By Alex Salkever Is it better to blow up mosque -- or just slime it? It's a serious question, and one that the Pentagon brass should be asking itself after the furor surrounding an American missile strike on a mosque in the Iraqi city of Fallujah on Apr. 7. The move enraged both Sunnis and Shiites, not just in Iraq but across the Muslim world. And it tainted an otherwise perfectly justifiable military action -- the troops were trying to subdue insurgents who had perpetrated unspeakable acts against foreign contractors when they ambushed and killed four U.S. citizens, dismembered their bodies, and hung them from a nearby bridge.
The U.S. retaliation in the epicenter of Iraq's dangerous Sunni Triangle killed at least 40 Iraqis, some of them women and children, witnesses claim. The U.S. military said the bombing simply knocked down walls, hadn't killed anyone, and was only a last-resort action to root out insurgents subjecting U.S. Marines to withering fire from within the holy site.
STOP WAITING. None of this had to happen. The U.S. military has been developing a raft of nonlethal anti-personnel weapons that seem tailor-made for precisely the type of urban warfare now unfolding across Iraq. One fires a canister containing a slimey goo that coats the surrounding areas and makes it nearly impossible to remain standing. Other devices include pulsed energy weapons that can be aimed at crowds. These arms target the human nervous system and induce severe burning sensations without inflicting any permanent harm (see BW Online, 4/1/03, "Time to Rewrite the Rules of War?").
Similarly, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a host of projects in the works that use sophisticated technology to accomplish military objectives without killing innocents. What's the Pentagon waiting for? Now is the time to give serious consideration to these weapons.
Granted, moving such technologies to the theater of war is highly controversial. International human rights groups charge that test use would transgress international treaties that dictate war's rules of engagement. They argue that nonlethal weapons may in fact turn out to be lethal and that they could bring on unpredictable responses from attackers who might either misinterpret these weapons to be something even more dangerous or something that's patently unfair.
REALITY CHECK NEEDED. These concerns are understandable -- but increasingly misplaced. In all likelihood, future conflicts in the world's hotspots will involve urban warfare. And terrorists or militant extremists understand quite well that they make themselves far more troublesome targets if they surround themselves in a sea of innocents.
So what's really missing from the principled opposition is a reality check -- which they might receive if they actually endured a week of deadly gunfire and house-to-house fighting in Fallujah or Sadr City.
So would the folks in the Iraqi slums such as Sadr City rather be slimed or shot? Which has a more permanent negative effect on a community, a litany of funerals and amputees or some nasty encounters with pain guns that carry far less long-term risk than a machine gun?
WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME. I think the answers to these questions are obvious. Keep in mind, too, that older versions of nonlethal force simply aren't good enough. Tear gas is too dangerous and can cause respiratory problems. Rubber bullets won't stop serious fighters and can kill children. And certain types of nonlethal weapons are far too hard to control -- witness the disastrous episode that left dozens of hostages dead in a Moscow theater 18 months ago, after Russian commandos piped narcotic gases into the building to incapacitate Chechen guerrillas.
Further, even the use of nonlethal weapons will result in casualties because in chaotic situations, people die. The real question is how to protect the health and property of innocents who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a category that most likely describes the majority of Fallujah's residents.
The bloodshed afflicting Iraq now presents a compelling reason for advancing these technologies to the battle zone. Fewer people would die. Less property would be damaged. And sacred symbols like mosques could be spared from the dogs of war. In the end, the U.S. objective of creating a stable Iraq with peaceful intentions toward the U.S. and its neighbors would only be enhanced. Salkever is Technology Editor for BusinessWeek Online