Armor PiercingWithout the Mushroom Cloud:
Depleted Uranium is aWeapon of Mass Destruction
Political Science 348
March 19, 2004
“The Iraqis tell us [the USA]terrible things happened to our [Iraqi] people because you [the USA] used it[depleted uranium] last time. Why do they want it to go away? They want it togo away because we kicked the crap out of them—okay?”
- US Army ColonelJames Naughton, US Army Materiel Command, responding to a question during apress briefing, March 14, 2003, one week before Shock and Awe began.
“DU is now part of America's arsenal and it's here to stay.”
- Bernard Rostker, head of DoD’s office on GulfWar Illnesses, January 20, 2000.
Peopleoften talk about how land mines are weapons of mass destruction in slow motion.They do not kill extraordinarily large numbers of people in a short time. Theykill a great deal of people over a great deal of time, long past the end ofviolent conflict. Land mines are weapons of mass destruction also in that theydo not discriminate between combatant and civilian, thereby they violateinternational norms of the rules of war. But what of depleted uranium (DU)? DUis a waste product of the uranium enriching process. It also happens to be ableto provide extra armored protection on tanks and, when coated on projectiles,can itself pierce armor. DU has immense strategic advantages. But beinguranium, its presence introduces radiation into an environment, therebyresulting in the same kind of long term damage as a nuclear weapon, justwithout the initial blast destruction.
TheMonterey Institute's Centerfor Nonproliferation Studies considers radiological weapons to be “devices thatrelease radiation with the intent of inflicting severe injury or financial andpsychological costs. The radiological isotopes used to produce radiologicaldispersal devices are found in waste from medical facilities, industrialplants, and nuclear power plants.”In using DU, the United States and other nations are introducing a radiologicalweapon into an environment. Since the US uses DU for its technical, strategicbenefits, perhaps they should be exempt from this definition of radiologicalweapons. They certainly have not stated that in using DU they also intend toirradiate enemies and their environment for billions of years. But does lack ofstated intent allow the DU using states to arrive at the same result withoutculpability? No. Depleted uranium is a radiological weapon of mass destruction.While the United States has not done requisite research to acknowledge theeffect of DU on environments and people’s health, maintaining plausibledeniability is no excuse to avoid the indictment that states’ use of DU isactually the use of a weapon of mass destruction.
Duringthe Gulf War, the United States became the first country to use depleteduranium on armor-piercing ordnance and in tank armor. Because of thismaterial’s density and self-sharpening quality, it has great potential topierce armor plating when used on rounds. Further, when US A-10 and Harrieraircraft’s DU-tipped rounds strike a target, DU particles separate and combust,contributing to consequent fire and explosions. When built into the armor ofM1A1 Abrams tanks, for example, DU provides additional protection.No Iraqi weapons ever penetrated a US DU-armored tankduring that war. Clearly,DU has tremendous strategic capacity and value to the point of US allies, andlikely eventually, enemies, adopting the technology.Saudi Arabia, France, the UK, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, Thailand and Turkeyhave or are developing DU weapons capacity.In all, the US army fired roughly 50 tons of DU inthe Gulf War. Because DU is so dense, 50 tons comprises merely a 4.5 foot cube.Additionally, the air force used 259 tons of DU and marine fliers used 11 tons.UK tanks used less than one ton of DU.
