Let's face it, making war is fast superseding sports as the US national pastime.
Since 1980, overtly or covertly, the United States has been involved in military
actions in Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador,
Haiti, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Liberia, Sudan, the Philippines, Colombia, Haiti (again),
Afghanistan (again) and Iraq (again), and that's not even the full list. It stands
to reason when the voracious appetites of the military-corporate complex are in
constant need of feeding.
As representatives of a superpower devoted to (and enamored with) war, it's
hardly surprising that the Pentagon and allied corporations are forever planning
more effective ways to kill, maim, and inflict pain - or that they plan to keep
it that way. Whatever the wars of the present, elaborate weapons systems for
future wars are already on the drawing boards. Planning for the projected fighter-bombers
and laser weapons of the decades from 2030 to 2050 is under way. Meanwhile,
at the Department of Defense's (DoD's) blue-skies research outfit, the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), even wilder projects - from futuristic
exoskeletons to brain/machine interface initiatives - are being explored.
Such projects, as flashy as they are frightening, are magnets for reporters
(and writers like yours truly), but it's important not to lose sight of the
many more mundane weapons currently being produced that will be pressed into
service in the nearer term in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other locale the US
decides to add to the list of nations where it will turn people into casualties
or "collateral damage" in the next few years. These projects aren't
as sexy as building future robotic warriors, but they're at least as dangerous
and deadly, so let's take a quick look at a few of the weapons US tax dollars
are supporting today, before they hurt, maim and kill tomorrow.
Set phasers on extreme pain
Recently, the US Air Force Research Laboratory called for "research in
support of the Directed Energy Bioeffects Division of the Human Effectiveness
Directorate". The researchers were to "conduct innovative research
on the effects of directed energy technologies" on people and animals.
What types of innovative research? One area involved identifying "biological
tissue thresholds (minimum visible lesion) and damage mechanisms from laser
and non-laser sources". In other words, how excruciating can you make it
without leaving telltale thermal burns? And a prime area of study? "Pain
thresholds." Further, there was a call for work to "determine the
effects of electromagnetic and biomechanical insults on the human body".
Sounds like something out of Star Trek, right? Weaponry of the distant future?
In a Tomdispatch piece last spring (Living weapons labs, March 25, 2004) I
mentioned a "painful energy beam" weapon, the "active denial
system", that was about to be field-tested by the military. Recent reports
indicate that military Humvees will be outfitted with exactly this weapon by
the end of the year.
I'm sad to report that the active denial system isn't the only futuristic weapon
set to be deployed in the near term. pulsed energy projectiles (PEPs) are also
barreling down the weaponry-testing turnpike. They are part of a whole new generation
of weapons systems that the Pentagon promotes under the label "non-lethal".
The term conveniently obscures the fact that such weapons are meant to cause
intense physical agony without any of the normal physical signs of trauma. (This,
by the way, should make them - or their miniaturized descendents - excellent
devices for clandestine torture.)
PEPs utilize bursts of electrically charged gas (plasma) that yield an electromagnetic
pulse on impact with a solid object. Such pulses affect nerve cells in humans
(and animals) causing searing pain. PEPs are designed to inflict "excruciating
pain from up to two kilometers away". No one knows the long-term physical
or psychological effects of this weapon, which is set to roll out in 2007 and
is designed specifically to be employed against unruly civilians. But let's
remember, the Pentagon isn't the Food and Drug Administration. No need to test
for future effects when it comes to weapons aimed at someone else.
20th-century weaponry for 21st-century killing
Just recently the Department of Defense's Defense Contracting Command-Washington
put out a call for various technologies capable of "near-immediate transition
to operations/production at the completion of evaluation". In other words,
make it snappy.
In addition to a plethora of high-tech devices, from laser-sights for weapons
to battlefield computers, the US Special Operations Forces had a special request:
40 millimeter rifle-launched flechette grenades. For the uninitiated, flechettes
are razor-sharp deadly darts with fins at their blunt ends. During the Vietnam
War, flechette weaponry was praised for its ability to shred people alive and
virtually nail them to trees. The question is, where will those Special Ops
forces use the grenades and which people will be torn to bits by a new generation
of US flechettes? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain - it will happen.
The Special Ops troops aren't the only ones with special requests. The US Army
has also put out a call to arms. While army officials recently hailed the M240B
7.62mm medium machine-gun as providing "significantly improved reliability
and more lethal medium support fire to ground units", they just issued
a contract to FN Manufacturing Inc to produce a lighter-weight, hybrid titanium/steel
variant of the weapon (known as the M240E6). And these are just a few of the
new and improved weapons systems being readied to be rushed on to near-future
Obviously, the US military is purchasing guns and other weapons for a reason:
to injure, maim and kill. But the extent of the killing being planned for can
only be grasped if one examines the amounts of ammunition being purchased. Let's
look at recent DoD contracts awarded to just one firm - Alliant Lake City Small
Caliber Ammunition Co LLC, a subsidiary of weapons-industry giant Alliant Techsystems
Awarded November 24, 2004: "A delivery order amount of $231,663,020 as
part of a $303,040,883 firm-fixed-price contract for various Cal .22, Cal .30,
5.56mm, and 7.62mm small-caliber ammunition cartridges." Work is expected
to be completed by September 30, 2006.
