Not quite the picture most people have of democracy at work. First Iraq, and next the US?
The Pentagon's Secret Scream
Sonic devices that can inflict pain--or even permanent deafness--are being deployed.
By William M. Arkin
William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion.
SOUTH POMFRET, Vt.-Marines arriving in Iraq this month as part of a massive troop rotation will bring with them a high-tech weapon never before used in combat-or in peacekeeping. The device is a powerful megaphone the size of a satellite dish that can deliver recorded warnings in Arabic and, on command, emit a piercing tone so excruciating to humans, its boosters say, that it causes crowds to disperse, clears buildings and repels intruders.
"[For] most people, even if they plug their ears, [the device] will produce the equivalent of an instant migraine," says Woody Norris, chairman of American Technology Corp., the San Diego firm that produces the weapon. "It will knock [some people] on their knees."
American Technology says its new product "is designed to determine intent, change behavior and support various rules of engagement." The company is careful in its public relations not to refer to the megaphone as a weapon, or to dwell on the debilitating pain American forces will be able to deliver with it. The military has been equally reticent on the subject.
And that's a problem. The new sound weapon might, in some scenarios, save lives. It might provide a good alternative to lethal force in riot situations, as its proponents assert. But the U.S. is making a huge mistake by trying to quietly deploy a new pain-inducing weapon without first airing all of the legal, policy and human rights issues associated with it.
This is a weapon unlike any other used by the military, and it is certain to provoke public outcry and the conspiracy theories that often greet new U.S. military technology. If the military feels that its new-style weaponry brings something important to the battlefield, and if testing has shown it to be safe, then why not make our reasoning-and research-transparent to the world?
Nonlethal weapons have been promoted by a small circle of boosters for nearly 15 years as something increasingly necessary for the U.S. military in its growing peacekeeping, urban-combat and force-protection missions. Some of the weaponry championed by the group, like rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades and, more recently, electromuscular disruptive devices, or Tasers, has already been deployed.
But the more exotic weapons-including acoustic, laser, and high-powered microwave devices-have not until now been fielded, held up by legal and ethical questions. Despite intense lobbying, over the years the Pentagon leadership has been skeptical of such "wonder weapons." In 1995, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry decided to ban Pentagon development of nonlethal laser weapons intended to permanently blind. His decision led to a subsequent international ban.
So shouldn't we have a similar discussion about high-intensity sound, which can cause permanent hearing loss or even cellular damage? The new megaphone being deployed to Iraq can operate at 145 decibels at 300 yards, according to American Technology, well above the normal threshold for pain. The company posits a scenario in which Al Qaeda terrorists would run screaming from caves after being subjected to a blast of high-decibel sound from the devices, their hands covering their ears. But in Baghdad or other Iraqi towns, where there are crowds and buildings, the sick and elderly, as well as children, are likely to be in the weapon's range.
Proponents of nonlethal weapons argue that pain and hearing loss, if they were to occur, are certainly preferable to death, which is always possible when lethal force is applied. But this argument ignores realities on the ground. Last week, as I watched televised images of angry Iraqis pelting U.S. soldiers with rocks when they arrived to assist those injured in suicide bombings at mosques, I couldn't help but wonder whether the presence of a sound weapon to disperse those crowds would just escalate hostilities.
Last month, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a task force report on nonlethal weapons, arguing that their widespread availability might have helped in the immediate post-combat period in Iraq to reduce looting and sabotage. The council threw its weight behind greater investment in these technologies partly based on a Joint Chiefs of Staff "mission needs statement" signed last December. "U.S. military forces lack the ability to engage targets located where the application of lethal [weapon fire] would be counterproductive to overall campaign objectives," the Joint Chiefs concluded.
The Council on Foreign Relations recognized that the effect of nonlethal weapons is mostly "psychological-persuading people that they would much rather be someplace else, or on our side rather than opposing U.S. military forces." It warned that "television coverage of encounters involving [nonlethal weapons] can still be repugnant, and it would be desirable to provide reliable information to minimize unwarranted criticism."
Yet after paying lip service to the very psychological and political fallout that could result from the employment of novel technologies like acoustic weapons or high-powered microwaves, the council task force urged that prototype nonlethal weapons-that is, weapons just like American Technology's new sound weapon-"be placed with our operating forces" to test their efficacy and create greater demand among combat commanders.
Is actual combat in a foreign country the appropriate place to test a new weapon? Apparently, we are about to find out.
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
Mar 15, '04
NurseHardee, thank you for all the vigilance and effort you put into sharing all the info you post here. I am afraid, though, that you will probably get the usual casual dismissal or outright bashing again that you so often get from so many of our so-called "patriotic" colleagues ...
Mar 15, '04
I'm not opposed to using this sort of weaponry on Terrorists but I don't think it's extreme enough punishment for Al-qaeda.
Interesting opinion article.
Mar 15, '04
I have to agree w/Marie here.
Mar 15, '04
the article points out it is Marine's in Iraq who will be piloting use of this weapon>>>
The new megaphone being deployed to Iraq can operate at 145 decibels at 300 yards, according to American Technology, well above the normal threshold for pain. The company posits a scenario in which Al Qaeda terrorists would run screaming from caves after being subjected to a blast of high-decibel sound from the devices, their hands covering their ears. But in Baghdad or other Iraqi towns, where there are crowds and buildings, the sick and elderly, as well as children, are likely to be in the weapon's range.<<<
I've never heard of Al-Qaeda caves in Iraq.....
Mar 15, '04
well, it's preferable to death or permanent blindness, right? And what about our troops who will be using the devices? What kind of protection are they being offered against the effects of this weapon? Is this protection widely dispersed and readily available to all of our troops? If so, how can we depend on the enemy's NOT having the same protection? If not, then we now have another worry to add to the list of concerns for our troops.
Innocent people should not have to suffer permanent injury. EVER. But at least we're not killing innocents, right?
I don't know what to say or feel about this, but I do think Mkue is right.....not nearly harsh enough punishment for al-qaeda.
And really, do any of you KNOW first hand where al-qeada may be hiding??? IF so, please, by all means, notify the proper authorities so that we can end their terrorist ways and get our troops back home.
Mar 15, '04
What a inhumane way to disperse a crowd. Why just the thought of inflicting possible permanent damage is frightening. The thought that this may in some way provide safety to our troops is unabashed propaganda.
I guess the best way to prevent the "possible" permanent damage is just set up some twin mounted .50's and mow them down. Everyone knows "dead men don't complain".
Look at history, noise has been used as an offensive weapon for a long time. And not just in armed conflicts. Ask the Branch Davidians that survived the ATF seige what they were subjected to.
Mar 16, '04
Well that's a fine standard to hold our government conduct to?! Yeah, look at the Waco thing with Janet Reno. What's good enough for Americans should certainly be just great for the rest of the world! It's pretty impeccable logic, I think.
<<Look at history, noise has been used as an offensive weapon for a long time. And not just in armed conflicts. Ask the Branch Davidians that survived the ATF seige what they were subjected to.>>
Mar 16, '04
Didnt Jericho try something like that