DR Book Club: Taking Aim at ‘Non-Lethal’ Weapons
By David Hambling July 23, 2009 | 5:13 pm |
The weapons are designed to subdue, rather than kill. But the debate surrounding the arms — from Tasers and tear gas to laser dazzlers and acoustic blasters — is furious. One side sees them as a way of reducing casualties and opening a possible route to bloodless warfare. The other, as “compliance tools,” used to torture innocent people? An understanding of the history of “non-lethals” and how they work in practice is essential for an informed discussion. Which is why Neil Davison’s new book, “Non-Lethal” Weapons, is an important contribution. It will not end the arguments, but it should raise the tone considerably.
The debate over the effectiveness, safety and ethics of these weapons has been intense, and Davison works through it with great aplomb. He goes back to the origins of the modern non-lethals movement in the 70’s and tracks the evolutions of the extremely varied technologies involved. It’s a very wide field, but Davison has been studying this area for many years and depth of scholarship is one of the book’s great strengths.
No weapon is ever truly non-lethal, of course. But the term Non-lethal Weapon has been adopted in the Pentagon and elsewhere — officially defined as a military tool “explicitly designed and primarily employed to so as to incapacitate personnel…while minimizing fatalities.”
But Davison is quick to point out the contradictions of the “non-lethal” movement. CS “tear” gas was deployed in Vietnam on a massive scale, supposedly to give troops a less-lethal alternative for dealing with civilian disturbances. The gas was never used in this role. In fact, it was used for driving Viet Cong out of cover (especially tunnels). That helped enhance the lethality of other weapons, making it “pre-lethal” rather than “non-lethal.” When Russian Special Forces used a “non-lethal” Fentanyl derivative to end the siege at a Moscow theatre, the unconscious terrorists were shot dead in another display of “pre-lethal” use — although there has been more controversy over the fact that the gas itself killed over a hundred hostages.
That’s why Davison puts “non-lethal” in quotes throughout, to emphasise that the term is a misleading one; even the title of the book is a challenge to Pentagon’s viewpoint.
Davison also points out the “disingenuous advocacy”‘ of this type of weapon. First, they were misleadingly dubbed “non-lethal weapons.” Now, many of these machines are no longer even called weapons at all; so an acoustic weapon is now a “Long Range Acoustic Device,” laser dazzlers are “optical distractors,” and Tasers become “neuromuscular incapacitation devices.” The high-powered and undoubtedly lethal Advanced Tactical Laser becomes a “non-lethal” weapon because it can shoot out tires.
The tone is coolly analytical throughout. In a bid to make new non-lethal weapons exciting, other writers break into Clancy-style fiction to present scenarios of high-tech commandos, zapping terrorists and leaving hostages unscathed. Davison resists this tendency, just as he resists the temptation to give graphic accounts of victims injured or killed when “non-lethals” go wrong or are misused. But he has en eye for telling statistics; when looking into whether Tasers are really used against dangerous suspects, he notes that a review of over 112 Taser uses in one county in Colorado found that a third of the victims were handcuffed at the time.
The work builds on Davison’s previous studies in this area for University of Bradford’s Peace Studies department, and his papers on the Bradford website offer a useful preview of the book. There are extensive references, and Danger Room’s own “Shachtman, N,” “Weinberger, S” and “Hambling, D” are duly cited, showing that Davison picks his sources with some discernment.
His long historical view means that Davison recognises the ideas that keep coming round. Acoustic blasters were tried in the 70’s and failed for the simple reason that any sound loud enough to be an effective deterrent was loud enough to cause hearing damage. In the 90’s, the Air Force Research Laboratory specifically cautioned against developments in this area because acoustic devices were either useless or dangerous. Nevertheless, the Long Range Acoustic device was developed and deployed — in spite of a study finding audible sound “a poor choice.” A 2007 Military Medicine review found that, in spite of numerous claims, there was no evidence that audible sound, ultrasound or infrasound could produce effects suitable for “non-lethal” weapons. Yet claims for miraculous infrasound weapons persist (including the mythical brown note that causes the victim to lose control of their bowels).
Of course, in a work of this length, there will always be some nitpicks. One could point out, for example, that the small version of the Active Denial “pain beam” developed for Project Sheriff was canceled a couple of years ago — but cancelations, unlike product launches, tend to be very quiet.
This is an important book. It will not go down well with the Pentagon’s Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate, or at Taser International. But it should be compulsory reading to those involved in “non-lethal” weapons-buying, before being exposed to salesmen touting the latest less-lethal wonder-weapon. And it should also be compulsory reading for any journalist writing about those same wonder-weapons without looking at what they mean in practice.
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