Depleted uranium, which is 1.67 times denser than lead, is all the rage in modern munitions. Because of its hardness, it can pierce almost any armor on the planet, and has become the new go-to armor-piercing substance for the United States Military. As many as twenty countries currently use this technology for military purposes, and the United States has done so in every major conflict since the Gulf War, including in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In a period of in Iraq, between 1,000 and 2,000 tons of DU munitions were fired by coalition forces.
The problem with this is not just the massive payloads used by the military, but the fact that DU armaments have been proven to have disastrous side effects. Al-Jazeera’s Dahr Jamail says that “we are seeing a rate of congenital malformations in the city of Fallujah that has surpassed even [those in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki…] at the end of World War II.” He added later that, “overall, [Iraq] has seen a massive increase in cancer rates from the 1991 Gulf War up to present, even according to official Iraqi government statistics. In 1991, for example, there were 40 registered cases of cancer out of 100,000 Iraqis. By 1995, four years after that war, that number had jumped to 800 out of 100,000 Iraqis. And then—by 2005, that number had doubled.”
A Harvard University study into the matter corroborated Jamail’s research, concluding that “As a result [of DU exposure] a multi-fold increase of low level radiation exposure related diseases have been registered since 1995. [There was] an increase of children’s leukemia, congenital malformations, breast cancer, etc.” The Harvard study also found that these increased rates of cancer were especially common in areas targeting with DU munitions, or areas which many of Iraq’s soldiers were from. Congressman Jim McDermott, a strong activist against DU, has reported that malformations in birth in certain areas of Iraq increased by 600% following the first Gulf War.
While some argue that there are not enough conclusive studies regarding DU radioactivity (and there are), DU still has the same chemical toxicity as lead, a material toxic enough that the United States is planning to stop using it in all of their small-arms munitions. The toxic effect of DU is primarily kidney damage, but can also affect the bone and brain, according to numerous studies.
All of this has led many countries to request immediate moratoriums and bans on the military application of depleted uranium. The European Parliament has many times passed resolutions requesting such a moratorium, though Britain and France have ignored this. Belgium became the first country to ban DU munitions in its military in 2009, and Costa Rica followed suit in 2011. The Latin American Parliament has also passed a resolution calling for a regional moratorium on DU use in military affairs. The countries opposing such resolutions, in the UN and elsewhere, are primarily NATO members, led by the United States. These countries assert that there are no adverse side effects of depleted uranium.
The US Military, unsurprisingly, holds this position as well. While still maintaining that DU munitions are no more harmful than more conventional arms, the military repeatedly refuses to disclose precise firing coordinates of DU rounds, preventing researchers and aid workers from investigating the specific effects of the material.
This is the same position that the army – and the US Government more generally – took with Agent Orange and the other rainbow defoliants in the Vietnam War. They denied from the start that these herbicides had any negative health impacts without doing any research. And despite the fact that the military shut down its defoliant program in 1971, following an NIH study that found that Agent Orange caused birth defects in lab animals, the government has still never officially acknowledged a link between Agent Orange and illness in Vietnam’s population. It also has never explicitly stated that the herbicide is responsible for illnesses suffered by US veterans and their children, even after awarding them compensation.
During the ten-year course of the rainbow agents program – called Operation Ranch Hand – 12% of Vietnam’s land was sprayed with defoliants, with an average concentration exceeding the US government’s domestic recommendation 13 times over. Although we still don’t know the extent of contaminated areas in Iraq, depleted uranium has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. This means that in 4.5 billion years, the amount of DU in Iraq will only be halved. Like Agent Orange, whose effects can be passed down from generation to generation, depleted uranium is a long-term problem.
Both depleted uranium and Agent Orange are typical cases of the military prioritizing effectiveness and efficiency over the possible ethical consequences of its actions. Agent Orange reduced the danger to US military personnel, and DU means that enemy tanks and bunkers pose a much smaller threat. Similarly, drone warfare takes American pilots out of the line of fire – while also condemning hundreds of foreign non-combatants to die.
This all ties into a much larger crisis of civil-military relations that Gregory Foster writes about for The Nation. Foster argues that a minimum condition for democracy is civilian control of the military, and that recent years have shown the United States doesn’t meet this condition. To solve this, we must “reconsider the very purpose and function of the military and to reorient it accordingly. That would mean transforming a cumbersome, stagnant, obsolescent, irrelevant war fighting force—with its own inbuilt self-corrupting qualities—into a peacekeeping, nation-building, humanitarian-assistance, disaster-response force far more attuned to a future it helps shape and far more strategically effective than what we now have.”
Of course, that’s a rather large task to take on. While it’s important to keep in mind the overall framework of civil-military relations when engaging in this activism, organizing around ending the use of depleted uranium or drone strikes is much more palatable, and much more likely to succeed. After all, the United States cannot simply wait for the effects to wear off and for the world to forget. The effects of DU munitions will be felt for centuries to come, and will be worsened unless we stand up against this breach of ethics and international law.