Thinking About DU
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
strategy of highlighting DU
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.