Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo


Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

The Lone Ranger never killed a bad man. In 22 years of fighting for justice (on radio and television), he always aimed at the outlaw’s gun. In doing so, he not only defeated his enemies, but he won over the hearts and loyalties of millions of kids, including me.

We need a similar capability in Iraq. Consider our recent problems in Fallujah and Najaf, where our forces were powerful but impotent, capable of leveling a city, but uncertain how to make peace and win the support of the people. We cannot train our soldiers to match the Lone Ranger’s fantastical skill. But there may be an alternative: less lethal weapons (LLWs). Debate about these weapons continues, with opponents worrying that they will actually make violence more common-but I suspect they will be used anyway, out of sheer practicality.

The impotence of overwhelming power is not a new problem. We encountered it with nuclear weapons. They wreak such death and destruction that we haven’t used them for 54 years. As an alternative, we made conventional weapons smart. But even these are too terrible to use in post-war conflicts. The situations we are encountering in Fallujah and Najaf involve numerous civilians. The issues there are closer to police and riot control problems than they are to war.

Soldiers are not good policemen. They are trained for the extreme environment of war, when they must kill quickly and efficiently or be killed themselves. Police are trained to work in a different way. They are most effective when they live in the neighborhood they patrol, and know all the people. They rarely shoot their guns, and prefer to depend on authority and persuasion. When those fail, they have a host of less lethal weapons to try. Many of these are well-known, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, bean bags, and tasers (named in honor of Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle). These have recently been supplemented with more sophisticated technology. “Fire pellets” are like paint balls but filled with pepper spray. “Stinger grenades” explode with rubber pellets and pepper gas; they can also give a blinding flash and frightening bang. Guns that shoot wooden dowels do more than hurt-they inflict debilitating but usually non-fatal injury.

The military capability in the use of less lethal weapons is growing. An illustrative example occurred last year. A large group of Iraqi civilians (estimated over a thousand) was looting buildings in the Rasheed Military Base of the Republican Guard. U.S. soldiers, armed only with lethal weapons that they were forbidden to use against looters, were helpless. But the area was cleared ten minutes after the arrival of eight soldiers who had been trained in Los Angeles Police Department riot control techniques. Their weapons were bean bags, rubber bullets, stinger grenades, batons, and a public address system with an Arabic speaker. (This example is taken from a recent report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations.)

1 comment. Share your thoughts »

Tagged: Communications

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives


Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me