under the iron snout: a first take on olfactory imperialism by adam flynn

The scent of items cooking on a stove, the whiff of an air freshener, or even the foul smell associated with a ruptured sewage line are all intimate details of a home that are expected to remain private and unavailable to the public. We as Americans have an unwavering expectation that there will not be someone, or something, sniffing into every crack, crevice, window, or chimney of our homes.
—Lewis, J. Concurring opinion, Jardines v. State of Florida, 73 So. 3d 34 (Fla. 2011)

If smell is, as research suggests, the sense most linked to memory and intuition—to visceral reactions and unconscious impulses—we are obligated as pursuers of unasked questions to consider the prospect of olfactory imperialism and oppression.1Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant was a path-making work towards the re-odourisation of history, but it remained focused within a single society, that of France in the 17th and 18th centuries, rather than the collisions between societies. Imagine, for a second, the trans-disciplinary research waiting to be instigated. What is the role of the drug-sniffing dog in the everyday oppression of subaltern peoples? How do Civil and Common law structures conceptualise the privacy of odours, and how does this affect the legal environments of formerly-colonised states? In which spaces does a citizen of Singapore have a legal right to eat durian?

If any of this olfactory grandstanding seems far-fetched, consider that the United States Supreme Court heard not one, but two cases in the fall of 2012 regarding the use of drug-sniffing dogs [Florida v. Jardines & Florida v. Harris]. Consider the acknowledged importance of the miasma theory of disease and its obsession with ‘foul airs’ in the creation of public health as a discipline. Consider the right to an ‘incense-free ride’ emblazoned on every (licensed) taxicab in New York City. Or consider an example from another sense struggling to free itself from the tyranny of the visual: the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology is due to celebrate 20 years of recording and studying the effect of human intervention on natural soundscapes. Call this, then, a first pass at a field worth further examination.

The Early Modern age of ‘exploration’ began with a search for cheaper, better, faster spices and aromatics: local foreign scents were there to be exploited, exoticised, or denounced as unsanitary. Plantation economics meant the introduction of great numbers of non-native species in similar climates, and mass cultivation thereof. (The soursop, originally of South American origin, is even today known as the “Dutch Durian” in Malay.) Sanitation and nation-building at home were followed with their (typically half-hearted) equivalent abroad. The imperialist’s stated desire to civilise, sterilise and regulate his (usually his) environment combined with a longing for comforts and reminders of home to motivate interventions in the olfactory landscape.

I would rather smell French shit for five years than Chinese shit for the rest of my life.
—Attributed to Ho Chih Minh, 1945

MOCK-UP OF XM-2 (MODIFIED E63) AIRBORNE PERSONNEL DETECTOR (mounted on UH 1 aircraft.) “One of the means by which .the division located and kept track of the enemy was the airborne personnel detector, commonly referred to as the “people sniffer.” This air-transportable electrochemical instrument sensed microscopic particles suspended in the air. Mounted in the utility or light observation helicopters, the detector continuously sampled the atmosphere at the flight altitude of the aircraft for evidence of the enemy. It could also detect the ammonia excretions of men (via US Military History Center)

Olfactory Imperialism occupies a threefold division: intentional interventions in smellscapes, unintentional traces of empire, and attempts to mobilise the olfactory as a means of identification and control. Thus the gardens of parsley in Indian hill stations, sanitary fortresses of the British Raj. Thus the breweries of Shandong Peninsula during its time as a German colonial concession, which are now globally available as Tsingtao Beer. Thus in Vietnam today one can find early morning smells of baguette and roasting coffee that would not be out of place in a Parisian arrondissement.

Yet many smells brought by imperialism were not conscious interventions so much as residua of a logistical chain: all the cargo of a war machine or an ongoing occupation, all the rubber, diesel fuel, ammunition, prophylactics, napalm, C-rations, cigarettes, charred corpses, chocolate, and all the other Things They Carried (made famous by Tim O’Brien’s 1990 work of the same name) left a trace, an imposition not unnoticed by contemporary observers.