Risksarise, however, both from DU’s chemical and radiological properties, promptingthe US Department of Defense (DoD) to address the potential combat andnon-combat effects of DU use. Specifically, they meant to examine thesequestions: “did DU pose an acceptable health risk to American troops; werepersonnel trained to recognize and communicate that risk; and were troops, onceexposed to DU, adequately monitored and treated?”In the DoD’s 1998 report, Environmental Exposure Report: Depleted Uranium inthe Gulf, they arguedthat exposure to minute levels of DU is not harmful, but exposure beyond acertain threshold can damage people’s health. Still, the report concluded therewas no medical or scientific proof that demonstrated a connection between DUexposure and “the undiagnosed illnesses presented by some Gulf War veterans.”However, as long as many illnesses remain undiagnosed, it would be easy toconclude that whatever evidence exists of the harmful effects of DU would haveno bearing on those conditions. So because of the narrow focus of this report,concentrating on undiagnosed conditions within the highly mysterious Gulf WarSyndrome (GWS), the US government can use this report to plausibly disregardobjective health risks of DU. Though trying to find ways to methodologicallylegitimize GWS, David Mahoney points out the likelihood of GWS foreverremaining mysterious.
Veteranscome to their physicians exhibiting vague symptoms whose etiology [factors thatcontribute to a disease] is as much a mystery as it was in 1991. And it isbecoming more and more likely that the origin of GWS will never be clearlydelineated. Indeed, far too much time has elapsed since the Gulf War, and fartoo little epidemiological data were collected during the war, to ensure thatthe cause of GWS would ever be identified. We have all but exhausted ouretiological options.
Thus,lack of careful documentation during and after the Gulf War may ensure that theUS never conclusively connects DU effects with GWS. This lack of certainty hasso far allowed them to swim in the murk of plausible deniability, permittingthem to continue spewing DU about the globe. Similarly, Keith Goshorn describesthe tenuous nature of a public’s faith in its leadership:
As charges of sinisterconspiracy and high level government cover-up move in to displace and supplantthe medical debate, Gulf War Syndrome becomes an epidemic of suspicion, aplague of paranoia that threatens a greater malaise than even Vietnam.
Andwhile that suspicion foments on a domestic level as people increasinglyquestion their government’s authentic commitment to the soldiers it commands(in examining the effects of DU), the natural extension of this analysis leadsto examining the methods the United States uses to engage other militaries inbattle (in examining policy surrounding their use of DU).
Particularfindings in the report demonstrate that Gulf War veterans who suffered fromfriendly fire DU ordnance and still have metal fragments in their bodies havehigher than normal uranium levels in their urine. Veterans without fragmentsstill in their bodies “generally speaking, have not shown higher than normallevels of uranium in their urine.” Apparently, also, the merely 33 veterans inthis study have normal kidney functioning and have sired babies with no“observable birth defects.”
Thereport recommends a list of changes to military procedure regarding DU.Military personnel should be educated about the risks associated with DU,particularly because enemies may use this technology on US soldiers. They alsorecommend upgrading guidelines for handling DU, particularly using bettersafety gear than what they currently use. Better tracking and communication ofDU use is also critical to protect personnel from danger in contaminated areas.The report also recommended providing dedicated, more rapidly responding radiationcontrol teams to commanders in the field.The fact that the US military goes to such lengths to protect its personnelagainst the radiological properties of DU indicates their knowledge—at the veryleast—of the DU’s potential for danger. It is irresponsible for the DU usingstates to not extend this concern to enemies, victims, and bystanders. Further, the US military does not fire DU rounds duringtraining. Perhapsthis is to save money. More likely, the greater reason could be to diminishneedless radiological contamination, particularly of their training grounds,many of which are on their own soil.
Whilethe US military studied their troops, examiningthe effects of DU remaining in Iraq is harder because of the breadth of DUdispersal during the Gulf War.Generally, DU radiation risk comes from ingesting or inhaling radioactivematerial, particularly material that has contaminated the environment and foodchain.Cristina Giannardi and Daniele Dominici examined long-term effects of DU on aninfected environment. They presented their findings in the Journal ofEnvironmental Radioactivity.They considered these means of DU affecting people: “external irradiation fromsoil, inhalation from resuspended dust, ingestion of contaminated soil andwater, ingestion of plants and animal products grown on the site and ingestionof fish grown in a pond contaminated by groundwater.”Resuspension of dust can occur when children play with soil.They concluded that “inhalation of highly contaminated soil may result inexceeding the annual dose limit.”Further, they found risk in “long term exposure due to ingestion ofcontaminated water and food.” The authors recommend that where military forcesuse DU shells, they should ensure people are not susceptible to accidentalexposure (which would require mapping DU use areas and informing populations ofthe risks there) and they should plan to clean up the sites.To proliferate DU without being responsible for cleanup is behaviour thatarguably may have been valid in August 1945, but not in the 21stcentury when so much legitimate concerns exists about WMDs, their proliferationand risks.
