Previously published at www.libertarianinstitute.org
This generation’s Agent Orange, except worse
After the first atomic device was detonated in the New Mexico desert in July 1945, the Earth has since suffered the consequences that such an explosion wrought. Not solely the vicious use of two atomic bombs over Japan, instantly killing thousands and condemning thousands more to a slow, painful and fatal decay. It was not just with the childlike lust to blast swathes of the Earth; destroying, poisoning, and burning as much of nature as was humanly possible by the great nations. Nor even in the mishaps of both private and public nuclear energy facilities. The modern scourge and threat emanate from the war zones, most especially where depleted uranium has been utilized as an all too effective and cheap anti-armour round.
It is with some putrid irony that the US would lead the attack on Iraq twice, partially under the pretense that the dictator Saddam Hussein had used and still possessed chemical weapons. Chemical weapons supplied to him by the West, chemical weapons that he had used against Iran in his attempted invasion of the Islamic republic that was endorsed by the United States. In any case under this pretense for invasion, the US-led coalition would itself utilize a poisonous and everlasting weapon that would destroy and kill innocent lives long after the flames of battle had been snuffed out.
Depleted Uranium shells are the weapon that keeps on giving. It is essentially a waste product in the enrichment of fuel for nuclear power so it is economical to produce. DU can punch holes through extremely thick armor and once it impacts it burns with indiscriminate effectiveness. It is almost the perfect silver bullet for heavily armored targets. DU was the answer to the omnipresent massed ranks of Soviet Union’s thick ranks of tanks and AFVs that could at any moment pass the Fulda Gap and conquer Europe. DU was the answer to seemingly impenetrable fortifications and bunkers, the answer to killing scores of human beings and material. It was for NATO the perfect anti-armour ‘bullet’.
In his tremendous book, “The Great War for Civilisation” resolute journalist Robert Fisk dedicated much of a chapter to the malignant legacy of DU. The chapter is appropriately named “The Plague” and for many inside the region around Iraq, it appears they have been afflicted with a horrible plague that attacks and deforms mostly their children. Like all plagues, it is indiscriminate and for many of those who helped to bring the blight to the region, they, in turn, have returned home ‘infected’ with it. Many of the veterans of both the 1991 and 2003-onwards wars in the region have found themselves and their offspring affected by the ever deadly and cruel effects of DU.
It was with the 1991 Gulf War, the 100-hour exercise at punishing Saddam’s Iraq and defending the affluent Gulf States, that DU first came into prominence. The penetrator round containing depleted uranium was fired from mostly US main battle tanks and attack aircraft with great effect, decimating the routed conscript army of Iraq. After the conflict, the curious minds began to investigate the true effects of such a weapon. While such preliminary investigations were being conducted Allied military personnel began to fall sick, not to mention the scores of local Iraqi’s who also suffered but with little help or attention.
Gulf War Syndrome soon emerged and was treated as a more psychosomatic condition. Many of the sufferers were in cases ridiculed but always marginalized. The links to Gulf War syndrome and DU is varied as the cocktail of vaccinations and other experimental injections administered to mostly US military could also be linked to much of the victims suffering. Just as the environment of burning oil fires, blazing ordinance, the bombing of suspected Iraqi chemical weapon plants, and all the other carnage of a modern battlefield combined could only have negative effects on any human body. It was however in areas that the remnants of DU lingered that the victims of ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ seemed to suffer the most.
Besides the direct ailments to those in contact, what was found with DU exposure is that over time mutation and derangement of the recently born became prevalent. From an increase in cancer and other fatal illnesses, a general malaise to an outright plague was suffered by the many millions of civilians who lived and died near the war zones. It is estimated that as much as 350 tons of DU were used in the 1991 Gulf War alone. What ongoing effects this has had is debated. What cannot be in debate is the obvious suffering from what has been officially ignored or denied to many victims that simply suffer on.
If DU is a poisonous and noxious post-conflict killer, then it brings in wider ethics and concerns. It can make the users, Western Allied nations and principally the United States, out as being cruel and malicious. It is a chemical and radioactive weapon that breaches all forms of agreed upon battlefield morals. It not only destroys the environment, wildlife and the civil populace of the enemy but also one’s own military personnel. The consequences and context to such admitted findings would be negative, to say the least. If it has no consequences and wider risks, then it really is the perfect weapon. But nothing is ever so perfect.