Smoking was not even up for discussion. The gooks didn’t wear insect repellent, and neither did we. The enemy could smell it on you and locate your position. Cooking was out of the question. Rations were eaten cold …

After six days in the jungle, the combination of stale sweat and plain old body odour made us all stink. But the smell could actually be an advantage. Your diet gave you a distinct aroma. The gooks smelled like rotten fish. We had been eating Vietnamese indigenous rations for the past two weeks, just to pick up their smell. If any trail watchers got downwind from our team, they would just think we were another VC unit.’

—Recondo: LRRPs in the 101st Airborne
Larry Chambers, New York: Ivy Books, 1992

Oral histories of the Vietnam war, as well as accounts related to me personally by U.S. veterans, recount a commonly-held belief that American smells had betrayed their positions. Soldiers noted the importance of smell in tracking and being tracked, and adapted in many ways both officially-sanctioned and otherwise: American military command urged soldiers to treat patrols “just like hunting deer” and minimise their use of deodourant and aftershave, while army doctors noted a pattern of front-line refusal to wear mosquito repellent for tactical reasons.2 A small percentage would not use repellent, believing, falsely, that the Viet Cong could detect the odour. A few stated that they seldom used it because mosquitoes never bothered them or that they were “too tough” to need protection. Some disliked it because it caused bums or skin irritations or because it “smelled bad,” left an oily sensation on the skin or “didn’t taste good.” (“Entomology with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam: Some Lessons Learned” L. Lance Sholdt CAPT, Medical Service Corps, U.S. Navy (Ret.), Proceedings of the DOD Symposium on Evolution of Military Medical Entomology, ADA506261

The furthest-out of American reconnaissance patrols and special forces went so far as to swear off the foods they had grown up with, and take to fermented fish and rice. The midcentury American diet was particularly strong in starches, milk, refined sugars, and red meat, all of which are known to affect one’s personal odour, especially in contrast to the local bio-culinary context.3 Diet obviously does not just affect sweat, and there are traces of a more visceral sort: scholars of long-range reconnaissance patrols noted that “American fecal matter smelled differently from that of the enemies’ and was a calling card announcing GIs had been in the area.” (Inside the LRRPs: Rangers in Vietnam, Michael Lee Lanning, New York: Ivy Books, 1988) While Americans could often smell the Vietnamese as well, it did little to differentiate an NVA regular from a civilian. There is a Vietnamese term for this, mui bua (from the French beurre, literally translated as “butter smell”).

Yet, attempting to alter one’s scent by changing diet to match the ‘native’ context, presented a subtle challenge to the empire’s cultural logics by the pragmatic logics of military exigency. The signifiers of the Centre, uniform and imposing as they might seem during peacetime, were no help for an individual soldier crawling through tunnels a bunker complex or walking point during a night patrol under a new moon. If eating the local food and not washing made survival more likely, so be it. It deepened the estrangement between professionals fighting to ‘win’ and conscripts fighting to survive, and resurfaced arguments not dissimilar about ‘going native’ from a century prior.4 It is entirely sensible under that light that Apocalypse Now (arguably the greatest artistic expression of the conflict alongside Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War) was itself an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

The 1960s American military-industrial-scientific complex, perhaps the apotheosis of ‘can-do’ modernism, looked for a technological means of evening the score. The result was the General Electric XM-3 Olfactronic Personnel Detector, commonly known as the People Sniffer. Adapted from anti-submarine warfare methods of tracking exhaust fumes, its method of action was fairly straightforward: ammonia is part of the chemical composition of sweat. When combined with hydrochloric acid, it forms a particulate detectible in a cloud chamber. Large numbers of unwashed bodies give off enough ammonia to be detected even without visual contact. It was also able to detect carbon particulates (mostly smoke from small arms and cooking fire).

