The fuzzy ethics of nonlethal weapons

Pentagon wants to use riot-control agents in Iraq, but critics say it's chemical warfare.

As the world waits to hear more from UN weapons inspectors about Iraq's potential for producing chemical weapons, the US itself is pondering the use of chemicals in any conflict there.

Defense officials would like to be able to use nonlethal chemicals to take the fight out of Iraqi soldiers who may be holed up in caves or buildings or mixed in with innocent civilians. But as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged in Congressional testimony the other day, the use of riot-control agents and other substances designed to incapacitate people without causing death or lasting injury violates international law - specifically, the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

"In many instances, our forces are allowed to shoot somebody and kill them, but they're not allowed to use a nonlethal riot-control agent," Mr. Rumsfeld complained to lawmakers. Some find it ironic, if not incomprehensible, that under the Chemical Weapons Convention, civilian police forces may use chemicals to put down riots but military units may not fire them at enemy soldiers.

On its face, this would seem to be a problem that even arms-control advocates and those opposed to war would like to see rectified. Especially, as President Bush told religious broadcasters this week, because "Saddam Hussein is positioning his military forces within civilian populations in order to shield his military and blame coalition forces for civilian casualties that he has caused."

In an audio broadcast Tuesday, chief terrorist Osama bin Laden seemed to encourage Iraqi civilians to join the fight against a US-led invasion. Bin Laden spoke of "the importance of drawing the enemy into long, close, and tiring fighting, taking advantage of camouflaged positions in plains, farms, mountains, and cities." Hussein reportedly has armed one million Iraqi civilians with rifles and grenade launchers.

Such combat - at close quarters and with civilians and perhaps hostages part of the mix - could call for nonlethal chemical weapons to sort out the real "bad guys" from noncombatants, human shields, and those forced to take up arms.

But others see big problems. For one thing, US allies in the fight - and certainly many in the Arab world - would be opposed to anything that smacks of chemical warfare. "Special Forces no doubt have knockout gas to neutralize bunkers," says Stephen Baker, a retired US Navy rear admiral and senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "But my feeling is that the sensitivities are way too great to use [it]."

Others fear that the use of chemicals to incapacitate enemy troops while saving nearby civilians could be the slippery slope toward the use of more lethal chemicals. They point out that the two major uses of chemical weapons in the 20th century - World War I and the Iran-Iraq War - started out with tear gas and escalated to deadly chemicals.

Also, "nonlethal" weapons can kill people, as Russia found out when it used a gaseous opiate to knock out Chechen hostage takers in Moscow and killed more than 120 hostages in the process. Still, the US military - bolstered by a recent report by the National Research Council urging the military to give greater priority to such devices - continues to push for the development of nonlethal weapons. Research paid for by the Pentagon is under way.

Critics say this already violates international law, including the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention as well as the Chemical Weapons Convention. They worry that in an age of dangerous peacekeeping missions plus unconventional warfare involving armed militias and terrorists, there may be greater pressure to use chemicals and other nonlethal weapons.

The US experience in Somalia in 1993, when a failed peacekeeping mission saw 29 American servicemen (and hundreds of Somalis) killed in violent urban combat, is a case in point.

"After Mogadishu, the Pentagon decided that it was morally, militarily, and legally acceptable to arm itself with supposedly nonlethal biochemical weapons for the purpose of attacking civilians that, in the Pentagon's view, pose a threat to US forces," says Edward Hammond of the Sunshine Project in Austin, Texas, a nongovernmental organization that works on biological-weapons issues.

Mr. Rumsfeld sees the situation in less sinister terms. "There are times when the use of nonlethal riot agents is perfectly appropriate," he says, although legal constraints make for "a very awkward situation."

In order for US troops to use incapacitating chemicals, the president would have to sign a waiver of longstanding restrictions. When US troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, then-president Gerald Ford issued an executive order "renouncing" the use of herbicides like the infamous Agent Orange as well as riot-control agents. Such agents can be used in wartime to control prisoners, protect civilians, and carry out rescue missions, but the president must preapprove such use.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to The fuzzy ethics of nonlethal weapons
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today