It was not only in the 1991 Gulf War that the noxious effects of DU were observed. It was also in the NATO bombing of Serbia during the break-up of Yugoslavia that, while not as notable, victims of cancers and other conditions soon began to suffer as others had in Iraq. Come 2003 and with the united Coalition of the willing, the United States used more DU than had ever been used previously. The weapon was as effective as it had been in 1991 and once the initial conflict was over, the insurgency soon began. The battle was no longer in the desert or on the outskirts of civilization but was instead inside people’s homes, on the streets, and among the marketplaces. The bombs, tank busting guns of A-10s, chain guns on the Bradley’s and the main armament on main battle tanks all sent thousands of kilograms of the deadly DU all over Iraq and now, Syria. And just as it had in the past the after venom of such a perfect weapon soon began to infect the victims stuck in a war zone of another’s making.
Just as South East Asia still suffers beneath the poisonous blanket of American chemical defoliants, most famously ‘Agent Orange’, so too does the Middle East suffer the ongoing effects of DU. It took a generation after ‘Agent Oranges’ usage before the officials began to admit its terrible side effects, it will perhaps be longer before such admissions are granted to DU. So long as there is an active war being fought and the energies of the public and government are geared in that direction then it is unlikely that a key munition will be scrutinized. No matter how bad it is for all involved.
Where are the Protesters?
Much of the Cold War era was fixated by the obvious nightmare of an all-out nuclear exchange between the superior belligerents of the era. The anti-nuclear crowd and environmentalists found much cause in the many atomic tests and the stockpiling of thousands of warheads all of which were pointed at concentrations of millions of human beings. It has only been since the end of the Cold War and with the simmering down of the French nuclear tests of the 1990s that the protest groups seem to have found their focus on other realms, notably the politically charged Global Warming. Yet the mass use of Depleted Uranium on the battlefield and on home soil at the range potentially stands to put at risk much of not only human health but much of mother nature’s, also. Much of the protest movement seems quiet when it comes to the very real dangers of DU and instead seems focused on abstracts and ambivalent solutions to an almost ideological battleground of ‘denial’ vs ‘consensus’. Meanwhile millions suffer and the environment decays.
The Plague Kills All
One of those charged with investigating the effects and potential risks of DU was Dr. Douglas Rokke a 35-year veteran of the United States Army. Dr. Rokke led a team during the early 1990s to clean up parts of the former war zone while also researching the wrecks of enemy tanks and vehicles that had been on the business end of DU ordinance. Dr. Rokke soon concluded that ‘contamination was all over’ from the DU. Within 72 hours of commencing their investigation members of the team began to fall ill, including Dr. Rokke himself. Within a decade after the initial contact 30 out of 100 members of the investigation team had died from illnesses often associated with DU exposure.
What Dr. Rokke and others soon discovered is that after impact while the DU creates a vicious firestorm the uranium becomes aerosolized into small micro fragments which tend to stick around. These can be absorbed by the ground to find their way into the ground water, caught in the winds and often by those who come into near contact with sites infested by DU fragments absorbed or breathed in by potential victims. As DU is a waste product it is not found in nature and has dire effects on not only the human body but all forms of life.
It is the Uranium Oxide aspect of the weapon system that is the most problematic. The deadly mist or fog that exists around the target after the DU has exploded and destroyed its target. Without very specific equipment it is hard to monitor the area to determine the presence of the minute UO. For the civilians and military nearby, those who must live and fight around the decayed remnants of battle, this UO is omnipresent. It can be hanging in the air or covering objects nearby only to be lifted up ready to be inhaled by the unsuspecting. The very fine nature of UO makes it persistent in the body as some victims have shown traces of the deadly compound in their urine up to eight years after exposure. While DU is low in its overall radioactivity the longevity and cellular infiltration into the body makes it extremely dangerous as it ‘takes its time’ to harm and kill the victims.
A 1993 Defense Department document penned by Brigadier-General Eric Shinseki, who would go on to become the secretary for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, expressed a concern about the risk of DU contamination. The Pentagon, in turn, ordered medical testing for all of its members exposed to the poison. The US Government did not go on to conduct the tests or administer any treatment to those who may have been harmed by exposure to DU. The wider implications to the admittance of such effects to a perfect ‘weapon’ are obvious. The parallels to Agent Orange are obvious but DU will most likely go on to have a far crueler legacy and as was the case with the use of the defoliant the military and government will remain above reproach.
