Sanity in Tiny Nibbles

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

The abyss between “crime against humanity” and “we’ll have to look into this” may be all but unfathomable — deep as a mass grave — but sometimes we have to trust the process.

I fear that democratic progress is a mouse’s progress: justice — sanity — in tiny nibbles. This past Sept. 11, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed a law that seems to promise this sort of progress — to evaluate the scope of an acute, ongoing, manmade calamity — and I find myself trying to curb my sense of impatience that it doesn’t do more.

The law authorizes the state to educate returning vets and National Guardsmen on their rights, as well as available testing and treatment, if they think they’ve been exposed to hazardous substances overseas, in particular, depleted uranium. It also sets up a task force through the Illinois Veterans Association to study the health effects of such exposure.

Meanwhile, the profoundly undemocratic forces that have control over the mechanism of “creative destruction” on a global scale are remarkably free to wage old wars and plot new ones: to wreak mass mayhem and spread hazardous substances with impunity, in the name of national security or whatever sells, and to ignore the consequences of their actions even as democratic task forces promise, eventually, to look into some of those consequences.

“Pentagon planners have developed a list of up to 2,000 bombing targets in Iran,” the UK’s Sunday Telegraph recently reported, apprising us of the state of the Bush administration’s slow-mo edging toward another shock-and-awe confrontation in the Middle East. We watch in helpless disapproval.

Whatever else war with Iran would mean, it would mean, at the onset, another large-scale poisoning of Planet Earth and its residents — primarily Iranians, this go-around, and of course U.S. troops — with the fine-powder residue of de facto nuclear weapons: that is to say, bombs and missiles made of the high-density, super-penetrating substance called depleted uranium.

DU, also known as U-238, is a byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. It’s almost twice as dense as lead, burns when launched and explodes on impact into microscopically fine particles, which are easily inhaled or absorbed through the skin; it’s also radioactive, with a half-life of more than 4 billion years. It’s a very dirty weapon, linked in every country where it has been used — Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq — with cancer and neurological, respiratory and other disorders. The time-release horror of DU, especially in tandem with other toxic substances churned up by war, belies every conceivable rationale for its use.

“It’s a crime against humanity,” says Doug Rokke, a retired major and Gulf War 1 vet who headed up a cleanup crew in the aftermath of Desert Storm and has become one of the world’s leading experts on — and critics of — DU munitions. Rokke’s crewmembers, who readied U.S. tanks destroyed by friendly fire for transport back to the States, are either sick or dead, and Rokke himself has suffered for years with an array of symptoms that stem from breathing in DU dust.

“I got real sick on Tuesday,” he told me last week. “I stood up and completely went down. For 30 minutes I was completely down. I had no control on the left side.” He talked about this in the context of the new Illinois law.

“The doctors sure did get scared — I got scared,” he said. “But it was transient. It wasn’t a stroke but a neuromuscular effect. I was so sick on Tuesday and then Wednesday the first thing I saw when I finally opened my e-mail was this (legislation). I couldn’t be happier.”

So this is my lesson in patience. This is a scary world, organized, it so often seems, for the convenience of the bellicose. The unspoken credo of the U.S. Department of Defense is surely: Mobilization without accountability. But things do change; the universe, as Martin Luther King said, bends toward justice.

Thus Illinois’ new law, the National Guard Veterans Exposure to Hazardous Materials Act, may represent the dawn of official awareness that something is severely amiss. Five other states — Louisiana, Connecticut, New York, Washington and Hawaii — have similar legislation.

Our vets are getting sick in frightening numbers. Why? According to VHA figures from last fall, 205,000 GIs who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, a third of the total, have sought medical care, many for troubling internal conditions such as diseases of the nervous and digestive systems. A shocking 1,584 have been diagnosed with malignant tumors. It’s sure to get worse. And nobody, of course, is tabulating stats on the Iraqis and Afghans.

But six states now have laws authorizing local agencies to look into the matter and help vets get care they could easily be denied for the illnesses they’re bringing home. It’s a start. Awareness will grow. The mice are nibbling.