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Thinking About DU


Michael Albert

The

past week has seen a steadily escalating rush of commentary about Depleted

Uranium used in the Gulf War and the Balkans bombing. Particularly in England

but in much of Europe and the U.S. as well, left journalists are condemning

DU’s use. E-mail notices crossing my desk pretty accurately track left

attention – and for the moment, DU is very hot.

Four

key dimensions of DU discussion stand out.

  • The

    Facts – what DU is and its purpose.

  • The

    Related Context – military values and choices.

  • The

    Morality – judging the situation of DU.

  • The

    Strategy – what we say and do in such cases, and why.

 

Facts

Depleted

uranium is plentiful and I would imagine relatively cheaply available as a

by-product of nuclear reactors. It has the same chemical properties as the

uranium that comes out of mines, but having had the more radioactive isotopes

removed, it is about 40% less radioactive. Being radioactive at all means DU

gives off what are called alpha, beta, and/or gamma radiation. The latter is

highly penetrating but reportedly quite low for DU. The former, more

substantial, are nonetheless at levels stopped even by skin, certainly by boots,

etc. On the other hand, if DU is ingested in tiny particles or penetrates the

body in shrapnel, the alpha and beta radiation will assault the cells more

directly and strongly since intensity rises with proximity. DU is also a

“heavy metal” and radioactivity aside, heavy metals are chemically toxic.

Lead poisoning is an example, and DU is no exception to this general rule.

The

known reason that DU is used in armor and armor-piercing shells is that it is

very dense and has high stopping and penetrating capacity, especially against

less heavy metals. As a result, U.S. tanks have DU armor under the outer layers,

and U.S. shells have DU cores.

Claims

about the health impact of exploded/vaporized DU vary. No one denies that as a

heavy metal it is toxic, though how toxic is disputed. Debate rages about

whether DU’s radioactive impact is substantial, slight, or nil. However, to my

knowledge gleaned only from examining readily available reports of critics and

supporters, there are no serious large-scale epidemiological studies available.

There is no compelling evidence, that is, that is specific to DU’s effects in

the field, only intimations about what they might be. Before everyone writes in

that I am bonkers, note that the fact that people have gotten sick, or gotten

leukemia, in countries that have their infrastructure obliterated, that have had

all manner of chemical plants blown to pieces and scattered to the winds, and

that are shrouded in metals, gasses, and other battlefield waste including but

not even remotely limited to DU, doesn’t implicate a specific cause as against

all others – other than war itself, that is – without further investigation.

That a proximate item has the name “uranium” doesn’t make that item the

lone culprit nor even the most culpable one. It could be the cause or a main

cause, of course, but it also may not be. It’s a technical and not a political

determination. War, however, we know about. Bombing all over the map, we know

about. Violating norms of civility and justice with death-dealing sanctions, we

know about. These are culpable causes for suffering and death, to be sure.

What

is the scale of damage due to DU, even if DU is the culprit in many or even all

of the health cases? Well, it certainly would be bad, yet we also ought to note

that even if the most extreme current speculations are correct, the damages from

DU would rise to at most a small fraction of the damages caused by the massive

attacks against the civilian infrastructure of Serbia and Iraq, the effects of

cluster bombs, the immense damage to the population and environment caused by

attacking chemical plants, destroying bridges, blocking and polluting rivers,

blowing up refineries, etc. The point is, as far as fact is concerned, we

don’t know out of the tens of reported deaths and the hundreds of reported

illnesses how many are due to DU radiation or to the chemical toxicity of DU, or

due to other heavy metals or pollutants, or due to innumerable other likely

causes including the destruction of civilian infrastructure, which has

extraordinary health consequences (quite apart from the sanctions in Iraq, which

have exacerbated all these problems enormously).

 

The

Context

The

context of DU’s use is war perpetrated by the U.S. and its NATO underlings.

Would the U.S. military employ an element in its shells deadly to those we are

attacking? This is a silly question…it does, it has, repeatedly. Bombs are

deadly in their explosion and in what they spew, with or without DU. Agent

Orange used in Vietnam to “defoliate” was deadly, not only in biologically

warring against the agriculture and means of survival, but also by direct impact

on the people who ingested it. There is no moral barrier in the U.S military to

using toxic or radioactive or any other effective killing means against those we

attack. Quite the contrary, the U.S. military searches out such options

vigorously, impeded in their use only by the price of dissent or by geopolitical

concerns, problems of precedent, etc.

