The Perfect Weapon

Thursday, November 6th, 2003

By Robert Koehler

“You can’t clean it up!”

Doug Rokke, a career soldier who describes himself variously as a peace warrior and the ultimate garbage man, repeats this phrase with escalating amazement, lest anyone fail to get it.

When he speaks, he burns like a flare. He knows too much; it’s eating him alive. He has seen the future of war crime — he has breathed it into his own lungs. You can’t clean it up.

“It” is depleted uranium — the perfect weapon.

At 1.6 times the density of lead, DU shells are the last word in penetration power: locomotives compressed to the size of bullets. The shells ignite the instant they’re fired and explode on impact.

“I mean it’s absolute kill,” Rokke said. “Inside the vehicle is a giant firestorm.”

What’s not to love, if you’re the Pentagon? We pounded Saddam’s army with DU ammo in Gulf War I and destroyed it on the ground. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of what we did to it; GIs cleaning up afterward coined the term “crispy critters” to describe the fried corpses they found inside Iraqi tanks and trucks.

Talk about kill power. DU’s awesome; it laughs at steel. Nothing stops it. For good reason, then, the Defense Department’s standing order about this stuff is simple: See no evil.

So, OK, “depleted uranium” isn’t really depleted of anything. It’s dirty: U-238, the low-level radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process. And when the ammo explodes, poof, it vaporizes into particles so fine — a single micron in diameter, small enough to fit inside red blood cells — that, well, “conventional gas mask filters are like a barn door.”

Rokke knows what he’s talking about; indeed, he knows as much about DU as anyone alive. In 1991, he was Gen. Schwarzkopf’s go-to guy for environmental messes: the garbage man.

A specialist in preventive medicine (nuclear, chemical, biological), he was tapped to head up cleanup efforts in Kuwait. A number of U.S. tanks and troop transports had been taken out by friendly fire and Rokke and his team of several hundred men — a good 30 of whom are now dead of cancer, with many more, like Rokke himself, seriously ill — were supposed to ready them to be sent back to the States.

“We were scraping brains off Abrams tanks.” The garbage man.
He doesn’t mince words. To hear him speak — as I did the other day in Chicago — you get the feeling there’s no time for it. He was one of the presenters at a conference at the University of Illinois/Chicago on war and health, sponsored, appropriately enough, by the School of Nursing. His message is so urgent it’s incandescent.

And his message is this: War is obsolete. Its technology is out of control. And nothing, short of all-out nuclear war, is more dangerous than the widespread use of depleted uranium. Some 375 tons of it were left in the desert and cities of Iraq in ’91, and a dozen years later, a quarter of a million vets, more than a third of Gen. Schwarzkopf’s army, including Schwarzkopf himself, are combat-disabled, battling cancer and neurological and respiratory illnesses. More than 10,000 are dead.

Since then, we’ve sewn pulverized DU across Kosovo and Afghanistan, and now, once again, Iraq. This time, 2,000 tons of it. “That’s the solid estimate.” Two thousand tons. And you can’t clean it up.

This is a long-term public health disaster of fearful proportions for Iraqis. But even those of you who have a hard time caring about their fate surely see that it is also an imminent disaster for our own men and women in uniform. They are utterly unprotected from DU contamination. To take precautions would be to concede that DU is dangerous; if the Pentagon did that, its perfect weapon would become “politically unacceptable.”

Ergo, it ain’t dangerous. If you hear otherwise, it’s Iraqi propaganda.

Meanwhile, 7,000 GIs have been sent home on medical evacuation, Rokke says; 30 percent of the women are experiencing gynecological problems. And the barracks where many of our sick and wounded are warehoused are a disgrace — “so bad I wouldn’t put a hog in there,” he says.

DU rounds are going off right this moment. This is a war crime in progress.