Death by DU

Depleted uranium: A deadly tool in the U.S. arsenal

The U.S. military seems to have taken a two-pronged approach to hanging on to its bunker-busters. The first tack is to blame the enemy. In a Pentagon briefing held in the days before the start of the war, Col. James Naughton of the U.S. Army Materiel Command insisted claims that Iraqis are suffering a variety of bizarre cancers and other illnesses traceable to DU are nothing more than propaganda. "They want it to go away because we kicked the crap out of them," he said.

The military's second strategy appears to be to refuse to do any research into DU's toxicity and--in a charmingly Orwellian touch--to justify this decision by insisting that there's no evidence of a problem. To date the feds have taken just one formal look at DU, by tracking the health of several dozen Gulf War vets who were hit by depleted uranium shrapnel when their DU-armored tanks were hit by friendly fire. But most non-U.S. experts agree that the toxin's real potential for injury is via inhalation or ingestion. And most Defense Department and Veterans Administration researchers who wanted to press the matter have found themselves out of jobs.

Last month, even as the U.S. was pelting Baghdad with the latest generation of DU weapons, a United Nations Environment Programme report found that depleted uranium from weapons used in Bosnia and Herzegovina can still be found in that country's drinking water and in dust particles suspended in the air. The research was funded not by the United States but by the governments of Italy and Switzerland.


 

But let's return to the topic of the civilian death toll for a moment, because there's a lesson here as to how we got desensitized to our own weapons of mass destruction. It's quite simple, really: The higher the number, the less able Americans are to muster any outrage. For the first week after the U.S. invaded Iraq, we were treated to compelling accounts of the deaths of individual Iraqis or small groups, such as the seven women and children killed at a Marine checkpoint. But as the collateral damage mounted, we lost interest.

On March 26, a week into the conflict, the military's precision weaponry misfired and the U.S. bombed a Baghdad market, instantly killing 35. That earned lots of headlines, including some that told of the United States' feeble attempt to pin the bombing on the Iraqis. But by the following day, when bombs were falling on residential neighborhoods throughout the city, we seemed to have exorcised any thoughts of wringing our hands over the losses.

Juxtapose these numbers against another set--one Americans fixate on quite readily. March 26, the day the U.S. bombed that Baghdad market, was a pretty decent day for Alliant Techsystems, which had seen its stock plummet from a high a year ago of nearly $80 per share to as low as $43. That day, buoyed by news that the war wasn't going to be won in just a few days, its stock jumped from $52.60 to $54.60. "People thought it would be a five-day or ten-day war, but it's going to be a long war," one defense stock analyst explained to Reuters. "We're firing off a lot of missiles, using helicopters, ordnance. Whatever we use, we have to replace."

Restocking the nation's ordnance supply could provide little more than a momentary boost for the company, other analysts cautioned. In the long term, they say, they are far more interested in Alliant's attempts to develop more of those high-tech precision-guided weapons. As of this writing, the company's stock is hovering between $49 and $50 per share.

By the time U.S. troops took Baghdad, some 1,250 civilians had been killed, according to what remained of Iraq's public health apparatus. As a statistic, it's curiously meaningless. Does anyone remember how many civilians died during the first Gulf War? In Afghanistan? In Vietnam, even? Of course not, it's the really big numbers we can't seem to face. Little wonder, then, that we have no interest in determining how many people have become victims of that conflict in the intervening years and how many will die slow, untelevised deaths in the years to come.

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