Moreconcern about the health effects of DU comes, oddly, from the US Armed ForcesRadiobiology Research Unit. They have found that “low-level radiation fromdepleted uranium…is capable of [possessing] carcinogenic properties.” Despitelow doses of DU radiation not killing cells immediately, they still discoveredevidence that there is cell damage. This discovery undermines US and UK argumentsthat DU radiation is of too low a dose to be responsible for increases incancers and birth defects that have been reported in regions contaminated withDU.So while the US may be intentionally not researching the right questions sothey can avoid determining if DU has health risks, they may stumble out oftheir position of plausible deniability inadvertently, thereby jeopardizingtheir ability to commit to DU in a climate of uncertainty.
Shiftingto NATO’s operations in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), Joan McQueeneyMitric argues that the late 1990s was a time when too many politicaldistractions deflected attention from examining the human and environmentalcost of NATO activity in the area.First denying they were using DU shells in FRY, the United States eventuallyadmitted they were, thereby annoying Gulf War veterans who were concerned thatthe United States was not warning military personnel or returning refugees ofthe DU risks and methods to minimize exposure, like not letting children playon tanks destroyed with DU rounds.Despite the US military’s recommendations about DU-avoidance education in theirEnvironmental Exposure Report: Depleted Uranium in the Gulf report, which was completed before theirKosovo involvement, the US assistant secretary of defense for medical affairsclaimed that such education was not part of “civilian or military training” inFRY.As long as the United States avoids finding conclusive proof that DU isdangerous, they can continue to recklessly deploy such radiologicalcontamination.
Whenit comes to mapping locations of DU use, another report recommendation, the USmilitary refused to release maps of DU use in FRY to environmental NGOs,journalists or even to the UN’s Balkan Task Force.Another reality of geography is that:
The environmental and social consequencesof war are not bounded by lines on a political map; they are not self-containedor static but tend to bleed outward and to exact a toll on public and workplacehealth, which in turn determines the economic viability of the entire region.
Ultimately,is there merit in NATO liberating Kosovars from ethnic cleansing when in doingso they contaminate greater FRY with a legacy of irradiation that willundermine their functional self-determination for an indefinite future? The Federation of American Scientists notes that thehalf-life of DU is 4.5 billion years.Is the strategic expediency of using DU in military campaigns worth theenvironmental, social, health and economic handicaps and the strain on a futurewhere liberators ought to be able to live at peace with those they haveliberated, who must live on the contaminated battlefield into the future? Froma practical point of view, the answer to both questions may be no. From a moralpoint of view, there is similar doubt. From a sense of global justice, we canview deploying DU ordnance as engagement with a weapon of mass destruction,thereby making its use even more deplorable.
Partiallybecause of laughably superior technical military capability as the UnitedStates engaged Iraq and Serbia, the US has the capacity to destroy socialinfrastructure to augment merely engaging enemy forces. Arguably, though,destroying social infrastructure, thereby undermining civilian populations’means of survival, is a biological weapon of mass destruction capable ofinflicting similar degrees of damage as releasing a toxic virus into acommunity. In destroying infrastructure, civilians can be kept from meetingtheir own survival needs, like transportation, potable water, and energy:
InKosovo, the “degrading” of Serbian capabilities took the form of aninfrastructural war that targeted and destroyed bridges, railroads, highways,communications networks, oil storage depots, heating plants, power stations, andwater treatment facilities. As can be surmised, the execution of such amilitary strategy, especially when combined with the imposition of sanctions,results in shutting down the enemy’s life-support system.
