Bioethics Blogs

The Paradox of Nonlethal Weapons

“The Paradox of Nonlethal Weapons”

Fritz Allhoff, CLB Fellow

International law constrains the weapons available in warfare. For example, Article 35 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions states: “Parties to a conflict and members of their armed forces do not have an unlimited choice of methods and means.” But why? Broadly speaking, there have been three answers. The first is that some weapons should be avoided because they cause “superfluous and unnecessary suffering” (International Committee for the Red Cross [ICRC], Rule 70). The second is that some weapons should be avoided because they are “inhumane” (Id.) And the third is that some weapons should be avoided because we want our opponents to avoid them as well; there are game-theoretic norms based upon self-interest and reciprocity.

A stock example of a banned weapon is the serrated bayonet. The Germans used these as late as World War I, but their use was discontinued amid protests that they were unnecessarily brutal. An unserrated bayonet was sufficient to remove an adversary from the battlefield: the serrations simply caused gratuitous internal damage when the bayonet was withdrawn. They had fallen out of favor in the United States fifty years earlier. President Grant, reflecting on the brutality, noted that “they produce increased suffering without any corresponding advantage to those using them.” And similar stories could be told about other banned weapons: barbed lances, explosive and hollow point bullets, explosive charges containing clear glass, and so on.

These are all examples of lethal weapons.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.