Recently it was reported in another US Military study using ten years of data, that US service members have a higher rate of cancer than US civilians. Many have alluded, in indirect terms, that this may in part have something to do with the increased reliance and usage of DU during the ever expanding wars being conducted by the US government. The treatment of US veterans at the hands of the bureaucratic monstrosity that is the VA is well known. But its outright marginalization and denial of the risks associated with DU are negligent to the point of being criminal.
Paul Sullivan, the director of Veterans for Common Sense one of the many groups looking into the nature of Gulf War syndrome in the hopes of healing many of the US veterans’ suffering, claims that the DoD has a “don’t look, don’t find” policy when it comes to the nature of DU. Especially in regards to its effects on its own members. This has been exhibited by the cancellations of many research studies into the subject to outright snuffing out of others findings.
Regardless of the effects on those who volunteered to fight in a war, it is estimated that over a million Iraqi’s have died due to DU related illnesses. The blight ranging from various cancers to the alteration of DNA leading to birth defects, mutations and painful death that mostly harms children. In Iraq, it has been reported that over half of all cancer cases are found in children under the age of five. Just as US veterans who served in the Gulf themselves have had children with specific birth defects that stand out compared to parents who had not been in the region and thus exposed to DU.
Wealthy Kuwait helped to fund a US operation that saw a huge shipload full of DU contaminated soil be taken to the United States for disposal. The Kuwaiti government adamant that the US clean up all of the remnants of such a weapon being used on its soil, perhaps only a precaution. But then why was such soil treated as being highly contaminated by those who were employed to return and dispose of it. Meanwhile, many NGOs interested in attempting to clean up parts of DU infested areas are unable to do so due to the nature of the ongoing conflict in the region, the instability and the prevention by the US government itself. While many looking to research the effects and consequences of DU are denied access to sites or negated in their efforts DU remains officially safe but in reality an ever deadly scientific mystery.
Chemical? Radioactive? Conventional Weapon
Despite the post-1991 conflict’s revelations into the potential risks and dangers of DU to both ‘friendly’ forces and the civil populace, it has been reported using information released in 2013 to the George Washington University National Security Archive that US forces used DU rounds with even less discrimination than in the previous war with Iraq. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US DU armed attack aircraft, most specifically the A-10, expended many of the DU rounds into soft targets (i.e. unarmoured vehicles like cars, trucks, and vans). While this may have been tactically expedient during close support operations it shows a far more reckless and cavalier use of both the A-10’s ‘tank busting’ abilities while also depicting a kill all attitude to any target on the ground, whether routed or dug in. The body count was, as always, sought.
In the more recent fight against ISIS and in the attempts at thwarting the Assad regime from regaining control during the bloody Syrian civil war, the US has continued using DU munitions despite ISIS and other targets having limited access to modern armor. Because of the clandestine operation of US missions over both Iraq and Syria, many flight logs are unavailable which would make it extremely hard for any clean-up crews in their efforts to isolate and remove remnants of the toxic DU particles. But this, of course, assumes a cessation of hostilities in the near future. It is one thing to attempt further research and clean-up of contamination in areas that are known to have been exposed to DU munitions. It is another thing completely to relegate an entire region as simply being contaminated because of the careless attitude expressed by one war-fighting regime in the use of one of its super weapons.
A 1975 US Air Force review recommended that DU only be used against hard armor targets, that it should be secured in silos until such time as it was used and that it was only to be used against soft targets in extreme circumstances. In spite of those recommendations, it seems that only forty years later the same US Air Force and government consider DU to be adequate in deployment in known highly dense civilian zones against an insurgent enemy that is famous for not having a traditional standing army, least of all a Soviet-era mass tank formation. DU is now a counter-insurgency munition and no longer a killer of massive Soviet armored formations.
What remains of the turret of an Iraqi MBT after an A10 attack using depleted uranium rounds.
Regardless of the many known dangers of DU and the obvious concerns expressed by official and unofficial experts, the legalese of such weapons is often confused by the fact that the preeminent super power and lawmaker continues to use them. International Law has stringent bans on weapons that cause ongoing harm and unnecessary suffering. Though, like many issues pertaining to war and law, this is both ambiguous and serves the powers that be more than it does the actual suffering innocents. In 2014, the Iraqi government via a UN report expressed concern and submitted a request that DU no longer be used in its nation. However, the US continued to blast DU munitions against various targets in Iraq regardless of this.