Insimilar fashion, by irradiating a land with munitions that just happen to bemore effective because of being tipped with DU, the United States (and othernations that use such ordnance) hamper the capacity of all people to survive,let alone thrive, into the future. Like land mines, DU contamination is aweapon that keeps on destroying long after the conflict ceases, and it affectsall people indiscriminately.
Since at the very least there is convincing evidenceof the potential threat of DU to human health and the environment, we need toexamine whether or not the nature of that threat establishes DU as a WMD.Certainly a nuclear weapon has the capacity to kill a great many peopleinitially. Its military value, though, extends to contaminating enemies’ landsto continue killing long into the future. These days, almost sixty years afterthe US used two nuclear weapons on Japan, there is great moral imperative tonot do so again, despite strategic deterrence realities. Simply, a great manypeople not affected by a nuclear weapon attack would condemn the state ornon-state actor that uses such a weapon. The United States, however, is in thefortunate position of being able to use DU’s chemical properties for strategicvalue in armor-piercing shells and augmenting its defensive armor. If therewere no long term health or environmental consequences of DU, as the UScontinues to maintain by not properly studying its effects, then DU wouldmerely be a useful military technology innovation. Unfortunately, DU has thesame kind of long-term, indiscriminate radiological contamination of traditionnuclear weapons. Does the absence of a mushroom cloud truly allow the world toaddress DU differently? Clearly, no.
TheNuclear Threat Initiative has some sound foundational information about variousofficial and working definitions of WMDs.Beyond traditional inclusion of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, USlegislation and FBI definitions both include radiological weapons along withnuclear weapons.
The definition in the U.S. Code, Title 5,"War and National Defense," includes radiological weapons. It definesWMD as "any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, tocause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people throughthe release, dissemination, or impact of - (A) toxic or poisonous chemicals ortheir precursors; (B) a disease organism; or (C) radiation orradioactivity."
Asevidence of DU radioactivity mounts, the absence of a mushroom cloud does notprevent the United States’ use of DU from violating their own statutorydefinition of WMD use. Further, the FBI “sometimes uses an even broaderdefinition of WMD,” including “nuclear/radiological, chemical, or biologicalagents…. A weapon crosses the WMD threshold when the consequences of itsrelease overwhelm local responders."To make the United States’ use of DU even more suspect, yet another US statutedefines a WMD as including a radiation attack:
TITLE50, CHAPTER 40, Sec. 2302. – Definitions
In this chapter: (1) The term “weapon ofmass destruction” means any weapon or device that is intended, or has thecapability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number ofpeople through the release, dissemination, or impact of - (A) toxic orpoisonous chemicals or their precursors; (B) a disease organism; or (C)radiation or radioactivity.
Soby their own statutory and security definitions, launching an attack on anenemy that involves radiation constitutes use of a weapon of mass destruction.This fact makes it even more compelling for the United States to maintainplausible deniability regarding the radiological collateral damage of using DUin theatres of war.
Turningto international law, in 1996, the UN Human Rights Commission “declared that DUwas already banned because it is incompatible with existing humanitarian lawand qualifies as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD). The UN body declared thatDU weapons and ammunition were illegal, banned their use, and stated that useof DU weapons constitutes a crime against humanity.” Further, in 2002, the same body reiterated its position, referring to otherlegal codes, stating
The use of DU shells and bombs by US-UKin four countries (Iraq, Bosnia, FRY, and Afghanistan) violated the HagueConventions of 1899 and 1907, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Nurembergprinciples of 1945, the Charter of the United Nations, the Anti-GenocideConvention of 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the fourGeneva Conventions of 1949 and its Additional Protocol I and II 1977, theConvention Against Torture, [and] the Conventional Weapons Convention of 1980.
