by Mitchel Cohen
The U.S. escaped the 1991 Gulf war with few direct casualties. While
250,000 Iraqis were killed outright by the U.S. bombardment and
another 750,000 died as a result of the U.N.'s international embargo
spearheaded by the U.S., "only" 376 U.S. soldiers died in the Gulf;
almost all of them were killed by so-called "friendly fire," shot
accidentally by their fellow soldiers.(1) The fourteen U.S. M1A1
Abrams tanks and fifteen U.S. Bradley Fighting vehicles destroyed in
the Gulf war were knocked out by "friendly fire" as well.
All twenty-nine vehicles were hit by a new kind of ammunition: shells
encased in "depleted uranium" (DU), which makes them superhard and
able to penetrate all existing armor-plating. DU was used exclusively
by U.S. and British forces in the Gulf not only as armor-penetrating
ammunition by M1A1 Abrams tanks and A-10 attack planes, but as tank
armor. DU, which is 1.6 times denser than lead, proved so effective
that not a single U.S. tank was destroyed by Iraqi fire.
Over the course of the two month war, 3,700 Iraqi tanks were
obliterated -- 1,400 of them by shells encased in depleted uranium.
Thousands of artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and other
equipment were destroyed by DU rounds. 940,000 30mm shells encased in
depleted uranium were fired from U.S. planes, and 14,000 larger DU
shells from tanks, along with an untold number of Tomahawk missiles
tipped with depleted uranium. By war's end, roughly 300 tons of
uranium from spent rounds lay scattered in various sizes and states
of decay across the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait.(2) Welcome to
the wave of the future: "low intensity" nuclear war, inaugurated in
the Gulf War by the United States.(3)
Depleted uranium is a highly toxic and radioactive by-product of the
uranium enrichment process used in nuclear reactors and the
manufacture of nuclear weapons. Natural uranium, with a half-life of
4.5 billion years, is comprised of three isotopes: 99.27 percent
U238, 0.72 percent U235, and .0057 percent U234. DU is uranium with
the U235 isotope -- the fissionable material -- reduced from 0.7
percent to 0.2 percent -- thus, "depleted." The Pentagon says DU is
relatively harmless, emitting "only" 60 percent the radiation of
non-depleted uranium. But Dr. Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould and
Benjamin Goldman have shown that even low-level radiation emitted
during the "normal" functioning of nuclear power plants creates havoc
with people's immune system as well as the surrounding
environment.(4) And, according to independent scientists, "a DU
antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in
one hour as fifty chest X-rays."(5) A tank driver receives a
radiation dose of 0.13 mrem/hr to his or her head from overhead DU
armor,(6) which may seem like a very low dose. However, after 32
continuous days, or 64 12-hour days, the amount of radiation a tank
driver receives to his head will exceed the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission's standard for public whole-body annual exposure to man-
made sources of radiation.(7) Unfortunately, U.S. tank crews were not
monitored for radiation exposure during the Gulf war.(8)
When properly encased, the Pentagon says DU gives off very little
radiation. But DU becomes much more radioactive when it burns. When
fired, it combusts on impact. "As much as 70 percent of the material
is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be
inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys."(9) One
researcher found that a single molecular particle of depleted uranium
will subject an individual to radiation at a level 800 times what is
permitted by federal regulations for external exposure.(10)
Twenty-two vets are known to have uranium shrapnel imbedded in their bodies.
As DU-artillery shells heat up, the uranium becomes aerosolized,
releasing high amounts of radioactivity -- not the low amounts the
military claims for "normal" depleted uranium. Clouds of deadly
uranium dioxide dust particles swept over large areas of Iraq and
Kuwait, devastating agriculture, soil and water.(11)
One army reserve engineer said he was relieved when he found out that
a deafening explosion near his unit's camp just inside the Kuwaiti
border was not an Iraqi chemical or nuclear attack, but the
accidental explosion of a 40-ton U.S. Hemmt transport vehicle
carrying DU antitank rounds. "It was about 1,000 meters from our camp
and the wind was blowing our way," he said. "A big black cloud blew
right over us."(12) In a survey of 10,051 Gulf War vets, it has been
found that 82 percent had entered captured Iraqi vehicles, many of
which were disabled by DU rounds. With more than 600,000 pounds of
depleted uranium left scattered throughout the region, by war's end
the U.S. had turned the Gulf area into a deadly radioactive grid,
affecting not only U.S. soldiers but hundreds of thousands, perhaps
millions, of people who live in the Gulf. Is it any wonder that many
symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome are so similar to radiation sickness?
Radioactivity inflicts severe damage on the total environment while
weakening immune systems, destroying the kidneys, lungs, bones and
liver, and rendering the human body susceptible to all sorts of
diseases a healthy individual is able to ward off. Iraqi children
continue to find uranium-coated shells; they have been coming down
with all sorts of deadly illnesses associated with radiation
poisoning. A secret report by the British government estimated that
the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf could alone account
for 500,000 deaths in the region.(13) That report was based on
estimates that 25 tons of depleted uranium munitions had been used;
in actuality, the Department of Defense now estimates that the U.S.
fired more than 12 times that amount.