Awarded February 7, 2005: "A delivery order amount of $20,689,101 as part
of a $363,844,808 firm-fixed-price contract for various 5.56mm and 7.62mm small-caliber
ammunition cartridges." Work is expected to be completed by September 30,
Awarded March 4, 2005: "A delivery order amount of $8,236,906 as part
of a $372,586,618 firm-fixed-price contract for 5.56mm, 7.62mm, and .50-caliber
ammunition cartridges." Work is expected to be completed by September 30,
Ordinary Americans can buy 400 rounds of 7.62mm rifle ammunition for less than
US$40. Imagine, then, what federal purchasing power and hundreds of millions
of dollars can buy.
Alliant Ammunition and Powder Co is also making certain that, as the years
go by, ammo capacity won't be lacking. This February, Alliant was awarded "a
delivery order amount of $19,400,000 as part of a $69,733,068 firm-fixed-price
contract for Services to Modernize Equipment at the Lake City Army Ammunition
Plant" - a government-owned facility operated by ATK. Alliant notes that
this year it is churning out 1.2 billion rounds of small-caliber ammunition
at its Lake City plant alone. But that, it seems, isn't enough when future war
planning is taken into account. As it happens, ATK and the US Army are aiming
to increase the plant's "annual capacity to support the anticipated Department
of Defense demand of between 1.5 billion and 1.8 billion rounds by 2006".
Think about it. In this year alone, one single ATK plant will produce enough
ammunition, at one bullet each, to execute every man, woman and child in the
world's most populous nation - and next year they're upping the ante.
The military-corporate complex's merchants of death
Once upon a time, a company like ATK would have been classified as one of the
world's "Merchants of Death". Then again, once upon a time - we're
talking about the 1930s here - the US Senate was a place where America's representatives
were willing to launch probing inquiries into the ways in which arms manufacturers
and their huge profits as well as their influences on international conflicts
were linked to the dead of various lands. Back then, simple partisanship was
set aside as the Senate's Democratic majority appointed North Dakota's Republican
Senator Gerald P Nye to head the "Senate Munitions Committee".
While today's fawning House members can barely get aging baseball heroes to
talk to them, the 1930s inquiry hauled some of the most powerful men in the
world like J P Morgan Jr and Pierre du Pont before the committee. Even back
in the 1930s, however, the nascent military-industrial complex was just too
powerful, and so the Senate Munitions Committee was eventually thwarted in its
investigations. As a result, the committee's goal of nationalizing the US arms
industry went down in flames.
Today, the very idea of such a committee even attempting such an investigation
is simply beyond the pale. The planning for futuristic war of various horrific
sorts, not to speak of the production and purchase of weapons and ammunition
by the military-corporate complex, is now beyond reproach, accepted without
question as necessary for national (now homeland) security - a concept that
long ago trumped the notion of national defense.
The future is now
While the military-academic complex and DARPA scientists are hard at work creating
the sort of killing machines that a generation back were the stuff of unbelievable
sci-fi novels, old-fashioned firearms and even new energy weapons are being
readied for use by the US imperial army tomorrow or just a few short years in
the future. In February, Day & Zimmerman Inc, a mega-company with its corporate
fingers dipped in everything from nuclear security and munitions production
to cryogenics and travel services, inked a deal to deliver 445,288 M67 fragmentation
hand grenades (which produce casualties within an effective range of 15 meters)
to the US Army in 2006. In which country will a civilian lose an eye, a leg
or a life as a result? Weapons made to kill are made to be used. This year ATK's
Lake City Army Ammunition Plant will produce 1.2 billion rounds of ammunition
at the DoD's behest and the company proudly proclaims, "Approximately 75%
of the ammunition produced annually is consumed."
With all those exotic pain rays, flechettes, super-efficient machine-guns,
and rounds and rounds of ammunition readied for action - and they represent
only a small part of the spectrum of weaponry and munitions being produced for
war, US-style - more people are sure to die, while others assumedly will experience
"intense pain" from PEPs weapons and the like. Back in October, a
team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and
Al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, knocking on thousands of doors throughout
Iraq, demonstrated that an estimated 100,000 civilians had already died violently
as the direct or indirect consequence of the US-led invasion of Iraq. The main
cause of these deaths: attacks by coalition (read as "US") forces.
The future promises more of the same.
No one should be surprised by these figures - though many were (and many also
continue to deny the validity of these numbers). It's obvious that, if you build
them; they will kill. And you thought that we were supposed to "err on
the side of life"?
Nick Turse is a doctoral candidate at the Center for the History & Ethics
of Public Health in the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
He writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice and Tomdispatch on the
military-corporate complex and the homeland security state. This article appeared
previously on Tomdispatch and is used by permission.
(Copyright 2005 Nick Turse.)