Essentially,weapons ought to be banned if their use does not discriminate betweencombatants and civilians, is out of proportion to legitimate militaryobjectives (granted, “legitimate” is far from objectively determinable),“adversely affects the environment in a widespread, long term and severemanner,” or causes unnecessary suffering.
Ina world where the threat of a WMD attack is all too conceivable, states mustensure they develop response plans that not only are effective, but also areinformed by broad forethought regarding the possible forms such an attack mighttake. Indeed, there are tremendous factors that complicate states’ reactions: “eligibilityfor health care, the effects of low-level chemical and radiation exposure,stress-related illnesses, unlicensed therapeutics, financial compensation.”But what becomes even more uncertain is how the financial compensation elementmay evolve if societies begin to draw connections between the civil effects ofDU contamination and a state, like the United States, that has caused such direconditions. While there are realistic uninsurable losses in times of war,should that extend to a state’s use of a radiological WMD? If a military powercan win a war conventionally, but chooses to use DU to expedite the campaign tominimize its own risk, at the expense of civil life well into the future,should they be held liable? In the realm of public opinion, they may be. Butwhat is to stop general opposition to DU usage from converting into abroad-based program of seeking redress against states that use radiologicalWMDs? While there seems to be little practical merit in applying ourcontemporary sensibilities regarding WMDs retroactively to Hiroshima andNagasaki, there may be value in applying such a perspective to the nations thathave demonstrated their will to today use radiological WMDs in their militarycampaigns. Great power impunity is suspect in a world where great powers seeksto reign in others’ WMD capacity, while themselves using that capacity.
Itwould be cynical to argue that expending DU into enemies’ lands during warfareis a useful means of disposing of a waste product of enriching uranium. Evenmore cynically, we could merely call it recycling. But to process uranium forweapons systems, it is not surprising that the waste product is also astrategic weapons tool. Therefore, we should address DU as a radiological WMDin the same way as we would address a state or non-state actor that unleashes anuclear weapon. Regarding Serbia, Vojin Joksimovich argues that NATO is morallyresponsible for an “environmental cleanup and reconstruction aid” and that“world public opinion must unite to identify ecocide as a crime againsthumanity on a level with genocide and other war crimes.”Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan may have similar claims to make. Ultimately, theUnited States is deploying depleted uranium in military combat for its ownstrategic advantage. As evidence mounts implicating DU in providing aradiological threat to combatants and civilians, particularly long afterconflicts cease, it will become more obvious that DU using states are engagingin WMD use. For the present at least, these states seem to be trying to use DUas much as they can before the rest of the world catches on that the absence ofa mushroom cloud does not prevent us from holding these states accountable forsuch crimes against humanity. And in an era when the United States isstruggling to retain strategic and popular credibility in its fight against WMDproliferation, their use of depleted uranium, with callous disregard for itsradiological poisoning effects, is a handicap they do not need. It is time forthe United States and other nations that have used depleted uranium in battleto take responsibility for their actions, begin reparations and be moreconsistent in promoting a global agenda that truly opposes the spread and useof weapons of mass destruction.
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Hyams,Kenneth, Frances Murphy, and Simon Wessely. “Responding to Chemical,Biological, or Nuclear Terrorism: The Indirect and Long-Term Health Effects MayPresent the Greatest Challenge.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 27.2 (April 2002): 274-291.
Joksimovich,Vojin. “Militarism and Ecology: NATO Ecocide in Serbia.” MediterraneanQuarterly11.4 (Fall2000): 140-160.
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Mahoney,David. “A Normative Construction of Gulf War Syndrome.” Perspectives inBiology and Medicine44.4 (Autumn 2001): 575-83.
Mbembe,Achille. “Necropolitics.” PublicCulture 15.1 (Winter2003): 11-40.
Mitric,Joan. “Cascading Human Consequences of NATO's War in the Balkans.” MediterraneanQuarterly. 11.2 (Spring2000): 59-77.
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