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New Weapons Aren't More Humane

Iraq War as Arms Expo

by MARK ENGLER

Arms manufacturers and military publicists invariably use new conflicts to showcase their latest wares. With fawning descriptions of weapons systems now continually available on 24-hour cable news stations, the current war in Iraq may prove to be the largest arms expo yet.

But if we are to learn anything from the first Gulf War, it is that wartime PR spin produces a fundamentally misleading view of arms build-up and fosters bad security policy.

With the new invasion, Patriot Missiles are back in the news. Night-time video footage of the missiles launching to intercept Iraqi Scuds provided a defining image of the first Gulf War for the American viewing public. A symbol U.S. technological prowess, Patriots stood at the fore of an array of new weapons that wowed the pundits.

Claims about the Patriot Missile system’s success, however, turned out to be propaganda. After Desert Storm had passed and most people stopped paying attention, Congressional investigations revealed that the missiles weren’t necessarily destroying any enemy Scuds when they exploded in midair.

In a 1992 report reviewing the issue, the House Committee on Government Operations concluded that "The Patriot missile system was not the spectacular success in the Persian Gulf War that the American public was led to believe. There is little evidence to prove that the Patriot hit more than a few Scud missiles launched by Iraq during the Gulf War, and there are some doubts about even these engagements."

Boston Magazine reports that when negative coverage first hit the press, the Patriots’ manufacturer, Raytheon, investigated possibilities for revoking the security clearance of a leading critic, MIT’s Theodore Postal.

Today, arms dealers are not so concerned with hiding the truth about the older weaponry. They are busy touting the improved performance of a "new generation" of anti-missile technology. Tragically, it appears that target recognition failure in one of the new Patriot missiles was responsible for the death of two British airmen returning to a base near the border of Kuwait, an incident announced on March 23.

The World Trade Center disaster proved that pricey weaponry does not necessarily make for effective security. Now is the time for smarter defense policy, not an ever-escalating build-up of superpower stockpiles.

Yet it is likely that the Iraq War will only lead to the creation of a larger pile. Bush’s proposed budged for 2003 earmarks $380 billion for the Pentagon-an increase of $15 billion over last year’s historically large allocation. And this does not include funding for the current conflict.

"Star Wars" missile defense, slated to receive nine billion dollars in funding for next year alone, stands as perhaps most offensive piece of gadetry in development. As with the Patriot Missile, the heart of the system is complicated in-flight targeting technology that, despite Pentagon boosterism, had been plagued with failure. Critics charge that in both the "successful" trials, as well as in the failed attempts, decoys were carefully selected for their dissimilarity from the targeted mock warheads, making successful interception much easier than in "real world" conditions.

Another reason to be skeptical of a new arms expo is that even when technological innovations work, they do not make war more humane. "Smarter" bombs, outfitted with sophisticated targeting devices, provide a key example. As the Christian Science Monitor reported recently, "In the Gulf War, just 3 percent of bombs were precision-guided. That figure jumped to 30 percent in the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, and to nearly 70 percent during the Afghan air campaign last year. Yet in each case, the ratio of civilian casualties to bombs dropped has grown."

"Smarter" bombs can breed overconfidence, leading officers to order attacks that would have been considered too risky in the past-such as "surgical strikes" within cities. The numbers indicate that civilians bear the brunt of this shift.

War is still war, however sophisticated the weaponry. To prevent its tragedies from being compounded, we need a critical press corps more than ever. As the new war proceeds, reporters should challenge military spin and ask, "What will be the next Patriot hoax?"

MARK ENGLER,a writer based in New York City, has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San José, Costa Rica. He can be reached at engler@eudoramail.com.

Research assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.

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