Tasers and the Future of War

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Shakespeare’s Sister points to a vaguely humorous story about a police officer who Taser’ed his partner in the leg during a dispute over whether or not to stop for soft drinks. This isn’t exactly Aesop’s fables, but there is a moral here regarding supposedly “non-lethal” forms of weaponry. In theory, they’re supposed to prevent situations from escalating the point where deadly force is required — giving law enforcement intermediate options. But in practice “non-lethal” forms of weaponry often end up substituting for talking or other non-coercive methods of interacting with people.

The numbers tell the story: In Phoenix in 2003, the introduction of Tasers reduced the number of people killed by police from 13 to 9. But there was a 22 percent increase in the number of incidents where policed used force (160 more incidents). A similar thing happened in Cincinnati—more force, but fewer deaths—and a monitor found that police often used Tasers as an option of “first resort.” In 2004, Amnesty International reported that Tasers are often used against people who pose no serious threat (unruly schoolchildren, for instance).

That’s all well-known. It gets more important to think about this in a military and foreign policy context. The Pentagon is in the midst of developing a whole array of new “non-lethal” weapons to control crowds: tasers, stun devices, heat rays, decibel blasters. On one level, this all seems reasonable: so long as the U.S. is going to continue its vast empire around the world, as seems inevitable, and do a lot of peacekeeping and nation-building, then it’s better that soldiers have “non-lethal” weapons to manage crowds than firing assault rifles every which way. But that’s only one consideration. The other is that “non-lethal”—stun guns and the like—could start being substituted for old-fashioned diplomacy, and become options of “first resort”. Here’s an illustrative anecdote by Carl Canetta:

In April 2003, a company of the 101st Airborne Division used innovative tactics to defuse a potential confrontation with a hostile crowd outside a Shiite holy site in Najaf. The crowd mistakenly thought the soldiers were about to storm the Tomb of Ali. As tensions escalated, the unit commander, Colonel Chris Hughes, had his troops go down on one knee before the crowd, point their weapons at the ground, and smile. After five minutes, he had the troops walk slowly back to their base, instructing them to point their guns at no one, but to smile at everyone. Reportedly, the Iraqis then intermingled with the troops, patting them on the back and giving them thumbs-up signs. In the early days of the war, British troops used similar tactics to defuse potential confrontations in Basra.

More than tactically clever, this approach is consistent with a campaign strategy that puts a premium on building popular consensus and cooperation, which is pivotal to the success of peace, stability, and humanitarian operations. Of course, use of a “pain ray” to disperse the crowd would have been quicker and less risky for the troops. But it probably would have had a distinctly detrimental effect at the strategic level, undermining relations between the US mission and the Shia majority in Iraq.

Right, exactly. The same scrutiny should be applied to any military technology that promises “non-lethal”—or even more dubiously, “slightly less lethal” techniques. Will future weapons of war be able to reduce casualties as promised? Hopefully. But perhaps not always. The Pentagon has been developing “precision targeting” for years, in order to minimize civilian casualties when it starts bombing other countries. Fair enough. But the catch is that while each individual bomb may produce less collateral damage nowadays, the military has also begun targeting a greater number of sites, including targets it might have considered out of reach before, like “dual-use” sites. These two trends can easily cancel each other out.

I forget the citation, but an arms control expert once pointed out that the number of casualties, including civilians, in the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003—some 11,000 to 15,000 dead—was very comparable to that from other modern wars with similar numbers of combatants and timeframes. That includes the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, the 1965 and 1971 Indian-Pakistan wars, and the conventional phase of the 1978 Vietnamese-Cambodian war.

That puts things into stark relief, I’d say. War isn’t more “humane” today then it was 40 years ago, and supposed improvements like “precision targeting” won’t necessarily improve things from a humanitarian point of view. What advances in weaponry will do is help to reduce American casualties, which is good, but depending on how you think about it, could have the side-effect of making the American public more likely to support war. So there’s every reason to be skeptical of new military technology that promises “non-lethal” or “less lethal” forms of war.

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