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All content © 2002-2005 Anne Zook

July 30, 2004
The Quest for the Nonkiller App.

Lookit this.

"Active Denial" sounds unsettlingly like "Plausible Deniability" but that's not really relevant. There's no denying that a nonlethal way to deal with potential (but unproven) troublemakers is a laudable idea.

Nonlethal weapons first gained attention in the 90's, thanks to the efforts of Gen. Anthony Zinni, who was director of operations for American troops in Somalia in 1992.

(Zinni is on my list of "good guys" anyhow for being one of the men brave enough to speak out with doubts about the Bush Administration's Iraq invasion scheme.)

''When we arrived,'' Zinni told me, ''we were confronted with demonstrations, looting and crowd situations that didn't require the use of lethal force. The troops felt frustrated because they didn't have anything but their rifles and bayonets to deal with the situation. One day I came across some of our troops trying to hook up wires to their car batteries so that they could keep people at bay using electric shocks.'' Zinni quickly banned these makeshift gadgets, but he asked Central Command for nonlethal weapons. All he received were cases of pepper spray.

His continuing interest in and experimentation with non-lethal weapons (of a sort) eventualy sparked the current research.

''The way we currently outfit or train our people, they are confronted with these binary choices,'' [Adm. Arthur Cebrowski, who runs the Defense Department's Office of Force Transformation] said, the most consequential choice being shoot or don't shoot. ''Yet we know that combat doesn't necessarily resolve to binary choices. It's an enormously complex and dangerous undertaking. Shouldn't we have a more nuanced weapons capability to go with this?'' Introducing nonlethals into combat, he contended, ''will change the character of war.'' When I asked him about the bottom-line benefits of this change, his response was blunt: ''The general rule is fewer dead people is better than more dead people.'' He added that he believes there is a ''moral imperative to suppress the violence of statecraft.''

I'd like to believe in statecraft as an antidote to violence in and of itself. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case in the Real World.

I predict one of the uses will be on civilians, protesters or 'rioters' in the USofA, but that's just my opinion.

Mike McBride, a specialist in nonlethal weaponry at Jane's Information Group, an internationally respected firm that gathers and provides military analysis, told me, ''the idea that you can neutralize the enemy without killing them is an increasingly attractive proposition.'' He said that ''we're heading toward the day when, like 'Star Trek,' you can set the phaser on stun. That's the holy grail of less-than-lethal weapons.'' But, he cautioned, ''Whether we'll ever get there, I don't know.''

It's hard to reconcile this kind of research with Bush's demand for portable nukes, isn't it?

Both the advantages and the drawbacks make for fascinating reading. (I'm especially confused by the guy who fears that non-lethal weapons might not be acceptable to the international community. Although he has a point, I guess, I think the potential is impressive.)

On the other hand:

Still, if weapons like the Active Denial System leave no mark on a victim's body, couldn't they be used for torture? ''There's always that potential,'' Cordone concedes. And Goose adds, ''What happens when some of these weapons get into the hands of militaries with poor human rights records?'' He paints an Orwellian picture in which repressive regimes obtain nonlethal weapons to keep restive populations in check without resorting to the sort of bloodshed that can earn a country unwanted attention.

There is nothing that someone, somewhere, can't use as an item of torture.

Thanks to Col. Steve for bringing this to my attention.

Posted by AnneZook at 07:51 PM


I was in the military and then law enforcement. Most of the training is not transferrable. The military recognises this by establishing, at least in the Air Force, two different job descriptions: 1) security and 2) law enforcement.

Law enforcement has a wide range of non-lethal equipment and techniques designed to capture and/or control people. Law enforcement is taught not to use deadly force unless they are sure it is justified and it doesn't endanger the innocent, and the military rules are the opposite.

Kent State demonstrated what happens when you use the military for police functions.

It isn't just the tools, it's the training. An infantry private will always go for his/her weapon and use it.

Posted by: Bryan at July 31, 2004 09:43 PM

Yes, but they deal with that, in the article. I think it's clear that as the nature of the wars we fight is changing, the training for our military will have to change to suit the new parameters.

It's still war, okay? I don't think anyone is denying that. It's still war and there will be death and dismemberment and occasional atrocities. But giving an alternative to "kill or be killed" opens up options we're going to need, and to need bacly, in the future.

IMO, of course.

Posted by: Anne at August 1, 2004 11:24 AM

thanks for posting on this subject and giving it some visibility. As I mentioned, it's one of the areas some of us having been pushing hard here in DoD.

People will always find reasons to be critical of non-lethal technology; however, it's more than just the systems. It's a reflection of a change in culture and thinking within DoD - these are not relatively expensive (for DoD) systems, but potentially offer a greater number of options for military personnel on the ground whose actions increasingly have strategic consequences.

Strategic Military Outcomes are a function of both power and moral principles - given our superiority in the power component, the US is increasingly attacked along the moral principle aspect. There a few of us who support Cebrowski's point that there is a ''moral imperative to suppress the violence of statecraft."

There is finally being some shifts due to the influence of Colin Powell over at State as well. I think we need more change in the DoD-State relationship in order to better link the diplomatic and military elements of national power.

Posted by: Col Steve at August 2, 2004 08:57 AM

I wasn't being very clear. The military needs non-lethal weapons and the people who use them. It needs to "undo" one of the major changes that was implemented and bring back the Civic Affairs units back into the Regular military from its isolation in the Guard and Reserve.

The Civic Affairs units need to follow the Combat Arms troops and take over the occupation. It is more efficient and effective to separate the two, than to try to get the Infantry to flip a switch and become MPs.

The peace keeping missions are almost all police missions, not military missions.

Posted by: Bryan at August 2, 2004 03:55 PM