When we imagine the horrors of nuclear warfare, the twin scepters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki naturally come to mind.  As the only cases of nuclear weapons actually used on a human population, Hiroshima and Nagasaki present, on one hand, the instant and indiscriminating annihilation of all living things and, on the other, the equally malignant long-term effects of fallout.  Yet, however much we may fear and loathe the Bomb, we know what to expect from it. Its destructive power is immense, but predictable. Nuclear warfare is absolute and final; there are no questions about its risks and consequences.  Guided by this knowledge, 50 years of global policy rested on the essential plank that neither side would risk the destruction of itself and the world by launching a first strike.  Contrast this with what many people call “nuclear warfare of a different sort”: the use of depleted uranium (DU) on the battlefield, an issue as thorny as it is enduring.

DU is the waste product of enriched uranium that is used in nuclear weapons and reactors.  The process of “enriching” uranium involves taking naturally occurring uranium ore and separating the highly radioactive and unstable U-235 isotopes from their much less radioactive cousins, U-238.  This leftover “depleted” uranium is composed of over 99% U-238, and is 60% less radioactive than natural uranium.  However, tests conducted on DU tank armoring and munitions used in Kosovo by NATO troops demonstrated that trace amounts of plutonium and other radioactive elements do sometimes find their way into the mix.  The military is fond of trumpeting the technical truth that DU is less radioactive than that found in nature, but is less candid about its dangers when actually deployed as a weapon.

The reason for the military’s love affair with DU is that it has proven effective.  DU has several physical properties that make it devastating as a material for both armor and armor-piercing projectiles.  DU is 1.7 times denser than lead and “self-sharpens” as it penetrates metal, allowing it to rip through opponent tanks like “a knife through butter,” in the words of many soldiers who have struggled to explain its awesome power.  DU is also “pyrophonetic,” meaning that it catches fire in the air.  Upon hitting armor, it explodes and releases millions of tiny particles that can be inhaled.  Besides incinerating the occupants of the vehicle, the toxic dust can contaminate the tank and the surrounding area.

During DU’s debut in Gulf War I, the A-10 Thunderbolt “tank-killer” aircraft and the M1A1 Abrams tank were able to decimate the Iraqi tank forces with almost no US casualties.  The bullets weren’t the only “success.” Stories abound, perhaps apocryphal, that shells Iraqis fired at DU-armored tanks simply bounced off.  In the aftermath of the Gulf War, DU was celebrated as one of the many lethal tools that led to the overwhelming US victory over Iraq .  DU was such a smashing success that it was trotted out again in Kosovo , Bosnia , and Gulf War II.

If soldiers liked it, then military planners like it even more.  DU provides them with an expedient solution to much of the waste generated by nuclear production.  The Department of Defense (DoD) has a 1.2 billion-pound stockpile of DU, which it happily gives away to weapons manufacturers – “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  Defense companies take the heretofore-useless waste and manufacture bullets that are 10 times cheaper than the less powerful tungsten alternative.  Then, on the battlefield, planes and tanks can blow up the bad guys while junking the uranium waste for someone else to deal with.  It’s almost too good to be true.

Except, there’s a hitch.  The debate over whether DU has caused harm to soldiers and civilians has raged for almost 15 years now.  After the first Gulf War, thousands of British and American veterans began exhibiting a host of mystifying symptoms – shortness of breath, diarrhea, muscle pain, tiredness, lack of concentration, and depression – that by 1993 assumed the name, “Gulf War Syndrome.”  Fourteen years and hundreds of studies later, the cause of the veterans’ ailment has been narrowed down to: stress; nerve gas exposure; pesticides; desert diseases; parasites; pollution from burning oil wells; sand; biological agents; DU or some combination thereof.  Naturally, veterans are frustrated with the inconclusiveness of the medical studies and angry with the Pentagon for insufficient medical care and what they see as blatant prevarication.

In many respects, the military has gone out of its way to avoid taking responsibility for Gulf War Syndrome.  When thousands of vets stepped forward to report their illnesses, the Army Surgeon General’s office insisted that only 35 veterans had been exposed to DU. Despite growing pressure, the Pentagon toed this line until 1998 when they finally admitted, “Combat troops or those carrying out support functions generally did not know that DU-contaminated equipment such as enemy vehicles struck by DU rounds required special handling. The failure to properly disseminate such information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures.”  Up to this point, the Department of Veteran Affairs, believing the Pentagon, had only conducted one study of 33 soldiers exposed to “friendly fire.”  The VA trumpeted the findings of the study – that none of the soldiers had “uranium-related adverse outcomes.”  However, advocates for veterans’ health acquired internal memoranda from the Pentagon which showed that one of the study participants has cancer and that the VA knew the sample size was too small for accurate results.

