Monday, April 26, 2010
Late last week I had tweeted about a recent Michael O'Hanlon op-ed on non-lethal weapons, titled "Troops need not shoot in Afghanistan". I'm pretty sure I called this piece "profoundly stupid." Because it is. Before I get into the topic of non-lethal weapons, I should make the disclaimer that this is one veteran's opinion. I have yet to see a substantiative study on this topic so all I can go off of are my own experiences and discussions I've had with other vets.
I called this piece profoundly stupid because it was written from idealist's point of view and is completely devoid of any on-the-ground perspective. That's not to say that O'Hanlon is alone on this road. RAND, who did a much more comprehensive study, came to the same conclusions. But I find that report to be exceedingly optimistic on the false panacea that is non-lethal weapons. Both O'Hanlon and the RAND authors look at non-lethal weapons from the 30,000 foot view, as they would a strategic issue. Unfortunately for them, the application of non-lethal weapons is exclusively at the tactical level - so misunderstanding how these tools are actually used will lead to (in my estimation) faulty conclusions.
I'll sum up O'Hanlon's argument in a syllogism:
1. U.S. forces kill way too many civilians in Afghanistan and we don't want to do that.
2. Non-lethal weapons don't kill people, but get them to do what you want them to.
3. We need a lot more non-lethal weapons so troops stop killing Afghan civilians.
The first sentence is absolutely true and I will not argue with it. The second sentence, and really the crux of his argument, is fantastically wrong.
The first problem is that non-lethal weapons do kill people. Granted, they kill a lot less people than lethal munitions, but they still kill people. You have all heard and seen this on the news when police forces attempt to quell riots. Rubber bullets ricochet and hit soft parts of the body or expire and might as well be metal bullets. Bean bags (fired from an M203 usually) often cause heart attacks if they hit a person mid-torso. In traffic, non-lethal weapons often cause fatal traffic accidents because of a very-distracted driver, shattered windshields, blown tires, etc. Again, they're not as fatal as real bullets, but they're often fatal.
The second problem with the syllogism is that they don't often make people do what you want them to do. With truly non-lethal weapons (such as acoustic devices or sub-cutaneous microwaves), the targets often aren't sure what is going on other than they're in pain. This doesn't mean that they know what you want them to do - it just puts them in serious amounts of pain. And there are other issues with these devices: the microwaves have been banned for the time being because we don't understand the long-term effects of them and the acoustic devices can screw up a person's hearing and equilibrium for short and long periods of time.
But here's the biggest problem with this piece. It doesn't look at these weapons from the user's perspective. Non-lethal weapons add more to a soldier's load plan - taking the space that would normally be used for real ammo, water, food, medical equipment, etc to say nothing of the additional weight. While not as much a problem for motorized or mechanized forces, this can be prohibitive for dismounted operations.
While training soldiers on the proper use of these weapons will do a lot to mitigate their often lethal effects, there is no effective training to date that deals with the decision to use lethal vs. non-lethal weapons. This can be very straight-forward (though still often murky) for police officers (as described in the RAND study), but that doesn't mean that their escalation of force procedures apply to a more violent and threatening environment. Often the battlefield moves too quickly for an individual to cycle through non-lethal options before using lethal force. When a car is speeding towards you, you don't often have time to put in your rubber bullets and/or transition to real bullets. The decision process becomes overwhelming to a 20 year old sergeant in the turret of an MRAP. Because if he uses the wrong tool and obtains a bad result, it could be disastrous for either party. If you have ten seconds from the moment you identify a potential threat until that threat will impact you in some way, you don't have the time to weigh what weapon you will use. And if you chose the wrong one, there won't be time to transition to the right one.
I'll wrap this all up to say that in my tours in Iraq, I never had non-lethal weapons and I never once thought to myself, "Boy, I wish I had some non-lethal weapons to diffuse this situation." Ever. Does the U.S. need to work on it's EOF procedures? Absolutely. Way too many civilians get hurt or killed because soldiers aren't using the one tool they have correctly. Now imagine adding other tools. Should the U.S. develop non-lethal weapons? Again, absolutely. But a big chunk of that development better be on decision methods for the user so he knows whether or not he should use it. Otherwise, don't bother at all. And that's why I think O'Hanlon is way, way wrong.
For those of you who've been on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq: I'd like to hear from you on whether or not you agree with me here.