You are in charge of the armed forces of your country and are currently in the jaws of conflict against a large guerrilla group of militant fundamentalists who see it as their soul purpose in life to cause the destruction of your people and culture, and will use any means at their disposal to reach their ends. They torture, mutilate and execute all hostages, and frequently launch suicide bomb attacks in crowded public areas to sew terror and confusion. Conventional weapons have proven somewhat effective at dealing with their members, but most are able to blend in effectively with civilians to avoid detection, or simply retreat to the mountains where they are nearly impossible to track. It dawns on you that your soldiers may be stuck in a protracted and bloody war of attrition against these people for a decade or more if you continue with your current policy. Under what circumstances, if any, would you give permission for your soldiers to employ flamethrowers, torture or chemical weapons against the enemy?
Voice of joy and sunshine
26th May 2003
No. I don't think they're going to be any more effective than the conventional weapons. Flamethrowers didn't go out of fashion because we were really nice folks, they went out of fashion because going all the way over there to set someone on fire was less useful than shooting a shoulder-launched missile into their bunker. Chemical weapons aren't much use unless you want to kill a large number of people very quickly, again I don't see how they'd be particularly useful if your enemy was entrenched in an urban environment among a bunch of people who you don't really want dead.
Similarly, torture, while it makes good TV, is not a good means for obtaining accurate intelligence. People will talk when they're tortured, but they'll say whatever they think will make the pain stop and that is different to telling you the truth. I would also be concerned that if we started torturing people there would be a large incentive to accuse your neighbour of being involved with the insurgency before your neighbour could accuse you. That, in effect, we would end up in a situation where no intelligence could be relied upon because the only safety that could be obtained from the security forces would be to accuse someone of something.
No. I think what I would do would be to set up sufficient surveillance apparatus that I could see supplies moving into the mountains, and use airstrikes to prevent them from resupplying. I don't really care if they want to go up into the mountains and starve to death, as long as they're not around any vital infrastructure all that means is that they've chosen to isolate themselves. The urban insurgents be more difficult to address, but they have to talk to people – I don't see any good reason that my people shouldn't go and join their religion, or at least pretend to, and find a bunch of them that way. If they want have any large effect they going to have to buy certain things, which will show up in at least some transaction records. If I have a large public infrastructure of surveillance tools, like CCTV, I can plug that into face recognition databases – though there are obvious civil liberties concerns in doing so.
And, all of this is obviously modified by how effective they are. If they just kill a few hundred people every few years, I'm inclined to have people join their religion to try to find them that way and address the rest of it through the school system. There are some things where it's just not worth compromising your basic civil liberties to do something about them.
7th December 2003
I agree with Nem, those weapons don't really help with counter-insurgency warfare. Unless you want to use terror as a weapon like Saddam and indiscriminately kill large groups of people, but that doesn't seem acceptable to me.
Things are a little different with flamethrowers. They were used in the past mostly because burning up all the oxygen and producing lots of oxides was a good way to kill people in fortifications. A similar effect is still being used, including against insurgents, just with different delivery methods. The US has used fuel-air bombs to take out tunnel networks in Afghanistan (mostly during the early stages of that conflict, from what I know). Russia has infamously used thermobaric artillery rounds in the Chechen wars.
Modern militaries often have thermobaric munitions in their stockpiles. There are bunker-busting versions of rocket launchers, artillery shells and bombs.
The problem with this type of weapon is that they are designed to kill people you don't see, so they are often used in situations where there isn't a lot of information on whether there may be civilians in the target area. But the way militaries work this is more of an academic issue - if a commander has to choose between increased risk to their own people and increased risk to civilians from another country the civilians typically find themselves on the losing side.