Cynicism and the Use of Depleted Uranium

As the controversy swirls around Karl Rove and how blatantly or surreptitiously he disclosed the identity of Valerie Plame to the press, it's important to remember that the preceding issue was the question of whether Iraq was importing yellow cake uranium from Niger to make nuclear weapons. Rove, Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al., wanted to use this issue to terrify the American people and win support for the attack on Iraq. They wanted Saddam, al Qaeda, Osama, and Mushroom Cloud, like four horsemen of the apocalypse, to be synonymous in the American mind. What could frighten people more than terrorists willing to detonate atomic bombs and spread radioactive fallout?

Of course, even when they knew it wasn't true that Iraq had imported yellow cake – thanks to Joseph Wilson, husband of Valerie Plame – the administration continued to cynically hype the fear. They knew that only a threatened and credulous public would support this war. But the cynicism that allows elected leaders to use a false fear of nuclear weapons to manipulate people doesn't begin to match the cynicism of those same leaders who are using nuclear weapons themselves and lying about it.

We're talking about Depleted Uranium (DU). DU is a cheap by-product of nuclear energy and the production of nuclear weapons. It is a heavy metal, 1.7 times more dense than lead. Artillery shells, missiles, and bombs encased in DU will penetrate practically anything – tanks, fortified bunkers, hospitals, schools. DU is also radioactive. When a Depleted Uranium shell explodes it is pyrophoric, that is, it burns intensely, sending into the air billions of microscopic, radioactive, uranium oxide particles, so fine that they can be breathed through a gas mask. They become wind born, blow everywhere, enter the water, the food chain. When they are swallowed or inhaled, they lodge in every part of a person's body, emitting toxic radiation that damages DNA and causes cell mutations. The mutations, in turn, cause an incredible variety of cancers, birth defects, miscarriages, and debilitating conditions that resist treatment. DU is primarily made up of uranium 238, but our stockpile of it is contaminated with neptunium and plutonium which are thousands of times more carcinogenic than uranium. Children are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the effects of radiation than adults.

The United States and Great Britain used hundreds of tons of Depleted Uranium in the first Gulf War, and they have used thousands of tons in this current war. (A dose the size of an M&M is potentially fatal.) During the first war they were used primarily in the desert, now they are used in the cities. In the area around Basrah where DU was used extensively in the first war, the incidence of childhood leukemia has increased by 700 percent, overall cancers by 1000 percent, birth deformities by 2000 percent. People also experience immunodeficiency disorders, AIDS-like syndromes, kidney and liver dysfunction, neurological problems, rashes, vision degradation, sexual dysfunction, and psychological disorders – to name a few of the problems. In effect, the people of Iraq are suffering as though they are the victims of a nuclear war. They are. The United States has inflicted a low level, slow motion nuclear war on the people and country of Iraq.

But the Iraqis are not the only ones suffering. Nearly 356,000 American and British troops, more than half of all soldiers deployed in the first Gulf War, have experienced symptoms of exposure to Depleted Uranium (commonly called Gulf War Syndrome). Many have died of cancers and mysterious ailments. The radioactive particles from DU are taken up by body fluids and travel around the body, damaging multiple organs. They cause the body's communication system to break down. That is why Gulf War Syndrome presents itself with innumerable, seemingly unrelated ailments.

There is a 67% birth defect rate among the children of returning veterans from the first Gulf War! Veterans with DU contamination are also transferring it to their wives through sexual contact (it is carried in the semen), the result of which is an increased rate of cervical cancer. And many women have repeatedly miscarried.

In 1996 and 1997 the United Nations Human Rights Tribunals condemned Depleted Uranium weapons for illegally breaking the Geneva Convention and classed them as "weapons of mass destruction." But the U.S. and British governments have repeatedly denied that the radioactive dust from DU is harmful and blocked research into the effects. In 1997 Dr. Asaf Durakovic, then Professor of Radiology and Nuclear Medicine at Georgetown University said, "The [U.S.] Veteran's Administration asked me to lie about the risks of incorporating depleted uranium in the human body …uranium does cause cancer, uranium does cause mutation, and uranium does kill. If we continue with the irresponsible contamination of the biosphere, the denial of the fact that human life is endangered by the deadly uranium isotope, then we are doing disservice to ourselves, disservice to the truth, disservice to God and to all the generations who follow." His research was blocked.

In 1995 a leaked U.S. report said, "The potential for health effects of DU exposure is real; however, it must be viewed in perspective… the financial implications of long-term disability payments and healthcare costs would be excessive." In other words, from the "perspective" of a government that wants to continue using these weapons, wants to continue the lucrative arms trade, wants to shield the manufacturers from liability, better to keep it all secret and deny everything. In other words, from this "perspective" it is acceptable to poison hundreds of thousands of your own troops, millions of civilians, and poison a country's environment forever, rather than use a different weapon.

The biggest danger our troops and the Iraqi people face is the most insidious and the most invisible. It is one that won't go away when the troops come home. It won't solve the quagmire we have created over there. The half life cycle for DU is 4.5 billion years. It is not going away simply because we withdraw and the press goes home. The toxic pollution from DU can never be cleaned up. Nor will it stay in Iraq. Once in the air, it can blow anywhere. The mutation damage done to human cells will continue to be passed in perpetuity – much like a sick joke around the internet. What this administration is committing is a silent, quiet genocide of both planet and people.

Cynicism manifests itself in many ways. One of the most common is the way people cynically inure themselves to corruption by the politically and economically powerful. We say to ourselves that corruption is so oppressively entrenched and intransigent that, what's the use of fighting against it? Thus, we diminish ourselves, we render ourselves powerless. Our cynicism defeats us. And we accept defeat even knowing that by accepting we relinquish our ability to have control over the injustices in our society. But, as long as we can grill the hamburgers, squeeze out the car payments, dress the kids in clean clothes, patch the roof, and escape catastrophe, the big picture will leave us alone.

This is not true, though. The big picture won't leave us alone. There is another kind of cynicism that is more insidious. That is the cynicism of the powerful.

We must ask ourselves, what kind of respect does a government have for its people if it lies to them and hides the truth from them, truth that is endangering their lives? In what kind of cynical disregard are the victims trapped? The use of Depleted Uranium demonstrates that our government has no respect for its own soldiers. They are only a means to an end. Discards. The use of DU also demonstrates the U.S. government has no long-term concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people, democracy or no. They are an expendable impediment to our real goals. Depleted Uranium is real. The cynical denial of its danger endangers us all. And the most cynical fact of this war is that the only weapon of mass destruction in Iraq is the one we brought there.

July 23, 2005