The Directorate of Joy

Since I don’t have the time for an original entry this morning, here’s something from my files. This appeared as an op-ed in the Centre Daily Times – the main newspaper for the region surrounding Penn State’s University Park campus – back in November 2002. This region is known to Penn State fans and other local boosters as Happy Valley.

A post on “non-lethal” weapons breaks the pattern of non-political or anti-political writing here at Via Negativa, but it does give some background for a passing comment I made in Tuesday’s post, “The mutter of all bums.” By sheer happenstance, the origianl op-ed came out within days of a Russian police assault on a Moscow theater that had been taken over by Chechen rebels. Over a hundred people died from exposure to the supposedly non-lethal chemical weapon injected by the police. I forget the name of the chemical, but it was indeed one of the main subjects of the Penn State study. Most (but not all) would probably have lived had they been given proper, immediate medical attention.

The P.R. flunky for this program did respond to my attack with an op-ed of his own. However, the only charge he denied was that this research was inappropriate for a public university. He didn’t specifically address whether or not it violates the Chemical Weapons Convention. I think it’s a pretty sure bet that one topic we will not hear Bush and Kerry debate in the upcoming months is the United States’ own growing stockpiles of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

The military’s obsessive and incessant use of acronymns and code-words remains a source of fascination for me.

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I sat staring at my computer screen in disbelief, the address line of my browser keyed to www.mcru.org. My beloved alma mater Penn State is code-named MCRU, “Marine Corps Research University”? That can’t be right!

Surely what they really mean is something like “The Beatrice Q. and James P. Rugglethorpe III Marine Corps Research University.” It just has such a better ring to it.

MCRU was maybe the tenth semi-digestible new acronym I’d encountered in the course of an afternoon of web surfing. With an Iraq war looming, I was checking out some of the more arcane implications of an MRC (Major Regional Conflict), which seems to differ from MOOTW (Military Operations Other Than War) chiefly in the size and number of bombs dropped and missiles lobbed. The largest and toughest chunk of word-salad was still lodged halfway down my throat: JNLWD, the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate.

If an acronym is long and unpronounceable, why use it? For simplicity’s sake, hereafter I’ll refer to the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate by an abbreviation, “Joy.”

Joy is a Pentagon initiative that contracts for research at the ARL (Applied Research Lab) at Penn State/MCRU, and at several other facilities around the country. “Non-lethal weapons” (NLWs), it turns out, is a catch-all category for anything that can be used to hurt, maim or incapacitate without actually killing people. Some weapons are classified as non-lethal because, if used in a certain way, they don’t kill human targets most of the time: rubber-coated bullets when they’re fired at the ground, for instance, or very brief, agonizing bursts of microwave radiation (both subjects of Penn State research).

But what really captured my fancy was the Joy-sponsored research into what one pair of military strategists rhapsodically describe as “neural inhibitors, gastrointestinal convulsives, neuropharmacological agents, calmative agents, and disassociative hallucinogens,” including such familiar drugs as Prozac and Valium; opiates “hundreds of times more potent” than heroin; a drug called Precedex that “increases patients’ reaction to electric shock”; even GBH (“the date rape drug”). Military planners prefer to lump all these chemical NLWs together as “calmatives”.

I’m quoting in part from a 50-page report produced for the Directorate by the College of Medicine and ARL, entitled The Advantages and Limitations of Calmatives for Use as a Non-Lethal Technique. Deploying a potent cocktail of Militarese and Medicalese, the report describes calmatives as “pharmaceutical agents . . . with a profile of producing a calm-like state,” with “physiological and behavioral effects [that] range from amelioration of anxiety, mild sedation, hypnotic effects to coma and death.” Ideally, of course, they would be administered in doses designed to produce merely “a less agitated, groggy, sleepy-like state” or “a stunned state of consciousness.”

Who’d have thought that the theme of Bobby McPherrin’s body slapping, sleepy-like hit of yesteryear, “Don’t worry, be happy,” might one day be enforceable by riot police?

