Making Warfare Acceptable: Nonlethal Strategies

By Bowers, Stephen R.; Mielnik, Pamela A. | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Making Warfare Acceptable: Nonlethal Strategies


Bowers, Stephen R., Mielnik, Pamela A., The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


The authors examine the prospects for developing new technologically advanced weaponry which will render opponents incapable of effective military action, thus reducing the need for high casualties in combat.

Key Words: Psychological warfare, chemical and biological warfare, electronic warfare, information warfare,

The effort to make war palatable has been one of our most determined undertakings for at least a century. The Hague Conferences and the Washington Naval Conference are among the most notable early attempts to control the conduct of hostilities. With the development of nuclear weapons, the challenge seemed almost hopeless yet scholars such as Herman Kahn attempted to develop a war-survival strategy that would guarantee that the survivors would not envy the dead in the aftermath of atomic war.' The eventual proliferation of these weapons of mass destruction led to the formulation of strategies for the avoidance of nuclear war and the nuclear age has been characterized by frequent wars which have employed conventional or non-nuclear weapons.

In spite of our avoidance of a much-dreaded nuclear holocaust, the use of conventional weapons generated a new chorus of critics who raised questions about the impact of these non-nuclear devices. These critics were spurred on by advent of new technologies, radical advances in medicine and constant media surveillance. This new concern has overshadowed our fear of the traditional nuclear doomsday scenarios and demanded the development of nonlethal or simply disabling weapons for use in aggressive and defensive scenarios.

Defining Nonlethality

The very terminology associated with the concept of nonlethal weapons has created controversy over its definition as well as its philosophical justifications. The term "weapon" generally refers to something designed to cause bodily harm and/or destruction of inanimate objects. The term "nonlethal" implies absolute zero fatalities but, since that is an unrealistic goal, these weapons are often referred to as "less than lethal" or "sublethal". By their very definition, this new level of weapon implies that conventional anti-personal weapons are lethal, when in fact most are not. Rifles, for example, only inflict a 20%-25% causality rate and, while they may blow off a foot or otherwise maim a person, antipersonnel mines often fail to kill their victims. These considerations have raised ethical questions as to whether it is more humane to disable the enemy rather than kill them.:

During the early days of the Cold War and the US-Soviet arms race, official stress was placed on greater lethality. National security was measured against an overkill capacity that assured us of our ability to mount a second strike against any attacker. In that era, technology was devoted to increasing our overkill capacity by creating increasingly destructive weapons. Technology now moves in a different direction and, as noted above, stress is also placed on the development of an arsenal of non-lethal weapons to supplement the traditional, lethal devices.

This new concern has prompted an emphasis on development and research on nonlethal weaponry. Implications of the effects of these weapons have been debated within numerous international organizations and, as a result of the subsequent pressure, blinding laser weapons were prohibited at a United Nations conference in 1995. Should the Chemical Warfare Convention be ratified by the United States Senate, there would be new restrictions that would affect some nonlethal categories. However, while the debate continues and organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross voice concern and even suspicion, there have been no further international treaties banning the future development or employment of any other non-lethal weapons.

Advantages of Nonlethal Weapons

There are, of course, many advantages associated with this new type of weaponry. …

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