In the ten years between 1961 and 1971, during the Vietnam
War, the defoliant known as Agent Orange was used to reduce the Vietnamese
fighters cover by the United States. The effects of Agent Orange and of several
of the other ‘Agents’ developed has been public knowledge for many years. Yet,
despite the plethora of evidence, it took Veterans of the war twenty years to
receive compensation and thus recognition of the dangers Agent Orange poses.
Vietnam veterans have still not received any compensation however. This
demonstrates the extreme stubbornness of companies involved in weapon
production to fully test and report their findings. Most likely their contract
paid too well for such discrepancies to be duly noted. It also demonstrates
their sheer arrogance when accused of wrongdoing.
However, the lessons of Vietnam and Agent Orange were learnt
and committed to the books of history to appear as a brief note in a school
history class. But were the lessons really learnt or just acknowledged in an
attempt to make the mistakes go away?
Since 1991, in the first Gulf War, the United States and the
United Kingdom (at least) have been using Depleted Uranium weaponry and the
story has the potential to follow the same path as that of Agent Orange.
Depleted Uranium (DU) is the by-product of processing
Uranium ore for use in nuclear reactors (and weapons) and from re-processing
spent reactor rods. It
is 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium and it is estimated that
America has stockpiles of between 480 million to 680.4 million kilograms (1.058
billion – 1.5 billion pounds) in hazardous waste storage sites. Like all
nuclear waste it is very expensive to dispose of. However, it has unique
properties that make it ideal for bullet tips and tank armour at a cheap price
and in high quantity.
a very heavy, dense metal. It is 2.4 times as heavy as Iron. If a warhead made
of steel (an Iron based alloy) was replaced with the same weight of DU it would
be half its cross-section area and being that much thinner doubles the warheads
penetrative effect. It also has a similar density to Tungsten, a metal used in
many "kinetic energy weapons", that is, a weapon that does not contain an
explosive for penetration purposes, i.e. a bullet. DU is also the second
hardest common metal to Tungsten. All these qualities make it almost as useful
as Tungsten for use in weapon systems and when you consider that there is a lot
of it lying in storage its is easy to imagine why it might be used over its rival
metal. However, DU has one property that elevates it way above other possible
metals. It is pyrophoric. This means that it ignites (at 500°C, generated when
it hit its target) and burns (at some 2000°C) in ordinary everyday conditions.
This not only adds massively to its penetration power but also means it is
likely to ignite fuel or shells in a tank or storage depot for example.
far then, if you must wage wars, DU has all the properties to get weapon
manufacturers, traders and government officials drooling. Except it is still
radioactive and, as you might imagine, firing your nuclear waste at your
enemies has its downsides.
When a DU tipped shell or
bullet hits a target and ignites it produces a fine black cloud of dust; a
radioactive cloud of dust. The larger particles in this dust can settle and
give the appearance of soot but more than 60% of the dust is invisible to the
human eye and can be easily carried by the wind and be absorbed by rain clouds,
etc. In the United States DU contamination was recorded up to 25 miles from one
manufacturing site. The main form of radiation emitted from Depleted Uranium is
alpha radiation, high energy but with a range of only a few millimeters. As a
result it is largely harmless if slight precautions are taken, i.e. wearing
gloves while carrying shells and bullets. However, if inhaled into the lungs
the dangers are catastrophically greater, and as a dust cloud it is not hard to
comprehend how this could occur. Inhaled particles get into the lymph and blood systems, bones
and reproductive organs. The alpha radiation will then permanently damage
nearby tissue. While research on the effects on humans is worryingly low (or at
least unreleased) research involving mice and rats has shown that DU can result in cancerous tumors
and genetic mutations, and pass from mother to unborn child, resulting in birth
defects. Information collected in Basra hospital from 1991 to 2000 shows
massive increases in leukemia’s
and other malignancies among children, some having increased as much as 600%.
There are other theories as to these sudden rises but none can provide
satisfactory evidence for such great rises in illnesses. The British government
has even suggested these statistics can be entirely blamed on Saddam Hussein’s
mistreatment of his people, yet there are no claims of such a nature in Iraq.
However, there is other evidence that DU
is not as harmless as is claimed. Many U.S. soldiers who have served in the various
wars involving the United States since the first Gulf War have been left
needing constant medical attention for a wide array of grim illnesses and many
claim it was due to exposure to Depleted Uranium without prior warning when
searching old battle sites for "trophies" and "souvenirs". Their claims are
still unrecognized by the U.S. government. In fact, the U.S. government has
carried out tests on a pathetic 32 soldiers in its answer to the questions they
faced. In the test they used outdated and obsolete testing methods and as a
result concluded that there was no danger. The effort on behalf of the U.S. and
U.K. governments to either question or acknowledge complaints has been nothing
short of farcical. There have been numerous well supported motions in the U.N.
to ban DU weapons but the U.K., U.S. and France, three of the permanent members
of the Security Council, have constantly rejected these calls.
The soldier’s plight in turn highlights
the dangers to the population of Iraq. Children are at risk from simply playing
in areas where a tank or truck has been destroyed, the same goes for anyone
else who may be in the area. DU has also been used in varying amounts in the
Balkans and Afghanistan. It is estimated that the U.S. alone fired 118 tonnes
of DU munitions in the latest Iraq war and 259 tonnes in Iraq and Kuwait in
1991. Additionally, while the U.S. and U.K. deny any ill effects of Depleted
Uranium, the United Nations Environment Program identified 311 polluted sites
in Iraq in 2005. The cleaning of these sites cannot commence until the fighting
has ended which seems to very a long, long way off yet. And in case you were
wondering, DU has a half-life of almost 4.5 billion years, that is 4.5 billion
years until it is half as radioactive as it is today, so it isn’t going
The official reason for the
invasion of Iraq in 2003 (or at least one of them) was to topple the régime of
Saddam Hussein and install order, democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq.
All that has been brought is chaos and destruction, crisis after crisis and the
ever increasing possibility of all-out civil war and the shattering of the
country. Added to this they are polluting areas of Iraq in the most serious
way. This does not constitute even the most distorted definition of the word
freedom. While Depleted Uranium is not considered as a form of nuclear weaponry
its has many of the hall marks on a smaller scale and its blasé use by
governments of the world only underlines their complete disregard for the
"ordinary people", workers of the world and even the soldiers who are doing
their bidding. There is the very real prospect that we are facing an almost
carbon copy of the Agent Orange events, it may take years for the truth to
surface but eventually the isolated voices will grow to such volume that
governments will have to take note and research their actions. By then it will
be too late. Cancers and birth defects don’t vanish with government apologies
and compensation. More people need to be made aware of the untold crimes of the
imperialists in their self-righteous wars to save humanity because, in the end,
their may not be much of humanity left to save.