Medicalized Weapons & Modern War

By Gross, Michael L. | The Hastings Center Report, January-February 2010 | Go to article overview

Medicalized Weapons & Modern War


Gross, Michael L., The Hastings Center Report


Asymmetric warfare is creating a new frontier for bioethics as military organizations rush to develop nonlethal, medicalized weapons. Faced with small but increasingly sophisticated guerrilla organizations that intermingle at will with the civilian population, the United States and many of its allies are searching for ways to disable insurgents while minimizing harm to civilians. One avenue is to build increasingly sophisticated "precision-guided munitions"--"smart," high-explosive bombs that, in theory, zero in on and destroy their targets without widespread collateral damage. However, these weapons--the purview of electronics and ballistic experts--can only go so far. Very often, there are no clearly defined guerrilla targets, or, as often happens, the targets are destroyed early on.

Nonlethal weapons are an increasingly attractive option for rooting out insurgents without bringing catastrophic harm to civilians. Rather than disabling or killing enemy forces by causing traumatic injury, nonlethal weapons temporarily incapacitate their targets by causing physical distress, disorientation, or unconsciousness. These weapons are "medicalized" in that they rely on advances in neuroscience, physiology, and pharmacology and on the active participation of physicians and other medical workers. Not since international law prohibited the development and use of biological and chemical weapons (in 1972 and 1993, respectively) have medical personnel been so directly involved with the design, manufacture, and testing of a weapon. But medicalized weapons place medical practitioners in a bind. Ordinarily trained to relieve pain and suffering, they now face calls to help build weapons that cause some measure of harm, even if nonlethal and transient. Do the principles of medical ethics--particularly the axiom "do no harm"--permit medical personnel to build nonlethal weapons?

To answer this question, it is important to understand the nature of nonlethal weaponry, the solutions nonlethal weapons might provide during asymmetric conflict, the novelty of medicalized weapons and the kind of harm they can cause, and the obligations that medical ethics places upon medical workers asked to help develop these weapons. Drawing on the principle of "do no harm," it seems clear to many observers that physicians should avoid weapons development at all costs. But there are no solid grounds for such a sweeping prohibition. On the contrary, nonlethal weapons offer the prospect of reducing casualties and protecting civilians during asymmetric war. Unlike ordinary weapons, however, many of the most promising nonlethal weapons require medical expertise. As a result, the medical community cannot easily distance itself from weapons development but should contribute its skill and knowledge to nonlethal weapons research.

The Nature of Nonlethal Weaponry

There are many kinds of nonlethal weapons on the drawing boards or at various stages of development. Biological weapons, categorically banned by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, were the subject of considerable attention after the First World War. Some used anthrax, smallpox, and botulinum toxin--virulent pathogens that made for weapons of mass destruction. But scientists and doctors also devoted considerable energy to weaponizing nonlethal pathogens that would only incapacitate those affected. These pathogens include brucellosis, Q-Fever, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis. This last disease, for example, is highly debilitating, afflicting nearly 100 percent of those infected with headaches, high fever, and weeks of fatigue, but has a mortality rate of less than 1 percent. (1) Both the United States and the Soviet Union successfully weaponized it as an incapacitating agent before ending their biological weapons programs when they ratified the Biological Weapons Convention. (2)

Research continues apace in other fields, however. Optical weapons--blinding lasers and flash grenades--cause temporary blindness and disorientation. …

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