Arrogance and betrayal

Thursday, May 20th, 2004

As the Bush administration slowly fissures over Abu Ghraib, a war horror of infinitely greater consequence pushes up through the denial and begins to make itself public. In the name of democracy and goodness, we may be spreading leukemia, lung cancer, kidney and liver disease, bone disease, birth defects and much more.

The news seeping out about the use of depleted uranium munitions, in Iraq and elsewhere, could wreck more careers than George Bush’s. It could — and ought to — grind the entire national defense establishment to a halt.

A decade and a half ago, the Pentagon consummated an illegitimate marriage to this super-dense, explode-on-impact material, a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process, and has clung ever since to the contention that it’s harmless, except, of course, as a tank buster and enemy-combatant waster of unparalleled efficiency.

In GWI, depleted uranium shells and missiles turned Saddam’s soldiers into “crispy critters.” This is the term GIs coined when they investigated post-battle carnage and found Iraqi corpses so badly burnt they crumbled into piles of ash upon touch.

Hug, hug, kiss, kiss. Whoever has this weapon wins.

No way was the U.S. military going to let a few hundred thousand sick and disabled American soldiers from that first conflict keep it from deploying such an effective weapon to its heart’s content. No matter the European Union called for a DU moratorium after the Kosovo war, or that Canada disposed of its DU arsenal in 1998.

The problem is, depleted uranium shells explode into a dust almost unimaginably fine: smaller than a virus, smaller than a bacterium. We’ve dropped maybe 2,000 tons of DU on Iraq this go-around — and as little as one-millionth of a gram of it accumulating in the body could be fatal.

And our soldiers, to say nothing of the Iraqis, were — and are — completely unprotected from it, in that land of dust storms.

About a quarter of a million vets from the ’91 war are combat-disabled and more than 10,000 are dead. But the military refused to give an inch on DU testing, much less admit its toxicity, despite its obvious implication in these vets’ terrible symptoms and slow deaths. This is called betrayal.

History was planning to repeat itself in GWII, but that plan, like so many lately, got derailed. The screams and cries of vets, scientists and others about depleted uranium culminated in an act of media heroism last month by the New York Daily News, which paid to have nine returning members of the 442nd Military Police Company of the New York Army National Guard tested for DU contamination.

The nine were all suffering from weird, unexplained symptoms; six had been denied DU testing by the Army, and two who were tested, with the Army’s notoriously substandard methods, got negative results (and one was awaiting results months later).

But when the nine were tested by the Uranium Medical Research Centre, four came back positive for DU — the war’s first confirmed cases of inhaled depleted uranium exposure. And these guys were military police. They hadn’t seen combat action; they ingested the toxic dust away from the field of battle.

Sen. Hillary Clinton complained loudly enough to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers that the Army roused itself from its entrenched denial. A directive was recently issued mandating testing for GIs with certain levels of DU exposure.

It’s not much, but the Army’s reluctant, tardy acceptance of responsibility for the health of its soldiers potentially opens a moral can of worms.

“What gives them the right to care only for U.S. troops?” asks Doug Rokke, Gen. Schwarzkopf’s point man on DU cleanup after Gulf War I and now one of the world’s leading anti-DU activists (and seriously ill himself from DU exposure).

He points out that our responsibility extends to coalition troops, Iraqi and Afghan troops and civilians and all U.S. government workers and civilians involved in or affected by the manufacture and testing of DU weapons — millions of people, in short, who are on “DU death row” because of our arrogant quest for dominance.

Here’s how Dr. Asaf Durakovic, the nuclear medicine expert and former Army doctor who tested the nine national guardsmen, puts it:

“Due to the delayed health effects from internal contamination of uranium, injury and death will not always be immediate to the battle, but will remain lingering threats to ‘survivors’ … for years and decades into the future. The battlefield will remain a killing zone long after the cessation of hostilities. Environmental contamination will linger for centuries, posing an ongoing health threat to the civilians who reclaim the land and subsequent generations.”