Alessandra Avanzi

Bad smell as a war weapon

How stink has been used to spread psychological warfare in (recent) history

Since the 19th century the main focus of our society has been on deodorisation: thighs, city, people must not smell bad, and we try to banish bad smells from our daily life.  Our sensibility threshold for stink therefore has become very low, and it makes us feel sick and uncomfortable. So it's obvious that stink is a powerful tool, that could be used against us too. 

Looking back to (recent) history we can find several projects that have helped stinky smell, such as the smell of poo, or the smell of dead persons, develop into an actual war-weapon.


OSS Document project "who me?" -

"Who me?" 

At the time of World WarII  the interest towards bad smells captured attention, especially on how they can be used for waging psychological warfare and as a non-lethal weapon. During this period the British intelligence conducted a lot of research on the aromatic composition of excrement to create the so-called “ S-Liquid” (S stands for Stench). The S-liquid was a concoction containing skatole, an organic compound belonging to the indole family. It is present naturally in the feces of mammals and birds and is the principal contributor to fecal odor.

Meanwhile, in the USA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), now the CIA, was looking for someone who could create the stinkiest smell in the world. Ernest Crocker, a chemical engineer and pioneer in the field of flavour science was selected for this role. The OSS wanted to create a stink bomb that could be distributed to French resistance groups and used to make its target “a source of derision or contempt”. Researchers started to cogitate some formulas containing malodorous smells able to disperse crowds, alarm the targets and contaminate enemy supplies.

This is how the “Who, me?” project started in 1944. After seven months of research Crocker created the first formula for the “Who, me?”. The mixture contains skatole, amyl mercaptan, and butyric, valeric, and caproic acids and it smells like vomit, rotten eggs, rancid butter, excrement, foot odor, and urine. 

He created a second  special formula for the Japanese, because they have different costumes and odors. As we can read in the document “Fecal odors are not especially repulsive to the Japanese. [...] Odor that would ostracize a Jap among his kind must be based on other than fecal concept”.  So Crocker replaced the skatole with the alpha ionone in order to have a dead-person smell. The problem with the project “who, me?” was how to spread the stench without being affected by it and the experiment didn't really go well as also the french rebellion ended up smelling bad.

Skunk water

The use of bad smell caught the attention of the Isreali government as well. In 2008 the Isreali army used the so-called “ skunk water” against demonstrators in the occupied West Bank. Here they did not have the issue of being unable to spread the smells, as they used vehicles equipped with water cannon spraying jets to spread this mixture.  After the first attempt the use of this putrid mixture, became a regular occurrence. 

OdorTec is the company that produces Skunk water. Its website contains commercial advertisement about the concoction: “Skunk is an innovative, non-lethal riot control method with proven effectiveness. A pungent, foul-smelling - yet completely non-toxic - liquid spray, it quickly disperses the most determined of violent demonstrators. Harmless to them, to officers in the field, and to the environment, Skunk is the optimal response for the modern police force. Odortec's eco-friendly Skunk solution was developed with the Israeli police department to meet the highest operational requirements. And it does so with less manpower, at lower cost and without the use of force required by other riot control tactics.”


Skunk water -

Will the use of bad smells become a new technological frontier for war and homeland security? Is it moral and legal to use a stinky smell on people? Would the Fragrance House be interested in developing and creating putrid mixture instead of perfume? This unusual subject raises several questions, and maybe we will hear more about it in the future..