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Living weapons labs



With the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq just past and millions of demonstrators back in the streets of cities across the world, are we any clearer on the reasons for going to war? We know it was about energy and empire; but, as we also know, the official claim (until recently) was that it was about those non-existent WMDs. Or was it to remove a tyrant? Or to democratize the Middle East? Or to wage the war on terror? Or to finish Papa’s Gulf War I? While at least some of these reasons are endlessly debated by media talking heads, the functions of the war — among them the way Iraq has been used as a weapons laboratory — have received far less attention.


Since the invention of weapons, man has been attempting to improve them; and since World War II, the United States has been the leading global actor in the research and development of weapons meant to incapacitate people. In terms of intensive research in the fields of “wound ballistics,” “rapid incapacitation weaponry,” and fragmentation “kill mechanisms” to create ever more lethal antipersonnel weapons — what might best be called “scientific slaughter” — the U.S. has left the rest of the world in the dust.


Back in 1965, Jack Raymond of the New York Times wrote a piece aptly headlined, “Vietnam Gives U.S. ‘War Laboratory.’” And in that era, there were a couple of American commanders who publicly said as much. For instance, General Maxwell Taylor, who served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and then U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, noted that “we have recognized the importance of the area [Vietnam] as a laboratory. We have teams out there looking at equipment requirements of this kind of guerilla warfare.” But as Raymond pointed out, most American officials were loath to make such boasts for fear of comparisons to the Nazis, who had, only three decades earlier, used the Spanish Civil War as a training ground for World War II.


These days, the American military evidences no such fear. In fact, America’s recent small wars from Grenada in 1983 to Iraq in 2003 have tumbled upon each other so regularly that the military and its industrial partners have come to rely on them as living laboratories for battle-testing and improving their weaponry.


In a recent piece in the Los Angeles Times (3/7/04), military analyst William M. Arkin reported that the Marines being deployed in Iraq this month will bring along the newest high-tech gadget in America’s ever-expanding arsenal to try out on whatever resistant Iraqis they may happen to run into. The Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) emits a powerful tone which brings agonizing pain to those within earshot. While Woody Norris, chairman of the American Technology Corporation which manufactures the device, refuses to call it a “weapon,” he claims, “It will knock [some people] on their knees.” But Arkin asks a crucial question seldom heard these days: “Is actual combat in a foreign country the appropriate place to test a new weapon?”


The military and its industrial partners sure think so. As the fears of the Vietnam era continue to fade, successive, sometimes concurrent wars and foreign adventures provide the means to constantly improve and upgrade weapons, early versions of which are rushed into battle for real-world testing, re-tooling and perfecting on what increasingly seems to be the global assembly line of the military-industrial complex.


For example, in the mid-1990s, the Balkans became the proving grounds for the Predator drone, an intelligence-gathering unmanned air vehicle (UAV). A contract for the Predator was only awarded to manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in January 1994, but by 1995 a first generation Predator was already in the skies over Bosnia. The drone then saw service in Kosovo and, by 2001, no longer purely observational, it had been armed with Hellfire laser-guided missiles. It soon began living up to its name when, in February of that year, it successfully fired one of them in a flight test. Later that same year, the upgraded and armed UAV was off to the Balkans and then Afghanistan for real-world combat testing; by 2002, the Hellfire-equipped Predator drone was being used as a judge-jury-and-executioner assassination weapon in Yemen — where it attacked a civilian vehicle, incinerating six occupants, all allegedly al Qaeda terrorists. Today, the Predator sees service in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Says Maj. Russell Lee of the Air Force, “There is always a Predator airborne around the world.”


While the Predator has already seen plenty of service in Iraq, the so-called “Mother of all Bombs,” the 21,500-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast super-bomb (MOAB) arrived too late, despite a very public rush to ready the first of them for the war. Rear Admiral (Ret.) Stephen Baker, who was the battle-group chief of operations during Gulf War I and is now a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, has offered this vision of what it would be like to unleash weapon on Tikrit in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. “It would,” he wrote, “essentially vaporize everything… Shards and fractures would travel at 6,000 feet per second. There’d be a shock wave of several thousand pounds per square inch. You’ve got over 8,500 [degree] Fahrenheit temperatures.”


