One of the more interesting questions asked on Internet forums is whether Audie Murphy was a war criminal because he used a tank destroyer’s .50 caliber machine gun against attacking German troops. Without pronouncing on that nettlesome subject, the Strategy Page writes that the US military has developed a number of non-lethal weapons energy weapons which were work perfectly well but were never used because they might be the subject of sensational headlines.
Take, for example, the microwave ADS, or Active Denial System (which transmits a searchlight sized beam of energy that makes people downrange feel like their skin is on fire). This system was never quite ready for prime time …
The proposed ROE (Rules of Engagement) for ADS were that anyone who kept coming after getting hit with microwave was assumed to have evil intent, and could be killed. The microwave was believed to be particularly useful for terrorists who hide in crowds of women and children, using the human shields to get close enough to make an attack. This has been encountered in Somalia and Iraq. But not often enough in Afghanistan to give the one ADS there a chance to be used in action (as opposed to tests) for the first time. But the real reason for not using ADS is commanders unwilling to take the media heat for employing a “death ray” on “innocent civilians.”
The effect of weapons is never purely physical. It is at least partially political. Sometimes the political effect can be used to advantage. For example, a nonlethal weapon called the Long Range Acoustic Device — a sound cannon — could be used to impersonate the Voice of God. The Strategy Page says the discovery came quite by accident when the Navy rigged a microphone to LRAD so that an interpreter could project a warning to suspected pirates. The results were unintentionally startling.
It was noted that the guy on the receiving end was sometimes terrified, even after he realized it was that large American destroyer that was talking to him. This apparently gave soldiers some ideas, for there were rumors among Iraqis of a devilish American weapon that makes people believe you are hearing voices in your head. It appears that some of the troops in Iraq used “spoken” (as opposed to “screeching”) LRAD to mess with enemy fighters. Islamic terrorists tend to be superstitious and, of course, very religious. LRAD can put the “word of God” into their heads. If God, in the form of a voice that only you can hear, tells you to surrender, or run away, what are you gonna do?
Run away, that’s what you’re going to do.
The overall effectiveness of a weapon is at least partially dependent on its psychological impact. From a certain point of view, a microwave weapon may not be used against crowds in preference to bullets because it may enrage them — or at least enrage them after they learned from the Left that America has used a “death ray” on innocent civilians. By contrast a glorified sound system can have fantastically effective results. Why? Because it works on a vulnerability in the enemy’s perception.
It may sound illogical, but there it is.
Perhaps the classic example of mind over matter — rumor over reality is the Indian Mutiny. The decline of the British Raj is often reckoned from this date. How did it happen? Psychology. Indian soldiers, or sepoys, were were somehow convinced that the British impregnated their paper cartridges with a sacrilegious types of animal fat. In drilling their troops, the British officers helped incite the Mutiny.
The British, had fully capitalized on the propaganda effect of technology on less scientific cultures. What they failed to realize was that if the White Man could be ascribed magical powers, he was also susceptible to being blamed for Black Magical ones.
The final spark was provided by the ammunition for new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. These rifles had a tighter fit, and used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow, which if derived from pork would be offensive to Muslims, and if derived from beef would be offensive to Hindus. At least one British official pointed out the difficulties this may cause:
unless it be proven that the grease employed in these cartridges is not of a nature to offend or interfere with the prejudices of caste, it will be expedient not to issue them for test to Native corps…
However, in August 1856, greased cartridge production was initiated at Fort William, Calcutta, following British design. The grease used included tallow supplied by the Indian firm of Gangadarh Banerji & Co. By January, the rumours were abroad that the Enfield cartridges were greased with animal fat. Company officers became aware of the rumors through reports of an altercation between a high-caste sepoy and a low-caste labourer at Dum Dum. The labourer had taunted the sepoy that by biting the cartridge, he had himself lost caste, although at this time such cartridges had been issued only at Meerut and not at Dum Dum.
But the facts didn’t matter. The myth did. The British Raj, having ruled partially on the strength of myth, was also undone by it. Take Dum Dum, another name that has ascended into legend. Dum Dum of course, was the site of a Raj era arsenal which manufactured expanding bullets for the .303 Enfield cartridge. Such bullets are widely believed to be prohibited by the Laws on Warfare.
The Hague Convention of 1899, Declaration III, prohibits the use in international warfare of bullets which easily expand or flatten in the body, giving as example a bullet with a jacket with incisions or one that does not fully cover the core. This is often incorrectly believed to be prohibited in the Geneva Conventions, but it significantly predates those conventions, and is in fact a continuance of the Declaration of St Petersburg in 1868, which banned exploding projectiles of less than 400 grams.
Dum-dum is now used as a shorthand for an inhuman kind of bullet, as if there were any other kind. Which brings the discussion right back to Audie Murphy, whose Medal of Honor citation (an alleged record of war crime) reads as follows:
Second Lt. Murphy commanded Company B, which was attacked by six tanks and waves of infantry. 2d Lt. Murphy ordered his men to withdraw to a prepared position in a woods, while he remained forward at his command post and continued to give fire directions to the artillery by telephone. Behind him, to his right, one of our tank destroyers received a direct hit and began to burn. Its crew withdrew to the woods. 2d Lt. Murphy continued to direct artillery fire, which killed large numbers of the advancing enemy infantry. With the enemy tanks abreast of his position, 2d Lt. Murphy climbed on the burning tank destroyer, which was in danger of blowing up at any moment, and employed its .50 caliber machine gun against the enemy. He was alone and exposed to German fire from three sides, but his deadly fire killed dozens of Germans and caused their infantry attack to waver. The enemy tanks, losing infantry support, began to fall back. For an hour the Germans tried every available weapon to eliminate 2d Lt. Murphy, but he continued to hold his position and wiped out a squad that was trying to creep up unnoticed on his right flank. Germans reached as close as 10 yards, only to be mowed down by his fire. He received a leg wound, but ignored it and continued his single-handed fight until his ammunition was exhausted. He then made his way back to his company, refused medical attention, and organized the company in a counterattack, which forced the Germans to withdraw. His directing of artillery fire wiped out many of the enemy; he killed or wounded about 50. 2d Lt. Murphy’s indomitable courage and his refusal to give an inch of ground saved his company from possible encirclement and destruction, and enabled it to hold the woods which had been the enemy’s objective.
It may not be wholly facetious to note that it was fortunate for Murphy that his Medal of Honor citation was written before people started believing that using .50 caliber BMG bullets against infantry targets was a war crime. Times change and what is regarded as laudable depends in part on the attitudes of the era.