METAL OF DISHONOR: DEPLETED URANIUM - HOW THE PENTAGON RADIATES SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS WITH DU WEAPONS. By the Depleted Uranium Education Project. International Action Center, New York, US. 1997. pp. 238. Pbk: US$12.95.
The research and production of nuclear weapons results in numerous radioactive by-products. Scientists and the military have known this since the Manhattan Project, which led to the American production and use of the atomic bombs on Japan. All the by-products from those bombs and all subsequent bombs are still extant, stored and transported from place to place in the 50 years of the west’s maniacal nuclear arms race. One of the most toxic and dangerous by-products is ‘depleted uranium’ (DU), which is only partially ‘depleted’ of its radiation and is therefore highly dangerous and toxic. And the danger is long term: DU has a half-life of 4.5 billion years.
The American nuclear weapons industry has been trying all along to rid itself of these poisonous materials. During the cold war, the US military proposed dumping radioactive waste on the border between North and South Korea to make a permanent ‘no-man’s land’ between the two warring States. Much of it is buried on Native American reservations, and even sold to unknowing Natives to use as building materials. Freight trains carrying DU and other toxic cargo travel in perpetual circles around America, because few legal dump sites will accept their deadly cargo.
In the 1970s, the American nuclear industry and its partners in the military began research and development into the weapons potential of DU. Because of its extreme density, the material promised to serve as a component in a new generation of armor piercing and bunker busting weapons. The American military finally got to test its new DU weapons in its war against Iraq in 1991. Since then, the tragic costs of America’s latest military lunacy have begun to come to light.
The most comprehensive research project to date on the history and use of DU has been undertaken by the Depleted Uranium Education Project, culminating in a book and companion video, Metal of Dishonor. The book features chapters by scientists, military dissidents, no-nuke activists, medical practitioners, journalists, and various academics in the social sciences. The book consists of 28 chapters divided into seven sections, each addressing a different facet of the issue.
In an introductory chapter, Sara Flounders of the International Action Center in New York City sums up the scope and range of concerns around DU weaponry: ‘It matters little to the Pentagon in its race for unrestrained military dominance in every type of warfare that this new weapon not only kills those it targets, it poisons soldiers who handle it, civilians for hundreds of miles surrounding the battlefields who breathe the air and drink the water, and unborn generations.’
One reason for such wide concern involves the nature of DU weapons. Designed to penetrate thick armor and bunker walls, DU rockets and bullets have a core dart of DU. But once the projectile penetrates its target, up to 70 percent of the DU aerosolizes in the high temperatures following its explosion. Aerosolized DU can be carried by winds for miles. It can mix with soils and sands, and enter salt and fresh water. The micro-particles can be easily breathed in and lodge in the lungs, from where they can permeate the human system with radiation. So while the weapons are controllable from a tactical standpoint, they are no better than poison gases or atomic bombs with respect to the lack of control over fallout, wind conditions, and overall dispersion of particles.
But this is no military blunder. DU weapons were highly researched in a number of secret US government reports, and much of what was originally discovered about their properties and potential dangers came from such reports, after they were leaked to the press and various organizations. In 1995, the US Army Environmental Policy Institute warned that, ‘If DU enters the body, it has the potential to generate significant medical consequences. The risks associated with DU in the body are both chemical and radiological.’ It also stated that, ‘Personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposures.’
Two years earlier, the United States General Accounting Office reported that, ‘Inhalable insoluble oxides stay in the lungs longer and pose a potential cancer risk due to radiation. Ingested DU dust can also pose both a radioactive and chemical risk.’ In a report completed six months prior to America’s war on Iraq, the Science Applications International Corporation concluded that, ‘Short-term effects of high doses can result in death, while long-term effects of low doses have been implicated in cancer.’ The same report also stated that, ‘Aerosol DU exposures to soldiers on the battlefield could be significant with potential radiological and toxicological effects.’
These and other reports reveal that the US government knows that its DU weapons program is poisoning enemies and allies alike. In fact, several contributors to the Metal of Dishonor make explicit links between DU weapons employed in Iraq and the ailment of US soldiers commonly known as the ‘Gulf War Syndrome.’ Carol Picou, who served in the US military in Iraq as a nurse, is sick with DU illness. She was on the road to Basra, where the US Air Force had just illegally destroyed an Iraqi convoy in retreat, and was amazed at the wanton destruction she found:
‘I took photos. I stopped my vehicle and I took photos along the highway. There were things I had never seen before. I was concerned. Driving down the highway - we called it the “highway to hell” - you know it as the “highway of death” - we thought for sure we were going to die on that road. There were bodies everywhere, burning vehicles, and we were not warned of anything. No one warned us of contaminants.’
