When Chechen rebels seized more than 700 hostages in a Moscow theater last October, Russian security officials must have believed they had come up with the perfect solution: They would put them to sleep. An opiate gas would be piped into the theater, clearing the way for commandos to enter, disarm the hijackers and rescue the civilians. In the end, 117 people were killed–not by the hostage-takers but by the chemical agent used by their rescuers.
In recent years, the US military has become infatuated with a variety of “incapacitating” chemical weapons, including fentanyl, the opiate believed to have been used by Russian forces. And while the use of incapacitants in Russia might have been legal under international law because it was a police action, the Pentagon’s development of what the military calls “nonlethal calmatives” appears to violate chemical weapons treaties prohibiting the military use of such agents.
Capable of taking out enemy soldiers without killing them, calmatives were once seen as ideal from a public relations standpoint. But some planners also recognized their inherent dangers: Any enemy attacked by such weapons–deadly or not–is sure to respond with whatever biological or chemical weapons it has. The detractors’ view eventually prevailed, and “incapacitating agents” were barred by an executive order signed by Richard Nixon in 1969. In 1972, the ban was solidified into international law when the United States signed the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which for the past three decades has been the cornerstone of international efforts to stop the spread of nonnuclear weapons of mass destruction. The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), signed in 1993 by President Clinton, went even further by banning the military use of such riot-control agents as tear gas.
But in recent years, the Pentagon has gradually turned to new and dangerously loose interpretations of international treaties that would allow the military use of incapacitating chemicals. The changes in policy amount to a “very serious assault” on the CWC, warns University of California, Davis, microbiology professor Mark Wheelis, who has written extensively on chemical and biological weapons issues. “And it is being guided by very narrow, shortsighted tactical concerns. If the United States is allowed to continue to develop [calmatives] sooner or later we are going to be employing artillery shells and aerial bombs [loaded with calmatives]. And we are going to have troops trained to use them. If the United States does this, other countries will follow suit. The long-term implications are quite profound.” According to Wheelis, it amounts to no less than “preparing for chemical war.”
The military’s current fixation with incapacitating chemicals dates back to the 1993 debacle in Somalia, when US troops battled Somalian paramilitaries in the streets and suburbs of Mogadishu. The problems created by the ambiguous military situation–when it was often difficult to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants–eventually led the Defense Department to create the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD) in 1997 to study alternative weapons for low-intensity conflicts.