It appears Blackwater used CS gas at the gates to the Green Zone in Baghdad during an incident in 2005. Although the incident is being portrayed as a travesty, this does have all the signs of a regrettable, and stupid, accident. I am no apologist for BW – far from it – but sometimes an accident is just that: an accident. Regardless, as the incident raises some important questions about the use of CS gas, the planning and authority for its use and ultimately, the stomach for its use.

CS gas is a chemical agent effective in dispersing crowds. In a theatre where there is less personal effect on individuals of baton rounds than in other theatres, CS Gas has the potential to avoid very serious losses of life in PR, and hence operational hearts and minds, disasters. In a Western country, the use of projectile baton rounds, and the effect of seeing people drop to the floor when struck by those rounds, encourages crowd compliance.

However, this is not the experience of troops in the Middle East, where individual losses to less-lethal means have little effect, and so escalation is required. One may escalate the use of force in two ways – by widening its scope, or heightening its lethality. By opting for scope, the less-lethal nature is retained, but you affect more people – hence CS gas.

Alternatively, one can escalate the degree of lethality used, and transition to lethal force. Imagine a scenario where there is effectively a PR trap; a convoy (military or PMC) is IED’d, and a vehicle immobilised. The personnel are then mobbed by a crowd of 100 people in a pre-planned manner. At that point the options, assuming individual less-lethal rounds are not effective on the crowd, are either to increase in scope or lethality. Does a sane commander prefer to accept the use of a chemical agent, or risk a PR nightmare that would result from video footage of 30 or 40 people being shot in order to protect the lives of the convoy personnel? It would only take a couple of rounds being fired in that scenario to justify a full-scale, pre-planned fire-fight, and suddenly, the incidents of Sept. 16 would seem more akin to a birdbath than bloodbath – think Haiditha on steroids, with live footage for continual replay by Al-Jazeera and CNN.

Of course, the use of CS gas is a substantial rubicon, that opens a Pandora’s Box of other problems, not least of which is an accusation of the use of chemical weapons. A tit-for-tat apologist would point out that IEDs involving the use of chlorine and other ‘irritants’ that have lethal effect are popular with Iraqi insurgents in certain areas and circumstances, but that is hardly justification. The use of CS gas requires in Iraq by US forces requires the authorisation by very senior management, due to very real and very sensitive PR ramifications. Unfortunately, this situation creates a dangerous PR trap that will not be able to be dealt with, because of the lack of an appropriate weapon system and the inability to deploy said weapon system quickly.

In the days of the strategic corporal in the Counter-Insurgency scenario, soldiers must be able to operate across the use of force spectrum with a tempo that this variable situation requires. For those unfamiliar with the term, it was developed by the British in response to the combination of media and military operations – that a corporal (commanding 4-8 men) can make decisions that have a strategic effect. If the soldiers and marines on the ground are not trusted to make decisions of this nature, we must examine whether we think these soldiers and marines, in the rapidly developing situation and understanding the threat are incapable of making such decisions, and if so, why? Is it lack of training or lack of trust? This is a pretty fundamental problem when one considers the risk that, while low probability, would have a massive effect, “Massacre of 50 Iraqis by US troops – footage at 11”

CS gas has bad press, but it has its time and place. If Blackwater did indeed release the CS Gas from the helicopter accidentally, which seems to be the simplest solution (Achem’s Razor, anyone?), it is fair to believe that the convoy did not release more CS gas, but smoke. If the release by both vehicles were deliberate, that is a whole other matter; that this might have been deliberate is the most worrying problem of all – there should have been accountability, and following the incident there should have been remedial action taken resulting from the accident. Why did the CS gas get released; was it poorly marked, poorly placed, who authorised the use of CS gas, or smoke, at that time by those means? Smoke was part of a standard operating procedure which was similarly deemed harmful to the operational intent by the military.

This CS incident, like so many others, gives an example of why there must be an independent auditing and investigating regime of the private military companies, both in Iraq and worldwide. Were such a system in place, the accident would have been investigated, the results promulgated and everyone – including the Iraqis – made aware of the circumstances. As it is, we are left in a, “Did any investigation really take place?” situation, with the poor taste in our mouth that the PMCs were allowed to act in a manner that runs contrary to meeting the political and operational intent.