But this should not really come as much of a surprise, since the US military has routinely exposed its own personnel to various deadly weapons, from the atomic bomb tests in the 1950s to Agent Orange in Vietnam, and has consistently refused to even admit to any wrongdoing. And DU weapons have caused similar ailments among all coalition soldiers.
The American assault on Iraq has continued since 1991, with the ongoing embargo, but also in the form of the massive amounts of DU residue left behind. Several contributors report on having visited Iraq, and found that farming and livestock have been affected, the water and soil poisoned. And there are alarming incidents of unprecedented cancer and birth defect clusters in areas surrounding battlefield sites. Barbara Nimri Aziz found one Iraqi village that was so stricken with birth defects that its residents have feared even getting married. And she also noted exactly the same kinds of defects in Iraqi children as found among the children of Gulf War veterans.
Ramsey Clark, former US attorney general, and founder of the International Action Center, has visited Iraq several times since the Gulf War. On a visit two years after the war, he noted, ‘in 1993 when we went back to Iraq, doctors told us that suddenly they were seeing things that were very difficult to understand, that they hadn’t seen before. They were diagnosing many more people with leukemia, particularly children. There were increases in leukemia, tumors, cancers, birth defects, unlike anything they had seen before, or heard of.’ He has continued to find similar increases in diseases on subsequent visits since them.
In addition to discussing the immediate effects of DU resulting from the American deployment in Iraq, contributors also provide useful background to nuclear weapons development, including history of the arms race. This includes medical studies done on the victims of American atomic bomb strikes on Japanese cities. Contributors also note other dangers, revisiting the Chernobyl disaster (in the Ukraine) and similar nuclear power plant accidents in the US, which have had far reaching health repercussions. Increasing numbers of physicians are discovering the links between various ailments and radiation, including various forms of cancer and immune deficiency syndromes.
Despite all these concerns, several governments have imported American made DU weapons. Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Israel, and Greece all have DU weapons in their arsenals. Muslim regimes have also placed orders for Uncle Sam’s deadly poison, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait. Since the Gulf War, DU weapons have been deployed by US and UN forces in air strikes against Serbian positions in Bosnia. This is sadly ironic, since the resulting fallout will poison Muslim, Croat, and Serbian soldiers and civilians alike. The US is also storing DU on UN military bases in Bosnia, and in places like the Philippines, endangering local civilians.
The threats of DU have not received much public attention for some very specific reasons. There is a conspiracy of silence on the part of government agencies, corporations, and universities to ignore or downplay the threats of radiation poisoning from DU weapons development and other military and research related projects. Government complicities have already been noted. In addition, the American corporate broadcasting conglomerate NBC is owned by General Electric, one of the major producers of nuclear weapons and waste. Some activists even dub it the ‘Nuclear Broadcasting Corporation.’ News stories about DU, needless to say, are taboo on NBC, but all the other major corporate media outlets, print and electronic, have also kept the NBC code of silence.
The Brookhaven Research Laboratory in Long Island, New York, has been implicated in a number of radioactive spills and leaks, threatening the water supply and general health of residents within a 50-mile radius. The lab is governed by Associated Universities, Inc., which is a consortium of American universities including Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Princeton. All are complicit in the shroud of silence around any talk of the dangers of nuclear energy, weapons, and related research.
Several American corporations are also implicated in this conspiracy of silence, including General Electric, AT&T, and Hughes Aircraft. This wide ranging power nexus of government, military, media, corporate, and university interests has nearly succeeded in removing any public debate on the dangers of radiation. But this book is evidence that many voices have not been silenced.
Metal of Dishonor is comprehensive and well documented, and has already provided the basis for a number of legal actions. The last section reviews implications of DU weapons with respect to international law, especially those governing the use of chemical and nuclear weapons. There are several appendices, with excerpts from US government documents, and lists of sites where DU and DU weapons are manufactured and stored, and with brief reports from various international organizations that are currently involved in efforts to ban DU weapons.
It is a book meant to be read and reflected upon, for sure, but it is also intended to be acted upon, as the authors make a strong case that American DU weapons development is a scourge on all humanity.
The book can be ordered through e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org; or write to: Sara Flounders, IAC, P.O. Box 1819, Madison Sq Station, New York, NY 10159. Tel: 212-633-6646 / Fax 212-633-2889.