Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fight or flight? Military research may tip the balance

Posted by John Keller

The history of warfare is filled with accounts of pitched battles where one side or the other -- sometimes both at the same time -- are on the ragged edge between stand and fight, or retreat fast and to live and fight another day.

Military commanders -- Robert E. Lee immediately comes to mind -- wrote that they could almost feel the opposing side ready to break and run under the onslaught of a determined infantry attack. It is that moment of decision -- fight or run -- that has been the key to many a military battle.

Sometimes all it takes is one panicked soldier to start a stampede to the rear, creating an uncontrollable rout and likely defeat. It is for good reason that throughout history, military leaders have gone to great lengths to make their fighting forces stick to their guns.

NCOs in the British Army of the 18th and early 19th centuries used to roam the firing lines just behind the infantry formations while carrying wicked-looking weapons called halberds, which had axe heads and a sharp pike in the middle (see accompanying photo). Anyone who ran would get the spear, and soldiers knew that to panic and run meant certain death.

Commanders throughout the ages have done their best to induce opposing troops to panic and run. Stonewall Jackson ordered his men to "yell like furies," which they did, inventing the Rebel Yell in the process. Union soldiers used to roar like trains. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.

Today, U.S. military researchers are trying to do the Rebel Yell one better by uncovering the precise chemical scent of fear, according to a story on the Wired Danger Room blog entitled Pentagon Explores 'Human Fear' Chemicals; Scare-Sensors, 'Contagious' Stress in the Works?

Now, the US Army is trying to track down and harness people's smell of fear. The military has backed a study on the "Identification and Isolation of Human Alarm Pheromones," which "focused on the Preliminary Identification of Steroids of Interest in Human Fear Sweat." The so-called "skydiving protocol" was the researchers' method of choice.

Imagine a weapon that literally could spread the smell of fear among fighting forces on the ragged edge between fight and flight. It could tip the course of battle.

It will take much more research to isolate these chemicals, and then to create the sensors, delivery systems, and protective clothing to get the fear weapon into the field.

If the research comes to fruition, however, might international authorities outlaw fear weapons on the basis of chemical weapons treaties? I'm almost afraid to ask.

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting that you have used a photo of a Scottish re-enactment group (The Queen's Own Royal Halberdiers, St. Andrews) here in California.
    I was the drummer for the group and was actually in attendance at the event pictured, just behind the halberdiers.