Unfortunately for its makers at the Air Force Research Laboratory, the advance on Baghdad happened so swiftly that, although a single bomb was readied for use (after tests at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base in March 2003) and in April sent to an “undisclosed forward base” in the Iraq “theater,” it didn’t reach the region in time to “vaporize” anyone or anything. For the last near-year, however, it has been sitting in the “Iraq war region,” presumably waiting to be to be unleashed on the next “evil-doer” or regional rogue state.


In this election year, we’re almost assured that a new weapons-lab nation will not be opened for business. But after November, who knows? Regardless, the LRAD will undoubtedly be thrust into action in Iraq, and, according to an Associated Press report, another new weapon, the Active Denial System, which utilizes “a painful energy beam,” will also “be tested in the field soon..” Just what “field” remains to be seen.


During the Vietnam War, the U.S. military used Southeast Asia as a military laboratory for testing out all sorts of weaponry ideas. Perhaps best remembered are the many half-baked high-tech weapons systems — such as Robert McNamara’s famed “electronic battlefield” of remote sensors and landmines and the various “people-sniffing” devices using both live bedbugs and chemical-mechanical apparatuses — that were tested with less than stellar results. Southeast Asia, however, also saw the testing of many effectual lethal technologies like the M-16 rifle; a new generation of enhanced anti-personnel munitions (like cluster-bomb units that represented a sea-change in lethality over World War II-era armaments) and upgraded weapons such as napalm-B, the jellied gasoline that and burned hotter and longer than its World War II predecessor. Basically, whatever could be tested in action was.


Still, the military, generally cowed from crowing about it by the rise of an antiwar movement, was even forced to engage in debate and feel the weight of public opinion when utilizing such agents as chemical gases and defoliants. Today, the military is remarkably unintimidated and there’s almost no debate about using America’s seemingly endless string of wars (including the possibly never-to-be-ended “war on terrorism”) as proving grounds for whatever super-bombs or energy-beam devices the Pentagon and its industrial partners can come up with. Thanks to nearly nonstop conflicts, interventions, engagements, and attacks during the presidential administrations of both parties, including among others: Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1992-1993, the former Yugoslavia and Kosovo from 1992 onwards, Haiti in 1994, Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998, Afghanistan in 2002, Iraq in 2003 and Haiti in 2004, what was once taboo is now the norm.


Using a stock phrase from the Vietnam War, Gerry J. Gilmore of the American Forces Press Service, recently made the case for employing new LRAD-type technologies “to win hearts and minds during 21st-century military operations.” Gilmore quoted Alan R. Shaffer, director for plans and programs with the Pentagon’s Office of Defense Research and Engineering, as stating that the military will be able to use its active-denial system effectively on crowds. “You get hit with the high-powered microwave,” Shaffer says, “and you run away.”


Iraq, with its low-level guerrilla war, is just the latest living laboratory for American weapons developers. Predators, which were once a surveillance tool but are now lethal attack weapons, will soon be joined there by the LRAD non-weapon and, perhaps, the active-denial system (which, according to one test-subject, felt like an explosion of heat and pain) as well as who knows what other exotic weaponry. But where’s the debate? Why isn’t the government called to account for embarking on wars that are functionally laboratories for experiments in lethality and pain?


Some of the same chemical gasses unleashed in Vietnam were then brought home and used on demonstrators at street protests and on college campuses. Its exceedingly improbable that the Long Range Acoustic Device or the Active-Denial System will be used in the streets around the September 2004 Republican National Convention protests in New York City, but is that the only act that would suffice to spark some serious debate — a high-powered pain beam being used on American crowds? Will Americans only demonstrate concern when their fellow citizens become test subjects for weapons systems?


It’s time for Americans to recognize that people across the globe are now, essentially, being used as experimental material — the test subjects for weapons technologies built for the benefit of an ever-expanding, taxpayer-financed military-industrial complex. Only after this is understood can we hold the military and their corporate partners accountable for fostering a cycle of test-tube warfare where the world’s people, from the Balkans to Baghdad, are guinea pigs for the American war machine.


Nicholas Turse is doctoral candidate at the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. He continues to write on the military-industrial-entertainment-scientific-[you add on here] complex for Tomdispatch



Copyright C2004 Nick Turse



[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]

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