U.S. Grapples with Use of Nonlethal Agents

Article excerpt

PICTURE YOURSELF COMMANDING U.S. forces entering Baghdad. As you march through the streets, you encounter Iraqi mobs armed with stones and two-by-fours exacting revenge against Baath party members or venting their anger against your troops. There might be combatants mixed in with civilians. Your orders are to secure the area with minimum civilian casualties while also protecting your soldiers. If you could choose between firing bullets into the crowd, charging with police batons, or temporarily incapacitating them with chemical agents, what would you do?

To many Pentagon officials, the appeal of such nonlethal chemical agents is obvious. Yet, the wisdom of using nonlethal chemical weapons is far from clear. Critics contend that so-called nonlethal chemical weapons are nearly as lethal as well-known killers, such as grenades and artillery. They argue that their use would undermine the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which bans chemical weapons and requires their destruction. And they warn that much of the world would see U.S. use of riot control agents or stronger nonlethal chemical agents as hypocritical, since the Bush administration cites Iraqi possession and use of deadly chemical weapons as one of its primary reasons for overthrowing President Saddam Hussein. Much of the debate revolves around different legal interpretations of the CWC and U.S. law.

The use of chemical nonlethal weapons is sure to be a subject of discussion in The Hague, where delegations from around the world will gather April 28-May 9 for the first CWC review conference. It is unclear whether any state-party to the treaty will raise the issue at the conference, but many nongovernmental organizations are encouraging states to discuss the legality of using riot control agents and other incapacitating chemicals in military operations.

The Pros and Cons

The basic argument for using nonlethal chemical agents is that military commanders and soldiers often have only two options in conflict: kill or be killed. Drawing on the U.S. military experience in places such as Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, proponents argue that there are times when the military should have an alternative-something that temporarily incapacitates hostile forces or civilians without killing them.

Nonlethal weapons, according to the 1996 Department of Defense directive that established the department's policies on nonlethal weapons, "are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or materiel, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment." There are various types of nonlethal weapons, including rubber bullets, electromagnetic weapons, sticky foam, and chemical agents. Development and use of chemical agents designed to incapacitate people is particularly controversial.

One military option is using riot control agents to disperse crowds. The CWC defines riot control agents as chemicals that "can produce rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure."

Another nonlethal weapon the military might consider is chemical incapacitants such as the fentanyl derivative used to rescue hostages in a Moscow theater last October, which have more severe effects, such as loss of consciousness, and are longer lasting and more likely to cause fatalities. …