Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – Concepts of Nonlethal Force: Understanding Force from Shouting to Shooting

Thu, 12/31/2020 - 7:54pm

SWJ Book Review – Concepts of Nonlethal Force: Understanding Force from Shouting to Shooting

Matt Begert

NL Weapons

Charles Sid” Heal, Concepts of Nonlethal Force: Understanding Force from Shouting to Shooting. Brooklyn, NY: Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020, [ISBN: Paper: 978-1590566350, eBook, 978-1590566367, 160 pages]

Concepts of Nonlethal Force takes on the Herculean task of summarizing the body of work, history, development, technology and classification system of nonlethal weapons and options.  It is purposefully written within the operational context of nonlethal use of force by law enforcement and military organizations and the discussion remains connected to the complex and difficult framework of the use and justification of force with the intent to expand the concept of force beyond the “deadly only” solution.  Because it is not written specifically for the technologist or the researcher, it has significantly more impact potential and reach to a broader audience.  The book achieves its goal of introducing and describing a new way of thinking about force because of the extensive personal experience and distinctive conceptual thinking of the author.

Sid Heal is widely known as an experienced practitioner in both the law enforcement and military communities.  He retired as a Commander from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and as a CWO-5 from the United States Marine Corps Reserve and is considered one of the few subject matter experts who understands both the technological application and operational implications of using nonlethal weapons.  He writes from a position of actual personal and practical experience.

Commander Heal tunes the voice of the book for the “street cop” with secondary focus on military organizations and people.  He writes in first person to speak directly to the audience with emphasis on information relevant to policy and training.  That said, the added value of the message is that its structure and clarity make it useful for many other audiences.  Public safety policymakers, civil rights groups, social justice advocates and international law and human rights organizations should have this level of awareness of transformational force options.

Heal quickly points out that adding the dimension of nonlethal force options is a significant complication.  Simply defining and naming the option of something other than binary (deadly) force is confusing.  The author decides on the term nonlethal versus less lethal or less-than-lethal and selects the Department of Defense definition of nonlethal, perhaps because the military culture often defines common terms as doctrine, somewhat unlike the different culture of American law enforcement.  He also uses nonlethal weapons and force options as interchangeable descriptors to emphasize that binary (deadly only force) is a thing of the past.

Organizing Force

The book is divided into two parts.  Part I is devoted to the complexities involved with the concept and implementation of nonlethal weapons and the inherent controversy, confusion and complexity of adding the option of an alternative to deadly force.  The understanding of the concept of a force continuum, described in detail, is an essential element to understanding the complexity of force application.  Another important, well-described concept is the discussion of how nonlethal options have changed the evaluation and management of risk.  Both of these concepts are described within the framework of law, media description and public opinion.

Chapters 4 (Using and Justifying Force), 5 (Injuries from Nonlethal Force Options) and 6 (Assessing and Managing Risk) are essential to an understanding of the message that force does not have to be a binary option but it is rife with complication, confusion and situational differences.  References to employment of nonlethal option situations infer use in one-on-one situations (generally for law enforcement officers) and many-on-many (generally riots or military confrontations) and initially passive shaping operations (generally military).  However, Heal skillfully weaves situation, context and the differing rules of engagement and opponents so that the reader can see the applicability in the varied worlds.

Chapter 9 of Part I introduces Part II.  It identifies another problem akin to definitions and terms: A way to conceptually organize the different nonlethal choices in some way to give some structure and make sense out of the different nonlethal options.  He suggests this candidate taxonomy could be organized by type, role, category, and groups within categories and groups organized by features.

Heal organizes it as follows: Weapon and option types are either lethal or nonlethal; examples of roles include anti-personnel or anti-materiel, etc; category is the operational description (impact, chemical, mechanical, etc).  Each category of weapon (force options) is divided and subdivided by groups and features.  Groups define the functional intent.  A chemical option, for example, can function as an irritant or an obscurant.  The subdivision of features describes the functional elements.  The example is an impact projectile that is non-stabilized, fin-stabilized or spin-stabilized.  

Part II then takes this framework and applies it to the various nonlethal weapons and options.  Part II describes the categories of impact (e.g., projectiles), chemical (e.g., tear gas), mechanical (e.g., nets/entanglements), electrical (e.g., TASER), biological, (e.g., dogs, horses), and directed energy, (e.g. LASER).  The concluding chapter is a case study of use of nonlethal force that demonstrates the force continuum, the management of risk, the potential of injury and the selection of appropriate options and operational thinking in a dynamic situation.

Assessing the Text

Logically organized, well described, and written for someone who does not necessarily have a background in nonlethal concepts and technology, it is an interesting and thorough read, surprisingly short in length (160 pages), and is written from a perspective of both experience and operational conceptual thinking.  There are no obvious gaps in information or topics that could have been addressed but were not.  Any additional information that could have been included would run the risk of too much intricate detail.  A graphic representation on the taxonomy may have helped in the conceptual understanding of a complex topic.

Concepts of Nonlethal Force makes at least two valuable contributions to the body of work on nonlethal force options.  It gives structure to the current array of weapons and devices, but more importantly, it emphasizes the complexity of the force continuum and concepts of operational thinking necessary for reducing deadly force outcomes.

The book emphasizes policy and Heal is a pragmatic about the use of force policy and training based on an understanding of the current state-of-play of nonlethal weapons.  The book is therefore of use to other audiences such as civil society groups, international aid organizations, policy-making bodies (both national and international).  The book has practical benefit for research and engineering as well.

In this time of intensified global scrutiny on force, renewed awareness of humanitarian law (both internal and international) and the policy of intentional national societal disruption leading to riots and civil disturbance, managing the use of appropriate force and minimizing the consequences of encounters is vital.  The message of this book is that seeking better ways to manage necessary force is a better path. Comprehensive understanding of that path is necessary and contributory to progress. Concepts of Nonlethal Force is a valuable addition to that understanding.

Categories: SWJ Book Review

About the Author(s)

Matt Begert retired from the United States Marine Corps as a Lt.Col. after 25 years service with operational experience in infantry, aviation, and intelligence. He also worked for The Aerospace Corporation evaluating technology for law enforecement and emergency responders and NGOs involved in humanitarian and disaster response. He holds undergraduate degrees in anthropology and journalism from the University of Kansas.  

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