first published in Mesh Magazine #9, May/June 2005
EXISTENTIAL WARFARE: OVERWHELMING OUR OPPONENTS BY KILLING OURSELVES by Matt Gonzalez
DEPLETED URANIUM (DU) IS A HIGHLY dense material (2.5 times denser than iron and 1.7 times denser than lead) that, if placed on the end of a projectile, can pierce through armored tanks and other military shields with relative ease. It is the radioactive waste product of the uranium enrichment process and is normally disposed of under strict federal guidelines. But when used as part of our military arsenal, it is subject to no such precautions.
How does a nuclear waste product that must be handled and disposed of with utmost care, suddenly become safe when placed on the end of a missile and shattered into the atmosphere during wartime?
The US and British military first started using DU in the 1991 Gulf War, exploding 340 tons of DU laden warheads there. Later, DU was used by the Clinton Administration in Yugoslavia (at least 10 tons) and most recently by the Bush Administration in Afghanistan (1,000 tons) and Iraq (2,400 tons). In all, over 4,000 tons of DU have been released into the world’s atmosphere. Because DU missiles ignite upon impact, the resulting smoke, bullet fragments, and dust released poison everything in their wake.
The resulting harm is exactly what you would expect to see with such negligent use of a radioactive material. Since 1991, American soldiers have been complaining of a variety of health consequences for which the US government cannot otherwise account, known as Gulf War Syndrome. American soldiers returning from conflict complain of chronic fatigue and kidney, liver, and respiratory disorders. Many have contracted leukemia, lung cancer and other serious illnesses. They also have noted a higher incidence of birth defects among their children. And, in the places devastated by war, congenital birth defects, lymph cancer, and leukemia are well documented.
As of July of 1999, 251,000 of the 579,000 veterans returning from the 1991 Gulf War were seeking medical treatment for aftereffects of the war. Today it is estimated to be closer to 350,000. Yet only 167 died from wounds inflicted by opponents. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 518,000 soldiers fighting in both wars in Iraq have been placed on medical disability since 1991, although only 7,000 have been wounded there.
Yet, the US government continues to publicly deny the harmful effects of DU and suggests that the incidence of health problems is consistent with that in the general population, though they offer no data to support this claim. Admittedly, DU, or U-238, is not as radioactive as U-235, the isotope used in nuclear weapons and reactors. Nevertheless, DU emits alpha radiation and has a half-life of 4 and ½ billion years.
In 1974 a military report noted that the widespread use of DU munitions would likely result in the inhalation and ingestion of U-238 and would be “locally significant.” A 1990 report by a military subcontractor Science Applications International Corporation warned that “Aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant, with potential radiological and toxicological effects.” It also noted probable cancers from internal exposures.
Realizing that its ability to garner widespread support for military conflicts rests on its ability to overwhelm opponents with superior firepower and few short-term American casualties, the US government has made DU its weapon of choice for the new millennium – even if the long-term costs are hundred of thousands of American war dead. This sentiment is expressed in a 1993 General Accounting Office report that found “Army officials believe that DU protective methods can be ignored during battle and other life-threatening situations because DU-related health risks are greatly outweighed by the risk of combat.”
The mantra of “support the troops” becomes an ominous lie to win popular support for a war, but in reality it is the height of hypocrisy. Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us, given the well documented history of the US government knowingly harming the health of civilians and military personnel. One need only recall the Tuskegee syphilis experiment where the government purposefully failed to treat infected men in order to study the disease’s progression. Or the widespread spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam which continues to devastate Vietnamese communities and debilitate veterans, despite the herbicide’s known toxicity.
The government persists in its lies about DU because it can. Beginning in 1950 when the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Feres v. United States (340 U.S. 135), the military has been immune from any kind of actions under the Federal Tort Claims Act for harm to soldiers during their active military service. Lt. Rudolph Feres was a soldier who died in a barracks fire at Pine Camp, New York. His widow sued the U.S. government, alleging unsafe conditions. In denying her negligence claim, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that tort actions could not be brought against the military for injuries to soldiers. (In a companion case that was decided at the same time, the court denied a claim against a military doctor who had left an 18-by-30 inch towel in a soldier’s abdomen during surgery.)
The “Feres Doctrine”, as it has come to be called, has given the military free license to expose soldiers to whatever harm it wants and leaves soldiers without recourse to legal actions and the protections these would engender. A rule that dealt with simple negligence cases has been dubiously extended, such that it applies to the government knowingly and intentionally exposing soldiers to harm. In 1987, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia agreed, noting that Feres had been wrongly decided.
But change isn’t going to happen until at least five Justices overturn the Feres Doctrine or until Congress legislates change. There is no current effort among either Republicans or Democrats to change this law.
And what should we think of any government that ignored the scientific findings and used this material indiscriminately? How does this compare to the crimes of Pinochet or those prosecuted at Nuremberg? Certainly they are worthy for consideration as war crimes.
In 2002 a United Nations subcommission declared DU a weapon of mass destruction and its use a breach of international law. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration continues to utilize this weapon.
And things may be worse than we think. The US Department of Energy has recently admitted that military reactor waste has been mixed with DU, making the new compound even more deadly than DU. (Nuclear waste includes plutonium, uranium-236, neptunium and other isotopes thousands of times more radioactive than DU.)
One is left to wonder; will the self-proclaimed policeman of the world ever be held accountable for its actions?
Discounted Casualties, The Human Cost of Depleted Uranium by Akira Tashiro (Japan: The Chugoku Shimbun, 2001).
“Depleted uranium: Dirty bombs, dirty missiles, dirty bullets” by Leuren Moret, SF Bay View, August 18, 2004.
“Weapons of Self-Destruction” by David Rose, Vanity Fair, December 2004, pp. 204-218.
“Has Our Country Abandoned Them” by Kenneth Miller, Life, November 1995, pp. 46-61.
“WHO ‘suppressed’ scientific study into depleted uranium cancer fears in Iraq” by Rob Edwards, Sunday Herald, February 22, 2004.
“Radiological toxicity of DU” by Kevin Baverstock, Carmel Mothersill & Mike Thorne, (Repressed WHO Document), November 5, 2001.