A member of the UN Environmental Programme, Pekka Haavisto, who chaired the team that went into post-2003 invasion Iraq to survey damage to the environment due to the war, claimed that DU munitions were used against buildings and non-armoured targets with frequency. Signs of DU were everywhere in Iraq. Inside Baghdad hotels and other large buildings had areas marked out that were damaged by DU munitions. Mr. Haavisto went on to say in regards to the DU situation in Iraq:
“When we dealt with the DU issue, we could see that the militaries who used it had quite strong protection measures for their own personnel. But then the similar logic is not valid when you speak about the people who live in the locations where it has been targeted – that of course was a bit disturbing for me. If you think it can put your military in hazard, of course, there are similar hazards for people who after the war are living in similar circumstances.”
Meanwhile, congenital birth defects, increases in cancer especially in children to other vindictive ailments often leading to early death are on the increase in all the regions near where the Allied forces used DU. Many defenders of DU and its utility in warfare argue that the radiation levels are too low to have any negative effects on humans and the environment and that the DU itself tends to ‘burn’ itself up upon impact and exposure. Because DU shells cause intense heat when they strike the target, it does burn up but many have shown that a residue remains around the area which is quite easily ingested and breathed in. Officially, however, the users of DU deny that this can and does happen. The self-righteousness of the nations that use DU allows them an ability to simply disregard any negative side effects or controversy related to the munitions.
Investigative Journalist Gareth Porter has reported that despite the claims that DU is ‘safe’ the Pentagon is actively seeking a replacement to DU. Some officials have in fact cited environmental concerns as having driven this decision. That being said the US military is always actively looking ahead to replace or enhance current weapon systems and given their history it would not be any surprise if the replacement to DU was just as noxious or even worse. It is hard not to be skeptical when a military that has used chemical defoliants so recklessly for decades and considers the nuclear option as viable for all situations to ever really consider the environment and innocent human beings health as a priority in any of their decision making.
DU will continue to be used by the United States and some of its allies for some time. It is an effective munition and has shown its capacity to kill and destroy the target. The job of the military is after all to kill the ‘enemy’. The enemy is determined by the contemporary demands of the lawmakers and political weight of society and nation. It is unlikely that DU will be pulled from the stores anytime soon. The edge that they give the war-fighters are too great and like other weapon systems from ‘cluster bombs’, various mines to napalm and white phosphorous, they are all effective killers and maimers that will always be used by the professional uniformed killers of the nation. So long as the tax paying ranks of a society continue to adore and ignore the very real realities then the vicious cycle shall continue. The US military’s own disregard for its own suffering is despicable, let alone to the civilians born under the rule of another government.
Many of those who do warn against the DU scourge in many cases warn against other threats to humanity that are either part of a government, corporate, reptilian, satanic or globalist conspiracy. Because of this the risks of DU exposure are often clumped with chemtrails, HAARP and ‘911 was an inside job’ and so many of the claims against the munition and its effects are more sensationalist at best. This, however, should not detract from the very real fears and many credible sources and whistle-blowers who have investigated the contaminant. The questions should remain – what is causing the spikes in cancer and mutations in the regions where DU has been used? Why are veterans and those in the region dying and suffering from similar symptoms? What is the cause? This is what should be investigated. Is it DU and UO alone or is it a cocktail of modern war? And should those conspiracy-minded fear pundits be right on DU, then so be it. As it is often said a clock is right twice a day.
It is perverse that environmental politics have delved into a form of populist religion whereby global warming and anti-genetically modified foods are the principle focus of the clicktivists and professional environmental opportunists. Many of them enjoying an income and grants from the very same governments who continue to pollute and destroy the Earth via a great many means and none more so than war. It is with some form of childlike cerebral omission that those so rabid on environmental issues are either ignorant or selective in their focus. Just as the chemical defoliants, mines, and bombs that the military dropped across South East Asia, in the end, led to only one outcome – the suffering of those who live there, so what victory? The generations after, who were not born when the US and its allies ‘had to save’ and ‘had to intervene’ in the region continue to suffer and die. Yet in the end, once the ‘saviours’ went home misery and death remained. Some of those that served took home with them the pain and infection of such exposure but not nearly as much as those who live there. Depleted Uranium and the other yet to be realized legacies of the ongoing wars shall harm and destroy millions. Those living now and those yet to be born. But in the end, defthe outcome will remain much the same. As Mark Twain has been credited to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes.”
Sources and Further reading:
The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk, 2005.
Depleted Uranium, Dangerous and Indiscriminate, Vitale Bramani, 2003
Target Iraq, Norman Solomon, 2003
Metal of dishonour, how the pentagon radiates soldiers and civilians with DU, 1997
Gareth Porter, Press TV interview