What

about the U.S. military’s attitude toward its own soldiers? Here the situation

is marginally more complex, though no more moral. Soldiers are fodder. Generals

don’t take up residence on the field of combat, it’s too dangerous. The

troops are the expendable ones. If you read the Pentagon Papers reports on

Vietnam policy making there is virtually zero concern for the well-being of

replaceable troops, per se. There is, however, considerable pragmatic concern

about troops’ morale, about their ability to fight, and about the dissent that

can arise in society against war and against the troops’ lack of safety, as

well as about law suits on the troops’ behalf, for that matter. Though not

moral, all this pragmatic concern powerfully militates against the U.S.

knowingly using or continuing to use methods or equipment that endanger its own

troops unduly. The aim of U.S. war is to destroy without U.S. casualties — and

they actually do a rather good job both of destroying and of minimizing U.S.

casualties. Could the pragmatic and military reasons propelling use of DU –

its ready availability, its penetrating and blocking power, and perhaps other

reasons unknown to us – override concerns to avoid a public relations

nightmare, lawsuits, and troop demoralization? Yes, they could, if the reasons

were strong enough. Is the U.S. military immoral enough to use DU if DU is as

its detractors claim? Of course. But is the U.S. military stupid or blind enough

to use DU, not to the moral consequences that they don’t care about, but to

the political consequences of using DU, if it is as portrayed by its detractors?

Maybe. It could be. But I haven’t seen enough to make me believe it.

 

The

Morality

When

a warring nation uses a technique that endangers civilian populations, it is a

war crime and an added assault against humanity, even beyond unjust war itself,

and quite worth pointing out, as with bombing bridges and much else in Vietnam,

and as in the use of Agent Orange, as a more explicitly chemical example. But

why should the case of DU wherein the impact is seemingly relatively low

alongside one of the most barbaric instances of chemical and biological warfare

in history (the U.S. destruction of the infrastructure of and embargo against

Iraq, denying chemicals and medicine that in turn leads to immense verifiable

disaster) rise to such prominence in the media, and even on the left? Or

consider the international DU interest compared to the interest in Clinton’s

overt destruction of half the pharmaceutical supplies of a poor African country

that has in turn very likely led to tens of thousands of deaths. Perhaps the

relative outcry about DU has something to do with the thought that DU affects

“our troops” and is possibly spreading even to places like Italy where

“we” live. Imagine the outcry if the Clinton pharmaceutical bombing were to

happen in a rich country, like Italy. Moderately affecting our troops or

civilians and not only those of “enemies” is not justification for hugely

enhanced leftist focus. We do not primarily oppose imperial war because imperial

troops sometimes die of friendly fire, even though that is a bad thing, too.

If

mainstream heightened interest is due to (limited) concern for our troops only,

or for our civilians, say — and otherwise why wouldn’t mainstream interest be

much higher for the dead children of Iraq? — that can’t be the cause of the

left’s heightened interest. Our morals look first to impact on the victims of

heinous crimes. And if some people’s interest is aroused by the grotesque

immorality of the use of toxic materials at all, that can’t be the reason for

heightened attention from seasoned leftists for whom such use can’t possibly

be a surprise and who know in any event that the relative impact of DU, however

great, is modest to minuscule compared to the impact of the bombing per se, or

the sanctions per se. So if the left’s interest isn’t because of DU’s

relative moral importance and is certainly not because unlike old-style bombs it

can hurt our citizens too, then it must be strategic. It must be that we think

that highlighting DU is a good way to build generalized opposition.

The

strategy of highlighting DU

But

is it strategically beneficial to highlight DU? Well, what makes any campaign

strategically valuable? It has to resonate with some sectors of the public since

otherwise it is not gaining ground. DU dissent certainly does that. But it also

has to promote new and accurate awareness and commitment that contribute to

lasting morally and socially valuable activism. Does DU dissent do that? I am

not so sure. It could, perhaps, if the lessons communicated are overwhelmingly

about the motives of war and the U.S. military, and if the comparisons made and

data presented continually upgrade people’s understanding of the much greater

and more certain violence of the Gulf War and the Iraq sanctions and the NATO

bombings, and of U.S. foreign policy more generally. And if the whole enterprise

isn’t undercut by having made wrong claims. And if DU dissent doesn’t

degenerate into irrational anti-science prejudices as compared to rightful

skepticism of establishment “expert” testimony, or into concerns about

impact on U.S. or European soldiers or citizenry disconnected from concerns

about unjust war and its primary victims, in this case in the Balkans and Iraq.

I

guess, my point is that I would urge considerable caution in writing about and

pursuing this issue. What’s wrong with the tools of war is first and foremost

that they are tools of war – and, in particular, as used by the U.S.

repeatedly around the world, of horrifically unjust war. Yes, weapons that are

verifiably particularly odious can warrant specific additional criticism, to be

sure, but it is always a secondary matter compared to the overall morality and

policies of an unjust and truly rogue state — that is, the U.S.

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