by Mina Hamilton
March 21, 2003
One day into the illegal, unprovoked attack on Iraq and already it's happening.
The Republicans brand any criticism of Bush as giving comfort to the enemy. Democrats in Congress rush to prove their patriotism with hurrahs for the brave GI's. TV anchors trot out the old refrain: support our boys - and girls. The New York Times's editorial page weighs in: We must focus on the safety of the troops. Anything else won't "feel right."
Does this mean blind support for the duration of the war? That could be a pretty long time, maybe two to ten years, if you include the post-war occupation.
All of us hate the idea of young women and men being sent out to kill or be killed. We yearn to keep those fresh-faced troops out of harm's way. Yet there's a grave danger: support the troops becomes a bludgeon to stop critical thinking.
For me what feels right is to keep asking hard questions, one after another. Here's a key one that affects the welfare of the troops: Who and what is going to protect the GI's from the depleted uranium left in the desert after Desert Storm?
Regardless of which weapons Iraq does or does not use, 300 tons of this radioactive poison is awaiting our boys and girls - courtesy of the US and UK military.
The Pentagon has propagated plenty of myths about depleted uranium. One myth focuses on the word 'depleted.' Military flacks insist this type of uranium is harmless. Not so. Though the military won't admit it, DU, as it's often called, is dangerous.
DU, a toxic byproduct of uranium enrichment, is used in tank armor, in armor-piercing weapons, in artillery, in ammunition, in cruise missiles. It explodes on impact releasing tiny, breathable particles. And the vicious sand storms we've been hearing about on CNN can spread those particles far and wide.
One might well ask, hasn't all the DU scattered in the deserts of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait twelve years ago now become harmless? Hasn't it lost its potency? No. DU is radioactive for the staggeringly long period of 4.5 billion years. These nasty particles hang around virtually forever.
Lab tests on rats have shown that DU is carcinogenic. It also causes kidney disease and neurological damage. Just how serious is DU when ingested or breathed by humans? Nobody knows for sure because adequate epidemiological studies haven't yet been done. And one reason they haven't been done is the US government! Both the US and UK blocked the funding for a United Nation's epidemiological study on the health impacts of DU in Iraq.
No one, however, has come up with a plausible, alternative explanation for the jumps in childhood cancers and birth abnormalities at the Children's and Maternity Hospital in Basra in southern Iraq. At this beleaguered hospital, in the ten years between 1990 and 2000, there has been a rise in childhood malignancies of 384%.
Here many new-borns are missing arms, legs, or fingers. These are the lucky ones. Other babies come into the world with gross malformations, including no facial features, no esophagus, no stomach or internal organs hanging outside of the tiny little bodies. None of these deformities were found before Desert Storm.
Then there are the vets from Gulf War 1. Not only are they suffering from Gulf War Syndrome and a host of rare cancers, several are also having children with birth defects alarmingly similar to those cropping up at the hospital in Basra. Some experts suspect the culprit is DU.
Our new vets-in-the-making are not going to escape the problem once they have trundled through the desert and hit the city of Baghdad. The threat of DU will not be over. There the GI's will breathe in more radioactive dust recently deposited by the inferno of "shock and awe's" barrage of missiles.
The Pentagon is staying mum on exactly which US weapons currently contain the toxic stuff. According to detailed research by Dan Fahey, an expert on DU, tomahawk cruise missiles are DU-free, but other missiles aren't.
So here's a great way to support the troops: write the Pentagon and ask them which missiles contain DU and which don't. Write your Congressional reps and ask them what's being done to protect the troops from DU.
While your pencil's sharpened how about a letter to President Bush, will he provide full medical benefits to all Gulf War 11 soldiers, who will eventually come down with this war's set of totally unanticipated, mysterious diseases? Will he continue the policy of past administrations that have tried to ignore and cover up Agent Orange disease and Gulf War syndrome? Or will he really protect the troops when they come home?
It may take a while for your letters to be answered.
In the meantime, keep on supporting the troops by asking questions. The hard ones.
Mina Hamilton is a writer in New York City. She has a MA in History from Radcliffe-Harvard and is a Research Associate at Radioactive Waste Management Associates. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.