The People Sniffer came in both airborne and portable forms, but the XM-2 Man-Pack was unwieldy, unable to differentiate friend from foe, and gave off an audible ticking sound that was perhaps inconvenient in ambush zones. Understandably, overflights by helicopter became the modus operandi for People Sniffing. Detected concentrations were deemed to be enemy troops and summarily hit with tear gas as a matter of protocol; it is unclear how many civilians and/or water buffalo were gassed as a result. Vietnamese People’s Army and Viet Cong forces responded by lighting fires in random areas and hanging buckets of mud with urine to generate false positives. XM-3 overflights, or “Snoopy Missions” as they came to be called were of questionable effectiveness for detecting smaller than battalion-sized forces, but were a fine example of American know-how to show reporters that science was winning the war.

Imperialism of the 19th century, similarly pseudo-scientific in outlook, primarily looked at subjects as members of groups, and sought to catalogue them for better cultural power. Victorian Polymath Francis Galton was at times a tropical explorer, statistician, criminologist, and eugenicist, whose work on correlation and regression underwrote a period of scientific racism. Thus a British official in India could speak of the differing scents of “Hindoos and Mohommedans,” but identification only came into play when bloodhounds were involved. To consider subject populations as individuals was to invite thinking of them as people, which simply would not do. Instead, smell was categorical, the result of race, geography, and lifestyle. In the latter half of the 20th century, the notion of smell as group-identifier was complicated by purveyors of consumerist individuality on one hand, and states seeking ever-more-refined systems of identification on the other. The twinned olfactory legacies of enlightenment, then, are our right to be smelled as individuals, and the threat of being tracked by it.

Today in America, the Phillipines, and elsewhere, business has moved beyond the inculcation of mass social paranoia about body odour that typified early 1900s advertising.5 This is fairly well-explored ground in academia: late-19th century development of hygiene and sanitation interlocked with the birth of cosmetics marketing to create the bourgeois sensitivity to odour, particularly that of the “unwashed masses” and anxiety about one’s own stink. Today, everyone is ‘unique.’ Businesses exist offering to sell personalised fragrances, often making vague mention of ‘pheromones’ as justification for their price. Gendered magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Men’s Health hawk diet tips for customising the smell and taste of one’s sexual fluids for the better fellatio or cunnilingus, advice that also recurs with strange frequency among advocates of vegan lifestyles.

Yet all these commercial efforts pale in comparison to the systematic archives of Geruchsproben collected by the Stasi, the East German secret police. Deep within nondescript bureaucratic offices sat thousands upon thousands of jars, each with a cloth within holding the personal scents of dissidents and state enemies, ready at a moment’s notice to be put before specially-trained hounds who would seek them out and hunt them down. (It is again unclear how well this actually worked, and to what extent it was simply a mindfuck or the effect of magical thinking among bureaucracies.)

Stasi smell jars

An urgent need arises for non-cooperative surreptitious biometric collection tools, which may play an important role in real-time security monitoring and intelligence gathering. A biometric that can be collected non-cooperatively and from a distance (space and time) is an individual’s scent. For individual identification, one needs to look at the volatile organic compounds that reflect the individual’s gene expression and not other secondary confounding effects.

—Abstract for research contract W15P7T-11-C-H235, award by the U.S. Department of Defense of roughly $70,000 to Applied Nanotech of Austin, Texas for a “portable, low-cost approach for identification based on individual scent (IBIS)” in 2010.

