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U.S. Depleted Uranium Ammo Will Kill Iraqis -- And War Vets -- For Years

by Chalmers Johnson

UN Condemns "Incredible" Civilian Deaths In Iraq
(PNS) -- Speaking to the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln from the ship's flight deck recently, President Bush described a new era in warfare where modern weaponry can bring down regimes "without directing violence against civilians." In fact, in both Gulf wars, unintended and potentially devastating consequences to both civilians and U.S. troops contradict administration claims of new, low-casualty combat.

The most important of these consequences is Gulf War Syndrome, a potentially deadly medical disorder that first appeared among combat veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Just as the effects of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were first explained away by the Pentagon as "post-traumatic stress disorder" or "combat fatigue," the Bush administration is downplaying the potential toxic side effects of the ammunition now being widely used by its armed forces -- depleted uranium (DU) -- and its suspected role in sickening soldiers long after they leave the battlefield.

During 1990 and 1991, some 696,778 individuals served in the Persian Gulf as elements of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Of these, 148 were killed in battle, 467 were wounded in action and 145 were killed in accidents, producing a total of 760 casualties -- quite a low number given the scale of the operations.

However, as of May 2002 the Veterans Administration (VA) reported that an additional 8,306 soldiers had died and 159,705 were injured or became ill as a result of service-connected "exposures" suffered during the war. Even more alarmingly, the VA revealed that 206,861 veterans, almost a third of Gen. Schwarzkopf's entire army, had filed claims for medical care, compensation, and pension benefits based on injuries and illnesses caused by combat in 1991. After reviewing the cases, the agency has classified 168,011 applicants as "disabled veterans." In light of these deaths and disabilities, the casualty rate for the first Gulf War is actually a staggering 29.3 percent.

Dr. Doug Rokke, a former Army colonel and professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University, was in charge of the military's environmental clean-up following the first Gulf War. The Pentagon has since sacked him for criticizing NATO commanders for not adequately protecting their troops in areas where DU ammunition was used, such as Kosovo in 1999. Rokke notes that many thousands of American troops have been based in and around Kuwait since 1990, and according to his calculations, between August 1990 and May 2002, a total of 262,586 soldiers became "disabled veterans," and 10,617 have died. His numbers produce a casualty rate for the whole decade of 30.8 percent.

The health effects of DU munitions are hotly debated. Some researchers, often funded by the Pentagon, argue that depleted uranium could not possibly cause these war-related maladies. A more likely explanation, they say, is dust and debris from the destruction of Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons factories in 1991 in the wake of the first Gulf War, or perhaps a "cocktail" of particles from DU ammunition, the destruction of nerve gas bunkers and polluted air from burning oil fields. But the evidence -- including abnormal clusters of childhood cancers and deformities in Iraq and also evidently in the areas of Kosovo where, in 1999, the United States used depleted-uranium weapons in its air war against the Serbians -- points primarily toward DU.

Moreover, by insisting on using such weaponry, the Pentagon is deliberately flouting a 1996 United Nations resolution that classifies DU ammunition as an illegal weapon of mass destruction.

DU, or uranium-238, is a waste product of power-generating nuclear reactors. It is used in projectiles such as tank shells and cruise missiles because it is 1.7 times denser than lead, burns as it flies and penetrates armor easily. But it breaks up and vaporizes on impact, which makes it potentially deadly. Each shell fired by an American tank includes 10 pounds of DU. Such warheads are essentially "dirty bombs" -- not very radioactive individually, but nonetheless suspected of being capable in quantity of causing serious illnesses and birth defects.

In 1991, U.S. forces fired a staggering 944,000 DU rounds in Kuwait and Iraq. The Pentagon admits that it left behind a bare minimum of 320 metric tons of DU on the battlefield. One study of Gulf War veterans showed that their children had a higher possibility of being born with severe deformities, including missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems and fused fingers.

Rokke fears that because the military relied more heavily on DU munitions in the second Iraq war than in the first, postwar casualties may be even greater. When he sees TV images of unprotected soldiers and Iraqi civilians driving past burning Iraqi trucks destroyed by tank fire or inspecting buildings hit by missiles, he suspects they are being poisoned by DU.

Americans should pause before celebrating how few U.S. soldiers were killed in Gulf War II. The full costs of that brief war will not be known for at least a decade.

Johnson is author of "Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire" and, forthcoming, "The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans Lost Their Country

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Albion Monitor May 2, 2003 (

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