Killing Me Softly

While you weren’t looking, Ray Bradbury took over weapons design at the Pentagon.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Last week, the Pentagon unveiled its newest weapon: the Vehicle Mounted Active Denial System (VMADS). It’s being billed as a kinder, gentler weapon; “non-lethal,” “less than lethal,” or “soft kill” in Pentagon parlance. In other words it usually doesn’t kill people; it just hurts them enough to make ’em run away. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it?

Well, it makes you warm, anyway. VMADS shoots a concentrated beam of electromagnetic energy at human targets — sort of like a tank-mounted microwave oven set on high with the door left open.

According to an Air Force spokesman at the unveiling, “It’s the kind of pain you would feel if you were being burned. It’s just not intense enough to cause any damage.”

But according to scientists at Loma Linda University Medical Center, long-term effects of exposure to the weapon are unknown, and may include cancer and cataracts. “[The Pentagon’s] claims are a bunch of crap,” said Prof. W. Ross Adey. “We’ve known that many forms of microwaves at levels below heating can cause significant health effects in the long term.”

And that’s if the new weapon is used properly. According to the Marine Times, the VMADS — called the “people zapper” — may be capable of inflicting far more than brief discomfort when not used as directed; that is, for no more than three seconds. “The amount of time the weapon must be trained on an individual to cause permanent damage or death is classified.” (In other words, it only takes one 18-year-old recruit with a sick curiosity or a slow watch to turn the thing deadly.)

In 1995, in fact, a military spokesman qualified the concept of “non-lethal” weapons: “[I]t’s really less lethal … because these weapons if improperly used could be lethal.” Marine Col George Fenton, likewise, is on record in the May 2000 National Defense Magazine saying the term “non-lethal … does not mean that they can’t kill or injure.” Reassuring, isn’t it?

Think you have nothing to worry about because you have no plans to join the army of some rogue state? You may be surprised one day to see VMADS — or a civilian law-enforcement version of the weapon — on a city street near you. VMADS and its “non-lethal” kin are being hyped by the Pentagon as “crowd dispersal” devices, which makes them a handy tool for quelling civil unrest, without the fuss and muss of rubber bullets and tear gas. According to the defense journal Jane’s, “The ‘non-lethal’ nature of these weapons might … encourage military forces to use them directly against civilians and civilian targets.” Indeed: A July 2000 Army newsletter featured a section called “Civil Disturbances; Incorporating Non-Lethal Technologies.”

So instead of donning bullet-proof vests and gas masks, activists at the next Seattle-style protest might strap frozen HungryMan dinners to their bodies when they take to the streets. At least they’ll get a hot meal while they wait to post bail.

Critics also note that the US loves to export its weapons technology. In Le Monde in 1999, Steve Wright argued that the spread of non-lethal weapons like VMADS will “spawn ever more advanced techniques of repression. And if democratic countries let their arms manufacturers develop these techniques, they will be exported to places less concerned about brutalizing their populations.”

International law seems fuzzy on this point. Although the Geneva Convention doesn’t address the science-fictionesque subject of laser weapons, an amendment added in 1949 did ban “weapons, projectiles and materials and methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.

VMADS is just the tip of the non-lethal iceberg. In 1995, the Center For Defense Information listed possible non-lethal weapons under consideration by the Pentagon, including “super acids, goop guns, blinding lasers, non-nuclear electromagnetic pulses, high power microwaves, laser weapons, infrasound, computer viruses, and metal-eating microbes.”

Human Rights Watch has been fighting the international development of “blinding lasers” designed to cause irreversible eye damage. In 1995, the US agreed to an international ban on blinding lasers, but continued development of “dazzling lasers” or “dazzlers,” another form of laser weapon targeting human eyes. (Law enforcement groups are developing applications of this type of weapon for police use, giving the high-tech toys groovy names like “The Laser Dissuader“).

And then there’s the Anti-Personnel Beam Weapon that can stun or immobilize humans from a distance of 100 yards by sending an electrical current through a high-speed channel of ionized air.

According to one Web source, the US is also developing a sonic weapon which causes “the bowels of enemy troops to spasm and their contents to liquefy, thus reducing millions of soldiers to, as one government report says, ‘quivering diarrhetic messes.'”

Finally, the US military is developing non-lethal low-frequency radio technologies — which conspiracy theorists suspect have mind-control capabilities — such as the much-criticized High Frequency Active Auroral Project (HAARP).

It’s easy to forget that the US military and intelligence communities are run by a bunch of boys playing with really big toys. The Hanssen spy case, after all, revealed that even after the Cold War was over, the CIA was actually tunneling under DC streets and into the Russian embassy. Makes one wonder if Tom Clancy has been writing policy for the past 20 years. What do you think?

Bits and Pieces

According to World Bank figures, at least 20 percent of women have been physically or sexually assaulted,” reports Amnesty. “Official reports in the US say a women is battered every 15 seconds and 700,000 are raped each year. In India more than 40 percent of married women reported being kicked, slapped or sexually abused for reasons such as their husbands’ dissatisfaction with their cooking or cleaning, jealousy, or other motives. In Egypt, 35 percent of women reported being beaten by their husbands.”

Loggers in Mexico, angry over a government setaside of wooded land for Monarch butterfly sanctuaries, apparently wiped out some 22 million of the insects with a pesticide.

In San Diego, some clever entrepreneurs have come up with Baby Think It Over, a lifelike doll designed to teach teenagers about the downside of unprotected sex. The doll has a chip which tracks the care it’s given, and in addition to crying, eating, and messing its diaper, this doozy screams in the middle of the night.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaires wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods


Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2024 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.