SCOUT DOG LEADS PATROL SEARCHING FOR VIET CONG: “Scout dogs also proved to be a valuable innovation. A scout dog team consisted of one dog and one handler, trained to work together and inseparable for operational purposes. Scout dogs were German shepherds and normally worked on a leash. They were trained to respond to airborne scents by signaling their handlers when they picked up a foreign presence. Scout dogs could locate trip wires, mines, fortifications, tunnels, and storage areas. Under ideal conditions, they could detect groups of people several hundred meters away; however, fatigue, adverse weather conditions, and dense vegetation affected their performance. In addition to the scout dog was the tracker dog. The tracker, a Labrador retriever, was part of a team consisting of the dog, his handler, and four men trained in visual tracking techniques. The dog, working on a 25-foot leash, followed a ground scent over terrain where the soldier-trackers were unable to pick up visible signs. The first combat tracker teams used in Vietnam were trained by the British in Malaya.” (via US Military History Center)

Of course, no account of smell and power would be complete without mentioning the gold rush in American military-industrial research over the last decade. It comes complete with high-tech resurrections of mad dreams and bizarrely poetic projects, all with associated procurement files from DARPA and other agencies.6These include DARPA, the UK Home Office Scientific Development Branch, the Department of Homeland Security, and several other US military research agencies. They include a project to smell combatants in urban areas by human chemical signatures; real-time mapping of the smells of a city for signs of anomalous patterns; sensors to detect the pheromone associated with the ‘smell of fear;’ technologies for identification at a distance by methods roughly analogous to armpit-sniffing, except covert and nonconsensual. One could easily imagine drone sniffers or the sensor networks in ‘Smart Cities’ being mobilised towards these ends, though replacing the hound may prove a fool’s errand, especially given the recent discovery of canine ability to detect certain forms of cancer.

How then might we stave this off? I suspect we could start by examining two domains of expertise likely to converge in rural areas: hunting and drug smuggling. In each, it is important to avoid detection by a keen-nosed animal; either the hunter’s prey, or drug-sniffing dogs. And it is typically done by either reducing one’s signal to near-zero (through insulation, cleaning, diet changes, even a scent-blocking machine, the “Ozonics HR200 Scent Eliminator”) or by increasing the amount of noise (through strong cover scents: coffee grounds, kerosene, lighter fluid, or the essences of local flora–deer urine and their synthetic imitators are available on Amazon in 32-ounce containers or more. Wolf urine is also available as a deer repellent). One could well imagine a widespread effort to short-circuit the drug war by massively increasing the number of false scent positives, or simply the fostering of mayhem by covering innocuous strangers’ luggage with the scents of dogs in heat.7A urban legend or hypothetical prank of olfactory dissent passed around since at least the 1970s involves putting a dead fish in a bank safe deposit box. Bound by their strict devotion to private property, they are only allowed to open the box at a last resort and if customers prove unresponsive. The American Safe Deposit Association asks customers not to include “items of an odorous nature, specifically dead fish.” Looking more speculatively, one could imagine altering a scent-identity by means of deliberate modifications to one’s gut flora, similar to the ‘travelers’ probiotics’ available today. Perhaps fugitives of tomorrow will go vegan, or begin eating raw meat, or deliberately induce a low-level infection or disease in order to alter the cocktail of volatile organic gasses they typically exude.

As it happens, in 1967 the Army Scientific Advisory Panel sent a Stanford professor to evaluate the XM-3’s ability to detect ammonia in the field. As it turned out, the results were fairly arbitrary: the People Sniffer couldn’t actually sniff people. The best it could do was identify traces of smoke, typically from cooking fires or small arms, most of which was directed at the helicopter overflights themselves. The prospect then, of widespread covert olfactronic surveillance (or smell-veillance, to butcher the etymological roots of the term) depends on how difficult it will be to sort through the noise to actual genetic determinants of personal odour. For now, the best we can do is to hang a bucket of piss (perhaps from deers, perhaps our own) in the trees, and hold our fire until Snoopy passes over.

Images via: Wikimedia, US Army Center of Military History

About Adam Flynn

Adam Flynn is a media theorist and researcher-at-large. He lives in San Francisco, and can usually be found mining the intersections of the antiquarian and futuristic. @threadbare

This piece originally appeared in print in VOL III: The Social Olfactory of THE STATE. Click here for stockists and to buy online.