The authors point out that such chemicals “offer specific advantages in a non-lethal warfare setting.” They don’t say exactly what such a setting might involve, though they do allude to situations involving an “agitated population,” exemplified at one point by “a group of hungry refugees . . . excited over the distribution of food,” and at another point they suggest helpfully that certain drugs offer superior “control of an individual.”

Non-lethal warfare? How very politically correct (PC)!

The foreigners and liberals at the Hamburg- and Austin-based Sunshine Project have a serious bee up their butt about this research. They’ve been using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain a number of classified documents (including the report cited above) which, they claim, add up to a pretty damning conclusion: that the US military is in direct violation of international law, specifically the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Not only does the R&D program itself constitute a violation but, they say, Joy is currently flouting CWC rules even further by testing a delivery system: the 81mm M252 mortar, which has a range of 2.5 km., according to recent FOIA-obtained documents. The sunshiners whine about the danger of escalation if “non-lethal” chemical weapons are used in battlefield situations, wring their hands over the possibility of a new chemical arms race, and go so far as to imply that using chemical weapons against Iraq would make us (U.S.) vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy!

The Sunshine Project’s latest bombshell is a press release dated 27 September, maintaining that experiments with human subjects are planned, or may indeed already have been conducted. Their evidence consists of a murkily written contract, dated 29 January 2002, between the Directorate and MCRU.

Actually, this isn’t too hard to believe. Anecdotal evidence suggests that close to half the student population of Penn State/MCRU on any given Friday night descends rapidly into a “stunned state of consciousness.” And was it really just a coincidence that Arts Fest revelers somehow didn’t feel like rioting this year?

The Directorate, for its part, tells the Associated Press (AP) that it has decided to “step back and make sure the use of calmatives would not violate the Chemical Weapons Convention.” Part of “making sure” apparently includes denying the release of over two thirds of the documents requested; ordering the US National Academies of Science not to release unclassified documents deposited in their public archives by Joy; and even by classifying their own internal, legal review–a tacit admission that thoughts themselves can be dangerous.

Which, come to think of it, is almost an inevitable conclusion, if you begin (as the Penn State study does) with the premise that resistance to authority constitutes a treatable psychological disorder.

But apparently they didn’t “make sure” soon enough. Already-released records indicate that back in 2000 our British allies–timid as always!–protested that the calmatives program was illegal. Joy simply replied that it would proceed anyway: “If there are promising technologies that DOD [Department of Defense] is prohibited from pursuing, set up MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] with DOJ [Department of Justice] or DOE [Department of Energy].”

Translation: “Pass the buck and damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

Space doesn’t permit more than a mention of some of the ironies surrounding the Joy Directorate’s work. Where to begin? In Afghanistan, where opium production under U.S. occupation has rebounded to pre-Taliban levels? In the Andes, where peasants’ coca crops are destroyed by U.S. taxpayer-subsidized military aircraft indiscriminately spraying deadly chemicals?

How about in Happy Valley, where a moralizing university president has encouraged police to crack down on underage drinkers, and where students are suspended or expelled for possession of a quarter bag of pot?

On the second week of October, the Sunshine Project presented its case at the Chemical Weapons Convention conference at the Hague. Oddly, its suggestion that the UN send a weapons inspection team to the US was greeted with resounding silence. (All I can say is, they better not try flying their black helicopters over Beaver Stadium!)

Hmmm, that’s strange–I feel this sudden, uncontrollable urge to lie down on the couch . . . turn on the television . . . watch football . . .
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The text of the Chemical Weapons Convention may be found here or here. Since this essay was published, the ARL has removed most of the offending material from its website, though the most damning documents (including the report I quoted from) are archived here by the Sunshine Project. Access to the MCRU’s website has also been restricted. An example of the military’s thinking about the legal and ethical status of non-lethal weapons may be viewed here.

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