, but a psychological one even more dangerous than smallpox. The world is at peace, Ryan. There hasn’t been a war anywhere for thirty years—there are no armies or air forces, and all disputes are settled by negotiation and compromise, as they should be. No one would dream of going to war, any more than a sane mother would shoot her own children if she was cross with them. But we have to protect ourselves against the possibility of a mad strain emerging, against the chance that another Hitler or Pol Pot might appear.”

  • i sure never heard of smallpox being allowed to survive -- it makes no sense since so contagious.
    – releseabe
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 6:49
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    Best cover for this story on this collection: isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?262101 ... I have somehwere in my archive. Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 16:13
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    I actually remember reading an account several years ago, of a worker at a facility who stores biopsy results and tissue specimens, who had a badly stored container open up on him, finding out that it was marked as being from a smallpox victim. After much testing, it was found that the virus was dead in the sample, but imagine if the container had not been properly labeled, the virus was still active enough to infect him, and another outbreak started...
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 16:31
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    In case you're interested, rinderpest is (AFAIK) the only other widespread virus to be eliminated in the wild. (SARS-Cov-1 was eliminated too, but it never became widespread.) Polio and measles eradication could happen in the future, although I agree that we have been consistently overoptimistic (in 2010 there was a goal of eradication by 2015 ...) who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/measles
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Nov 15, 2020 at 20:11
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    you've nailed it, this is exactly the story i remember. Thank you! as for the two remaining smallpox repositories, i remain very concerned about the security of the Russian repository.
    – sophocles
    Commented Nov 16, 2020 at 16:46

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