January 2008

Depleted Uranium: The Gift That Keeps on Killing

by Thomas Vincent

“The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” - General George Patton Jr

Imagine you are a general, like George Patton, given the task of defeating an entrenched and well defended enemy. Using conventional weaponry you know that the conflict will likely drag on for months if not years. Casualties on both sides will be staggering.

Hardly an enticing proposition.

Now suppose you are given a new weapon, one that gives you unparalleled military superiority. A new type of armor piercing shell that plunges through your opponent's tanks like a hot spoon through warm icecream. Wow, you think, this will allow me to reduce my casualties and shorten the war. Sounds like a no brainer, right?

But wait. Suppose that in addition to killing enemy soldiers this new weapon gives off clouds of dust that, when inhaled, causes residual and indescriminate casualties among the civilian population, including lung and tissue damage, multiple cancers and massive increases in birth defects. Even worse, these effects will continue indefinitely as the environment will remain contaminated for billions of years.

Would you still use the weapon? Viewing the world through your General's mirror shades, you might still justify using it on the basis that the damage is inflicted on the "other guy". Again to quote Patton: "There is only one tactical principle which is not subject to change. It is to use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wound, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time." While not exactly pretty, the logic of employing a weapon that allows you to win a war by inflicting woe on your enemy is inescapeable, even if it does produce some collateral damage.

But wait. What if it turns out the weapon doesn't just kill the enemy but also has a real potential of major blowback; the possibility to cause the same irreperable health problems among your own soldiers... or even worse, genetic mutations among your own troops' future children?

Tragically, this scenario is not a hypothetical one. As anyone who has been following the "Gulf War Syndrome" debate knows, not only does such a weapon exist but the U.S. has been using it since the early nineties - with predictably horrifying results. I'm referring of course to Depleted Uranium Weapons.

Depleted Uranium (U-238) is the waste product left over when uranium is enriched to make fuel for nuclear reactors and bombs. Because of depleted uranium's incredibly high density, (1.7 times that of lead) shells and anti-tank penetrators made from DU are extremely effective at punching through armor and inflicting a "maximum amount of wound, death and destruction" on enemy soldiers. Unfortunately, as a side effect, when DU burns, it aerosolizes into nano sized ceramic particles that that are both chemically toxic and radioactive. When ingested or inhaled, these particles are small enough to enter the blood stream and spread throughout the body causing damage to cells, tissues and organs. As the particles are also light enough to blow on the wind, the "fallout" from DU weaponry can spread far and wide, contaminating populated civilian areas as well as battlefields. Anyone who breathes or ingests these particles can become contaminated. Anyone. Even our own soldiers.

War tribunals have long argued the ethics and morality of issues such as collateral civilian deaths or pain and suffering caused by warfare. But what are the ethical questions raised by an army that employs a weapon it knows can harm its own troops? Is winning tank battles important enough to justify using a weapon that puts one's own soldiers at risk, or even its own citizens?

Military ethics aside, what is the efficacy of a weapon that exposes your own soldiers, to the same "wound and destruction" it visits on the enemy? From a purely practical standpoint it makes no sense.

The real moral and ethical issue here is not that the army has been using depleted uranium munitions. The real problem lies in the fact that the government refuses to take resonsibility for their negative effects. The Department of Defense has known since the forties about the dangers of radiation contamination from airborne particles. It is no secret that since the first Gulf War, Iraq has experienced a seven fold increase in childhood cancer and genetic abnormalities. The same medical maladies have been showing up in Kosovo and Afghanistan, both places where DU munitions have been used. It is also common knowledge that of the 700,000 U.S. veterans of the first Gulf War, more than 11,000 are dead and 240,000 are on permanent medical disability.

The military's stance toward all this, in public at least, has been one of total denial. In a stunning display of circular sleight of hand, to support its contention DU weapons are safe, the Department of Defense cites a 2001 World Health Organization study which in turn leans on two 1991 Rand Institute studies, commissioned by the Defense Department, one of which was authored by... an undersecretary at the Department of Defense. And, since it's so safe, no tests on returning vets need to be done to see if they have suffered any ill effects.

But denial of facts doesn't make them go away. If we employ weapons that produce genotoxic dust that is carried on the wind far from the battlefield, it is not just our enemies or our enemies families who are being contaminated. Eventually the poison will return to our own shores, if not carried on the wind, then in the lungs and liver and DNA of our own brave soldiers.

And as if the damage done to our "enemies" and our soldiers on the battlefield isn't bad enough, what about the contamination of our own country from manufacturing the weapons in the first place? In A 2007 study in Colonie New York, Professor Randall Parrish found depleted uranium in the urine of workers and neighbors of a DU weapons factory more than twenty years after the plant closed! Similar contamination has been found at several other sites where DU weaponry has been manufactured. Add to this the fact that the radioactive half-life of depleted uranium is four and a half billion years and you truly have a gift that keeps on killing.

Creating and using chemical and radioactive weapons that poison your enemy's children is a recognized war crime. Creating weapons that poison your own children is worse than criminal. It is insane.