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Name the weapon in the U.S. arsenal that was not used in Gulf War II because an international treaty prohibited it.

A nuclear bomb? There’s no treaty banning its use. Nerve gas? We destroyed our arsenal years ago. Weapons that tear and burn flesh, kill indiscriminately, and destroy buildings as well as life? No, we used these “conventional bombs” in large numbers; they are legal. The correct answer: the illegal weapon wastear gas.

This chemical weapon (does that make it a weapon of mass destruction?) can legally be used for crowd control by police, but not for war fighting by the military. The international Chemical Weapons Convention-ratified by the U.S. Senate in April 1997-outlawed the blistering aerosols known as mustard gas, the nerve agents sarin and VX, and the biological toxin ricin. But lumped in with these truly nasty-and lethal-chemicals are the mucus irritants CS and CN (chlorobenzylidenemalononitrile and chloroacetophenone), commonly called tear gas.

Why include in this treaty a substance frequently used by police within our own borders-a weapon widely seen as a humane alternative to bullets, and one that would have been useful during the war in clearing mosques and public buildings of the Saddam Fedayeen? Our negotiators struggled to have the tear gas prohibition removed from the chemical weapons treaty, but other countries would not agree. The United States used tear gas extensively in the Vietnam War to force the enemy out of tunnels; many of the Viet Cong were killed, and other countries accused the U.S. of waging chemical warfare. In the end, we compromised, and agreed to the treaty’s tear gas prohibition.

There are no truly 100 percent nonlethal weapons. Last October, Russia used fentanyl, a supposedly nonlethal opiate, to subdue Chechnyan terrorists who were holding hostages in a Moscow theater. The aerosol killed 129 of the roughly 800 hostages. Nobody knows whether a better solution, such as a negotiated surrender, could have been found.

Tear gas, too, has caused unintended fatalities. Nevertheless, it is part of a growing movement in the defense community toward the use of kinder, gentler weapons that can achieve victory without death or destruction. Research on such weapons is accelerating. In 1997, the military created a “Joint Nonlethal Weapons Directorate” to recommend, develop, and field nonlethal weapons. The National Academy of Sciences has issued a series of reports on the potential of these weapons. Ideas include slime that makes the enemy slip, dowel guns that crunch bones but don’t penetrate the body, carbon fibers that short-circuit electric power facilities, skunk-like aerosols that make areas smell bad, impassable goo and foam that denies access to buildings and clogs weapons, and biological agents (more weapons of mass destruction?) that rapidly degrade fuel, metal, and other materials.

You might assume that most people see nonlethal weapons as a good thing, but the tear gas example contradicts that. This is the weapons paradox. If you invent a way to make war less cruel, less destructive, less horrible, be prepared to be branded by some arms control advocates as an evil monster, since you have lowered the threshold by making weapons use more palatable and thus war more likely.

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Tagged: Energy

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