As the only country to have ever dropped atomic bombs on a populated
area, the U.S. government has long attempted to circumvent
international treaties and develop ever-newer weapons of mass
destruction. In 1953, Gen. Douglas McArthur issued a plan to dump
radioactive cobalt across Korea to create a permanent radioactive
barrier between the North and South. That plan was considered but
never implemented (as far as we know). President Jimmy Carter tried
to obtain funding for a "neutron bomb" that would annihilate people
and all living beings but leave buildings and capital intact. That
project was beaten back by public outcry and mass protests. The U.S.
government has threatened to use nuclear weapons on dozens of
occasions, including against Vietnam in 1953 and again in 1969 -- the
latter squelched at the last minute by President Richard Nixon due to
the huge anti-war protests taking place at the time in the U.S.(14)
In fact, so adamently has the world's population -- including the
vast majority in the U.S. -- opposed atomic weapons of every sort
that it took the enormous propaganda effort of the Gulf War for the
U.S. government, for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to
get away with using radioactive weapons against living people.
The U.S. Department of Defense has more than 1.1 billion pounds of
nuclear waste in storage from fifty years of nuclear weapons
production and nuclear power plants. The government, hemmed in by
public opposition, health and environmental movements, is always
trying to find new "acceptable" ways to dispose of it. It has
apparently found one. Billions of dollars allotted to the
Environmental Restoration branch of the Department of Energy for
cleaning up nuclear waste sites is now being used instead to ship
nuclear waste free of charge to munitions manufacturers all over the
world to be "recycled" into weapons.
Dr. Helen Caldicott reports that these radiological weapons have
already been exported to Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Bahrain, Israel,
Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Kuwait and others. Where is the cry at
the United Nations to end the manufacture, distribution and use of
such weapons before it's too late? In introducing the use of depleted
uranium weapons the U.S. government used its own soldiers as guinea
pigs, permanently destroyed the ecology of the region, and left an
ongoing legacy of childhood leukemia, birth defects and poisoned
water for civilians living in the Gulf. And the U.S. -- as it did in
dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- has made the
horror of low intensity nuclear weapons the necessary norm for future
1. Patrick Sloyan, "For Gulf War Troops, Fire Wasn't Friendly,"
<MI>New York Newsday<D>, August 10, 1991.
2. Dan Fahey, "Collateral Damage: How U.S. Troops Were Exposed To
Depleted Uranium During the Persian Gulf War," in Metal of Dishonor:
Depleted Uranium: How the Pentagon Radiates Soldiers and Civilians
with DU Weapons, International Action Center, 1997, p. 28. Fahey is a
director of the National Depleted Uranium Citizens' Network of the
Military Toxics Project (MTP), PO Box 845, Sabattus, ME 04280; (207)
3. One of the first extensive exposs of DU in a mainstream journal
was written by Eric Hoskins, "Making the Desert Glow," Op-Ed in The
NY Times, Jan. 21, 1993. Also, see Nama Lefkir-Lafitte and Roland
Laffite, "The Use of Radioactive Weapons Against the `Iraqi Enemy',"
in Le Monde Diplomatique, April, 1995.
4. Jay M. Gould and Benjamin A. Goldman, Deadly Deceit: Low Level
Radiation, High Level Cover-Up, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1990;
Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, Nuclear Radiation & the Destruction of the
Immune System, Red Balloon Collective, 1993; and, Sternglass, Low
Level Radiation: The story of one scientist's attempt to call public
attention to radiation damage to infants and the unborn, Ballantine
5. Bill Mesler, "The Pentagon's Radioactive Bullet," The Nation, Oct. 21, 1996.
6. U.S. Army Environmental Policy Institute (AEPI), Health and
Environmental Consequences of Depleted Uranium Use in the U.S. Army:
Technical Report, June 1995, p.102.
7. ibid., p.102.
8. Fahey, op cit.
10. Dr. J.W. Gofman, a biomedical researcher for the San
Francisco-based Committee for Nuclear Responsibility.
11. Nama Lefkir-Lafitte and Roland Laffite, in "The Use of
Radioactive Weapons Against the `Iraqi Enemy'," Le Monde
Diplomatique, April, 1995, cite a report by the British Authority for
the Control of Atomic Energy, as follows: "The Report also
underscores that the greatest danger comes from uranium dust produced
when projectiles hit and incinerate vehicles. ... On impact a high
proportion of the metallic mass is transformed into an aerosol whose
fine particles, easily carried by the wind, are easily absorbed.") A
U.S. Army fact sheet states: "When a DU penetrator impacts a target
surface, a large portion of the kinetic energy is dissipated as heat.
This results in smoke which contains a high concentration of DU
particles. These uranium particles can be inhaled or ingested and are
toxic." (Skogman, D.P., "Depleted Uranium Facts," for Commander, U.S.
Army Training and Doctrine Command, Department of the Army, May 24,
1991.) And a March 7, 1991 directive issued by the army's Armament,
Munitions, and Chemical Command reads: "Any system struck by a DU
penetrator can be assumed to be contaminated with DU. ... Precaution
must be taken to avoid inhaling or ingesting DU particles. Respirator
or protective mask should be worn at minimum, along with gloves.
Ideally, protective clothing should be worn as well. ... [After
cleanup] protective clothing should be discarded."
12. Bill Mesler, "The Gulf War Secret," in San Francisco Bay
Guardian, Nov. 15, 1995.
13. British Atomic Energy Administration, printed in the London
Independent, Nov. 1991. Cited by Eric Hoskins, op cit., and Bill
Mesler, op cit.
14. Daniel Ellsberg, "A Call to Mutiny," in Protest and Survive.