Death by DU

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

Last week as the U.S. began pulling troops out of the Middle East, the Pentagon announced that it did not intend to tally the Iraqi civilian death toll. After weeks of boasting that the precision of our increasingly high-tech arsenal actually spares civilian lives, Pentagon officials admitted that they don't have the time, or the inclination, to assess collateral damage.

"We really don't know how many civilian deaths there have been," Colin Powell told the BBC. "And we don't know how many of them can be attributed to coalition action, as opposed to action on the part of Iraqi armed forces as they defended themselves."

If at first Powell's statement seems more candid than past rhetoric surrounding the war's toll on Iraqi civilians, consider that no one involved in the discussion--not the secretary of state, not the generals, and not Congress's fair-weather humanitarians--has been willing to confront the idea that the civilian death toll may not be evident for years, or generations.

Many of those high-tech munitions, you see, contain depleted uranium, a radioactive metal associated with a long list of rare and gruesome illnesses and birth defects. For the last month, we've pelted Iraqis with literally tons of the stuff. And while the precision with which we sent the warheads smashing into their targets did make it seem at times as if we could indeed excise a despot and his evil minions relatively cleanly, the truth is that we've also salted a wide swath of the cradle of civilization with a dust that will be toxic for some 4.5 billion years.

Just like their DOD cohorts, executives at Alliant Techsystems, based in Edina, like to suggest that their "smarter" bombs make war a more humane enterprise. Alliant is the U.S. Army's leading supplier of munitions, and has sold millions of DU penetrators to the Army and Air Force. Many were manufactured in New Brighton and stored in Elk River; depleted uranium is one of the toxins currently being scoured from the company's now-shuttered Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, a Superfund site.

 

From a military standpoint, depleted uranium is the holy grail of raw materials. Forged from the waste generated by nuclear power plants, it's incredibly heavy--1.7 times as heavy as lead--and especially well suited to making warhead penetrators, the sheaths that allow bombs and other ordnance to pierce heavily armored tanks or thick-walled bunkers. As a lethal bonus, this extraordinary density gives the metal peerless kinetic energy: DU penetrators ignite on impact, creating a burning, radioactive cloud. Used as armor, it makes our tanks virtually impervious. The M1 Abrams tank is the ultimate DU success story; it is protected by a sheath of depleted uranium armor and fires only DU-tipped shells.

Depleted uranium made its combat debut during the first Gulf War, when we spent some 320 tons of armor-piercing bullets and shells in both Iraq and Kuwait. The warheads worked so well that they were employed in smaller quantities in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. Independent weapons experts are convinced we used far more of it this time around in Iraq--and in far larger weapons, including 2,000-pound air-to-ground cruise missiles and the so-called bunker busters.

Tungsten and titanium, the only metals even close to being effective substitutes, don't penetrate their targets with nearly as much strength. And their sky-high cost is prohibitive. By contrast, upwards of a billion pounds of depleted uranium is just lying around in piles that we can't figure out how to get rid of. The U.S. government is happy to give it away.

Given the metal's military uses, it's not hard to understand how the Pentagon brass can continue to keep straight faces while insisting that DU isn't toxic. Yet since Gulf War I a slow, steady accretion of evidence has begun to suggest that it is in fact a very indiscriminate killer.

For starters, even in its "depleted" state, DU is still 40 percent as radioactive as regular uranium and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. When it ignites, it leaves behind microscopic radioactive oxides--a nasty dust that settles in soil, in the water table, or, most tragically, in people's lungs. Unexploded DU penetrators are offenders in their own right: The material is highly corrosive, and buried shells lose 25 percent of their mass within seven years of impact.

Iraqi health officials have claimed that the number of cancer cases among Iraqi children has risen fivefold since 1990, while the overall cancer rate is up 38 percent. Birth defects and leukemia have tripled. It's hard to know whether Iraq's complaints are credible: The International Atomic Energy Agency has supposedly refused to allow Iraq to acquire the radiology equipment necessary to study DU, arguing that the technology might aid in the development of nuclear weapons. Kuwait was pelted with the warheads, too, but can't provide many clues: DU was not dropped in its cities and following the first war Kuwaitis launched a massive, well-funded cleanup.

But it's not just an Iraqi problem. A growing number of U.S. veterans believe it is the cause of their Gulf War Syndrome, the controversial cluster of symptoms which scientists now believe was caused by battlefield exposure to numerous toxins during the first Gulf War. Also, similar illnesses, including clusters of unusual cancers, have been reported in Bosnia and Kosovo. Following the deaths of several peacekeepers, many NATO member nations mounted an unsuccessful campaign to outlaw DU weapons.

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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