For all the visible horror and concussive din of combat, the smell war lingers and stings the most: burning vehicles, fuel, and flesh. Fresh, spent cordite. Salt water. Opium. Sewage.
War reeks. If smells can sometimes act as forceful memory triggers, it’s no surprise that militaries found a way to robotize the stink and use it as a tool of deception, dispersion, or fear. Iran recently announced a new “strategic project of the armed forces,” a weapon designed to “camouflage the smell of gunpowder” as it pumps out odors over vast swaths of land. They call it “deceit perfume.” According to the state-run Fars news agency, the agreeable-smelling stuff will come in four flavors—fresh air, rain, seaside (for the navy) and tea—that Iranian troops will be able to choose to poof over missions calling for the ’olfactory cover-up.
It’s not just Iran. A handful of Tier-1 militaries, notably the U.S. and Israel, are whipping up stink juices capable of fooling an enemy into letting his guard down or exploiting his so-called smell-fear link. U.S. soldiers train to dodge the smells through simulations—flash exposures melted-plastic odor and rotting flesh—to prep for a world “where the smells may be encountered for real”.
But stench warfare actually isn’t all that new. Militaries have been tinkering with the idea of stink bombs for years. It’s often been a case of flipping something like a perfume into something truly rank—glorified non-lethal stink bombs, really, designed to sting the nostrils to overwhelm those on the receiving end. The “non-lethal” designation is crucial: In a world governed largely by the Chemical Weapons Convention, malodorants pass the sniff test, as it were.
Stink bombs really don’t cause any grave bodily injury, and they certainly can’t kill, at least not as they stand today. But have you ever smelled something so horrendous that you ran the other way? Just think of how you react when a skunk just sprayed. You evacuate. Quickly. The intense and disorienting fog from foreign and foul stenches stroke the amygdala, starting an “unthinking fear reaction” in sprayees. (This brain reaction will jolt any target into flight, fleeing the hell away from the putrid deterrent, and quick.) Malodorants aren’t lethal, which generates a “ehh, whatever” consensus in the military, especially the Pentagon. They argue that they use stink bombs that check out with the CWC (whether the attacked country is party to CWC guidelines, or not) while still effectively splitting up rowdy herds or smearing enemies.
For the U.S., at least, not much has ever really come of heavy investment in stink technology. The whole thing has missed far more than it has hit. Some would argue it’s been near a total failure. Even still, there’s a whole sordid history behind the trial-by-stink of some of the shittier-smelling of these malodorants, no matter who sprayed and who got sprayed. Wafting these militarized stink bombs can give us a sense as to whether the stench wars will continue billowing over the horizon, or not.