Optional Lethality

By Alexander, John B. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Optional Lethality


Alexander, John B., Harvard International Review


Evolving Attitudes Toward Nonlethal Weaponry

There exists a common misperception that war is about killing the enemy. In fact, conflict is about the imposition of will, which may or may not involve lethal consequences. History is replete with examples in which killing appeared to achieve short-term goals but instead became a strategic albatross that precipitated a seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence. The ethnic conflict in the Balkans, the intertribal genocides in Africa, and the tumultuous upheavals in the Middle East are but a few examples. The nature of these conflicts presents a paradox that continues to confound the most astute political and military leaders of the world. On the one hand, it demands a more judicious use of force. When absolutely required, force should be overwhelmingly applied. Leaders must establish clear military objectives and plan exit strategies before engaging forces. On the other hand, recent world events have demonstrated the need to retain the capability to provide security in humanitarian situations and to intervene i n other peace-support operations; the most desired course of action in these circumstances is to use minimum force.

Many observers appear to conflate the evaluation of military versus civilian law-enforcement activities. Once regarded as separate and distinct functions, these activities have merged operationally into overlapping fields as transnational entities and nongovernmental organizations become enmeshed in conflicts. Similarly, some criminal elements have become heavily armed and have acquired high-tech equipment, forcing police to adopt Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) techniques that often emulate military operations. Therefore, it is conceptually reasonable to consider the same technologies and employment techniques for both. The only remaining issue is tolerance for collateral casualties. Whereas tolerance for law enforcement's excessive use of force approaches zero, military operations are inherently more dangerous, thus permitting higher tolerance.

Fueled by the disparate allocation of natural resources, unbalanced populations, uneven income growth, and endemic hatreds, violent behavior by both nations and dissident groups will remain a fact of life for the foreseeable future. In most cases, violence will be met by countering force. However, the ways in which governments respond to violence may change dramatically. The traditional bipolar force paradigm provides two options--intervention with highly lethal weapons or taking no action at all. The latter alternative sometimes allows an obdurate situation to become politically unbearable, as happened in Rwanda. As a result of such hesitation, military intervention may become substantially more difficult.

This untenable quandary cries out for innovative alternatives that will bridge the existing force options. When missiles, bombers, and tanks are too much, and sitting on the sidelines is undesirable, the availability of nonlethal weapons becomes imperative. Advances in nonlethal weapons will alter how both law-enforcement officers and militaries around the world employ force. These advances will not exclude the use of traditional weapons, but rather, they will provide viable alternatives to unnecessary or unwarranted deaths.

Calls for Change

Since the end of the Cold War, three factors have precipitated research and development of these new weapons. First, there has been an undeniable change in the geopolitical landscape. Gone is the formerly ubiquitous concern that conflict between superpowers could escalate to the level of global annihilation. Instead, numerous conflicts have arisen that threaten local peace and regional stability. Concomitantly, the expansion of organized crime, including the rapid and pervasive rise of criminal organizations colloquially known as the Russian mafia, has adversely affected security in many areas, broadening the concept of national security. …

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