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Illegal Warfare: The Weapons the Military Can’t Use

Written by Kevin Jennings

While war may seem savage and uncivilized, mankind has a long history of trying to enact some sort of ground rules for those involved. These were normally sets of rules for a conflict that were decided upon by two warring armies, but in 1864 the Geneva Convention became the first codified international treaty regarding treatment of soldiers at war. Sixteen countries attended the original convention, with twelve agreeing to the treaty.  By the fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, following the atrocities and crimes against humanity seen in World War II, a total of 196 had ratified the Geneva Convention, though some with reservations. Reservations means that a nation agreed to part of but not all of the treaty.

However, the Geneva Convention only dealt with the treatment of those at war, specifically how to treat the sick, injured, and prisoners of war. It did not address the use of weapons during war, but by laying the foundation for international treaties, several conventions followed that did address those concerns.

Obviously, the goal of war is to kill the enemy forces. If nations thought they could resolve their problems without killing each other, they’d just send diplomats instead of soldiers. Even with that goal in mind, it is generally agreed that there should be limitations on the methods that can be used to achieve that end result. There are two main principles that guide these decisions.

The first is that civilians should remain unharmed as much as possible. While deliberate attacks on civilians remain disturbingly common among soldiers from all nations, those that engage in such acts are generally punished by their governments. The second principle is that while the goal in combat is to kill the enemy, suffering should be as limited as possible, and a person who survives combat should not be the intentional victim of long-term physical damage.

With both of those principles in mind, it makes sense that countries can’t just go around dropping nuclear weapons on each other. It causes a massive loss of civilian life, as well as making those that do not die immediately suffer the effects of radiation poisoning for years or even decades. That is why in 2021, the United Nations’ Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was ratified by 60 countries. There’s just one problem with that treaty. The United States did not sign. Russia did not sign. France, China, the UK, in fact no national that actually possesses nuclear weapons signed the treaty.

Therein lays the limitation with any such international treaty. It is only considered law by the nations that agree to it, and even then not every country has an amazing track record of keeping up their end of the agreement. It is with those limitations in mind that we’re going to discuss today some of the weapons that are illegal in war.

Pepper Spray

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Police_with_pepper_spray_outside_Cityplaza1_20200426.jpeg

            Most people know that chemical and biological warfare are generally illegal to use in war. Following the extensive use of mustard gas in World War I, the Geneva Protocol prohibited both of these practices. Despite Nazi Germany being the ones to develop sarin gas, a deadly nerve agent, not even Hitler would authorize its use. He had been a victim of mustard gas himself in World War I which is credited as the reason he chose not to employ deadly gas on the battlefield, despite gassing millions to death in his concentration camps.

              The scale of the ban on chemical weapons has increased over time, notably with the Chemical Weapons Convention that became effective in 1997. Ratified by 193 nations, this treaty greatly broadened the scope of chemical weapons that were banned. One notable inclusion was Article 1.5: “Each State Party undertakes not to use riot control agents as a method of warfare.”

              This excludes the use of both pepper spray and tear gas. While the ratifying nations are more than welcome to use these chemicals for riot control on their own civilian population, they may not use them on the field of battle. These are both relatively harmless yet effective for riot control and are a considered a safe means to deescalate a situation before having to rely on more forceful methods, but they are still prohibited in war as chemical weapons.

Spike Pits

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lascar_A_booby_trap_with_bamboo_spikes_-_Cu_Chi_tunnels_(4607992038).jpg

            It may sound more like an obstacle in a video game or a method of hunting for primitive people, but spike pits have been used as recently as the Vietnam War. Used as booby traps, a small pit would be dug and filled with sharp sticks of wood or bamboo, often called punji sticks. These sticks were frequently imbedded into the side of the pit pointing at a downward angle, and the pit was covered with brush or some other form of camouflage. Such a configuration meant that if someone stepped in the pit, the angled stakes would make it impossible to pull their leg out without serious injury.

              The purpose of these spike pits was rarely to kill someone. Digging a pit large enough that the sticks would be fatal would be extremely difficult and time consuming. The goal was predominantly just to slow down an entire unit, as everyone would have to help the injured person release their leg from the trap and help them get to safety. They could also be set up in preparation for an ambush. By rigging the areas in which they suspected their enemies to take cover, an ambushing party could trick a unit into the spike pits thus making them easy targets.

              Even though the traps weren’t normally fatal, sometimes the sticks would be coated with poison or animal feces to cause infection and ultimately death of the person that fell prey to the trap.

              Spike pits were prohibited under Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) on 1979. This related to any type of booby trap, another of which we’ll get to later. One of the key issues with booby traps is that they are generally installed but not dismantled, meaning that following an armed conflict, the traps remain for unsuspecting civilians to fall victim to.

Balloon Bombs

              Previously on this channel we mentioned Japan’s balloon bombs as one of the craziest weapons of World War II, but these were actually already banned from use by the 1899 Hague Convention. While it would take many years for the 101 countries that have ratified the convention so far to do so, ironically both Japan and the United Kingdom had done so in 1900. These were the two countries known for using balloon bombs during World War II.

              The reason for banning these weapons is straight forward: they are extremely ineffective and unpredictable, putting civilians in far more danger than enemy soldiers. Japan launched nearly 9,000 balloon bombs against the United States, and the only casualties were a minister’s pregnant wife and several Sunday school children. It served as a reminder both of why these types of weapons need to be banned, and that countries can’t always be trusted to agree to their treaties.

Blinding Lasers

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            You can’t shoot what you can’t see. That’s the entire principle behind camouflage, smoke screens, and many other weapons and military tactics. However, there was one weapon that was believed to take that a step too far. Protocol IV of the CCW was issued by the United Nations in 1995, and it banned the use of blinding laser weapons.

