Guardian
Bring down the wrath of God on evil men

David Hambling investigates the ultimate psychological weapon - the voice of the Lord

Rory Carroll

Thursday February 3, 2000


We are in Baghdad in 1991, and something strange is happening. A hush falls over the city as a huge shimmering face materialises in the sky. Soldiers and citizens prostrate themselves as each hears the voice of Allah coming from within, commanding them to overthrow the evil and treacherous Saddam Hussein. Within minutes an angry mob is storming the palace as the guards flee...

This highly imaginative scenario was proposed by US Air Force planners for a bloodless victory in the Gulf conflict. The idea of putting words in God's mouth is not new. Back in the second century AD Lucian described a statue of the god Aesculapius which spoke to believers, aided by a hidden priest with a speaking tube.

The Baghdad plan involved projecting a giant hologram over Iraq. This kind of projection requires a mirror behind it, and the scale of the project dictated a mirror several miles across up in space. Orbital mirrors have to be extremely lightweight, so the construction is based around a very a thin sheet of metallised plastic. It is folded for launch; once in orbit it unfurls itself like a giant umbrella. So far the largest mirror has been 30 metres wide, but the present versions are too small to produce a convincing image at ground level.

Another approach would be to make a mirror out of thin air. When warm air lies on top of cold air, the difference in density is enough to bend light. This causes the familiar illusory puddles in the road on a hot day. At higher altitudes, a mirage can make whole landscapes appear in the sky, an effect known as fata morgana. An artificial mirage could in theory be made by heating the atmosphere with radio waves or microwaves.

The military certainly appears to believe in the potential use of holograms. A USAF think-tank has devised uses ranging from deceptive holographic imaging to the Star Trek sounding distortion field projector. These are described as useful for strategic deception purposes, particularly against an unsophisticated adversary. They would be projected by a special aircraft, the airborne hologram projector. Perhaps the nearest current equivalent is the Commando Solo, a modified Hercules festooned with aerials and antennae and carrying pods of classified electronics. Flown by the 193rd Special Operations Detachment ("We fire electrons, not bullets"), it has been involved in the Gulf and the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts. Commando Solos equipment can transmit across the electromagnetic spectrum including radio and television signals. Its other capabilities include jamming, deception and manipulation techniques.

T he face of God is not enough on its own. A voice is needed. A new technique using microwaves could produce this. When a high power microwave pulse strikes the human body, a small temperature perturbation occurs. This causes an expansion of tissue which can create an acoustic wave. A report from the USAF scientific advisory board says: "With a pulse stream, an internal acoustic field of 5-15KHz can be created which is audible. Thus it may be possible to 'talk' to adversaries in a way which would be most disturbing to them."

The practical difficulties involved in microwave transmission are formidable. The exact sound perceived depends on the size and shape of the skull of the hearer and their orientation to the source. Microwaves can be reflected or damped by solid objects, so there is a risk that God's voice will have the underwater quality of poor radio reception. And would you believe in a God whose voice drops off when you walk behind a lamp-post?

Although the plan had major technical hurdles to overcome, the main reasons for rejecting it were cultural. Images of Allah are forbidden in Islam. How can you project an image of God when nobody knows what He is supposed to look like?

There is also a fundamental problem with psychology. The plan has Boys' Own Paper view of foreigners as being conveniently superstitious savages, prone to fleeing at the sound of a disembodied voice from a gramophone. This may have been the case in some places a century ago, but the citizens of Baghdad are by no means backward. They have satellite dishes and VCRs like the rest of the world.

People have been exposed to years of sophisticated computer-generated imagery and flashy special effects. If the image of God did appear in the heavens, someone would be bound to look up at the wavering image and suggest that it was all done with mirrors.




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