              This was a particularly significant ban, as it was only the second time that a weapon had been banned by international treaty before ever actually being used on the battlefield. The first was the prohibition of exploding bullets by the 1868 St. Petersburg Declaration, though the United States was not part of this as they were not considered a major power at the time.

              Still, the ban on blinding lasers is very important as these weapons do exist. The use of stun grenades, or “flashbangs”, to temporarily overload the senses of enemy soldiers is common, but while there are reports of permanent hearing damage, they are designed to only briefly disorient and not cause irreparable damage. It is believed that The United States, Germany, and China all have developed weapons that could cause permanent loss of vision in a person, and that permanently blinding an entire unit would be trivial for those possessing these weapons, but that it would be far too inhumane for the survivors.

              There are some caveats with this ban, however. First, it only restricts use of weapons that can blind someone’s naked eye, or a person using corrective lenses. Any weapon capable of blinding a person using something to enhance their vision for military purposes, so anything other than eyeglasses or contact lenses, is not prohibited. Furthermore, while a weapon cannot have blinding people as an intended function, if it is using lasers for some other purpose and they just happen to blind someone in the process, well we’ll just call that an accident and move on.

Napalm

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aircraft_bomb_(Napalm)_(8669750054).jpg

            Though first created and used during World War II, in fact used in larger quantities during World War II than any other war, the word “napalm” is almost synonymous with the Vietnam War. This is mostly because Vietnam was when public opinion on napalm turned. In the Korean War, napalm had been a hero. In the early days of the war, when Americans were outnumbers and outgunned, napalm was a huge asset in their arsenal.

              During Vietnam, however, much of the war was being broadcast to the United States, and people did not like what they saw. Entire forests were being burned to the ground in case there were soldiers hiding there. Then, in 1973 there was Phan Thi Kim Phuc, better known as Napalm Girl.

              Kim Phuc was born in South Vietnam, and was just 9 years old when she reached international fame by being the subject of a Pulitzer Prize winning picture by photographer Nick Ut. The photo shows Kim Phuc running naked down the street along with other civilians and soldiers. Her clothes were burned off by napalm, and she received third degree burns.

              With tens of thousands of civilians killed in Vietnam by napalm and the CCW taking place just five years after the war, it’s no surprise that napalm was going to be on the chopping block as a prohibited weapon of war, though the actual result was a bit stranger.

              The CCW banned the use of napalm and other incendiary weapons on civilian targets, but not on military targets. Generally speaking, this sort of regulation should have gone without saying, but after the atrocities witness during the Vietnam War, apparently the American military needed to have it put in writing for them.

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/composition-c-4-explosives-are-prepared-for-a-confidence-4b8041

Plastic Explosives

              No, we’re not talking about C-4, we’re talking about mines made out of plastic. The rule is not limited to land mines either. Mines and shrapnel bombs that used plastic instead of metal became popular as they could not be located by metal detectors, making them much more dangerous and effective. Unfortunately, they’re not just impossible to detect on the battlefield, they’re impossible to detect in the human body.

              Plastic shrapnel inside the human body cannot be located even via the use of x-rays, which means surgeons have to just open a person up and poke around to see what’s going on, hoping to find any plastic shards that might have been lodged inside of someone. This obviously causes undo suffering, and someone who is fortunately enough to survive an explosion should not be put through this sort of physical trauma as part of their recuperation process.

              The prohibition does not stop simply at explosives, either. While plastics aren’t banned entirely in weapons production, the CCW bans any weapon that uses plastic as part of its primary ordinance.

Anti-Personnel Land Mines

https://nara.getarchive.net/media/a-soviet-tm-46-anti-personnel-mine-7c51e0A Soviet TM-46 anti-personnel mine.

This ban was a long time coming, and took several failed attempts. The CCW sought a total ban on anti-personnel land mines, but their efforts fell short. Some treaties had placed restrictions on these mines, such as requiring them to deactivate after a certain period of time, allowing them to be remotely deactivated, or simply demanding that whoever put them into the ground take them out after the war was over. These regulations weren’t enough, and finally in 1997 the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, also known as the Ottawa Treaty, created a full ban on these explosives which has been ratified by 164 countries.

              Notable countries that have not ratified the Ottawa Treaty include Russia, China, and the United States. While the US did self impose a ban on anti-personnel mines under President Barrack Obama, with the reservation that they could still use land mines in Korea, the decision was reversed in 2020 under President Donald Trump.

              Land mines are one of those things that seem like a great idea. An area can be protected with booby traps to prevent enemies from approaching or forcing oncoming troops to take a specific path that is heavily fortified. The problem with land mines is that they work too well, and for too long. It is estimated that there are currently 110 million land mines buried in the ground, and that there are 10,000-20,000 deaths every year as a result.

              It will probably come as no surprise that 80% of land mine deaths are civilians, and that the most common victims of these forgotten relics of past wars are children. The sad truth is that no matter what international laws are put into place now, even if every country on Earth were to agree to them, there are still millions of literal death traps waiting for someone to accidentally stumble upon them.

              It’s also important to note that the Ottawa Treaty is an incomplete measure. The treaty specifically sought to address the issue of anti-personnel mines, but anti-tank mines are still fair game. Anti-tank mines are much safer for civilians, as they are larger and require much more weight than a single person would normally exert on them in order to detonate, but this isn’t always the case.

              The Ottawa Treaty also serves as another unfortunate reminder that not only are countries prone to violating some of these weapons bans, but these international treaties are meaningless to any nation that chooses not to ratify them. The treaties also generally only apply when engaging in war against another nation that has ratified the treaty. This means that the next time the United States or Russia decides they want to roll up on another country, they had better not forget their metal detectors.

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