As recently as 2004, British officials went so far as to accuse their soldiers of “faking” Gulf War Syndrome.  In this vacuum of conclusive evidence, many veterans along with outside medical experts and activists have formulated their own opinions.  DU has become suspect Number One.  An excellent 2003 report entitled “Case Narrative: Depleted Uranium (DU) Exposures,” published by a coalition of veterans, nuclear experts, and activists, summarizes this point-of-view:

  Our investigation leads us to conclude that the United States Department of Defense (DoD) has engaged in a deliberate attempt to avoid responsibility for consciously allowing the widespread exposure of hundreds of thousands of United States and coalition servicemen and women to more than 630,000 pounds of depleted uranium released by US tanks and aircraft during the Persian Gulf War. The Department of Defense’s actions regarding depleted uranium exposures have been characterized by a blatant disregard for existing laws and regulations, human rights, and common sense. The Pentagon’s desire to ensure the future use of depleted uranium ammunition has taken precedence over the need to protect American troops from exposure to depleted uranium and the requirement to provide medical care to servicemen and women who have developed serious health problems due to their exposure to depleted uranium.

Despite this strong stance, the author of this study, Dan Fahey, is quick to point out in interviews that while the DoD has been negligent in pursuing the possibility of DU as a cause of the illness, some anti-DU activists’ shrill accusations have beggared the debate.  This has allowed military leaders to ignore dissenters and hide behind what they call “inconclusive” medical evidence.  The combination of officialdom’s intransigence and the victims’ (rightful) suspicions has soured relations on all sides and led to a severe politicization of the issue.

However, one of the preeminent medical experts on Gulf War Syndrome, Robert Haley of the University of Texas ‘s Southwestern medical center in Dallas , believes he has made substantial headway in figuring out the cause or causes of the soldiers’ problems, much to the chagrin of defense officials.  By studying the brain images of deployed troops, he pinpointed damage that resonated with preexisting research on the effects of sarin gas on rats. (Soldiers were exposed to low-level sarin gas during chemical fires in Iraq ).  As Haley’s work gained credibility through more detailed study and corroboration with other scientists, the US government began nixing the funding.  On 4 August 2004 , Haley appealed in person to the British government for help to continue his research.  Haley’s hypothesis does not preclude the possibility that DU did contribute to some of the illnesses associated with Gulf War Syndrome; however, it may foreshadow a permanent sidelining of DU as a dangerous and inhumane weapon.  That would be a shame.

If the military treats suffering veterans so dismissively, one can rest assured that foreign civilians exposed to toxic battlefields receive even less concern.  In each of the conflicts where the US employed DU weaponry – Gulf War I, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Gulf War II – civilians, the medical community, and the government have complained of elevated rates of cancer, birth defects, and other health problems in the aftermath of the fighting.  Children are especially susceptible.  In a revelatory film about DU shot by a German crew, young Iraqi children are shown handling DU tank shells, playing on contaminated vehicles, and collecting scraps of radioactive junk.  Siegwart-Horst Gunther, a German epidemiologist, interviews Iraqi doctors who tell of cases of cancer increasing ten-fold in the years after the first Gulf War.  The doctors proffer pictures of infants born with horrific defects – grotesquely bloated bellies, external bladders, missing limbs – that they said were never seen before.  In their minds, there is no doubt that DU is to blame.  And that the US is waging a war of genocide.  The Pentagon counters that Saddam was behind these claims, stage-managing a propaganda war against the US .  Yet, many Western medical experts, friends of neither Saddam nor the US government, have conducted both fieldwork in Iraq and research in the lab that convinces them that the links between DU and Iraqi sicknesses are clear.

In some instances even the military seems to admit that DU is inherently dangerous to human beings and the environment.  In the US , the Army has decided to clean up the DU-contaminated Nevada Test Site.  At an ammunition range in Indiana , the US military may spend up to $6 billion to remove 68,000 kilograms of DU ammunition waste.  The US Navy has opted to use tungsten bullets instead of DU. In Kosovo, British soldiers were issued protective suits to wear when handling DU-contaminated objects.  In 1993, the US Army Surgeon General’s Office found that the “[e]xpected physiological effects from exposure to DU dust include possible increased risk of cancer (lung or bone) and kidney damage.”

In order to condemn DU, we do not need absolute empirical verification – the likelihood of achieving such a thing is unlikely in this case.  In order to ask the international community to make the use of DU a war crime, we do not need the Pentagon to confess wrongdoing.  In order to call for a full investigation of the Gulf War Syndrome and the possible links between DU and civilian illness, we do not need the blessing of the established medical community or the government.   Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the nuclear age almost 60 years ago, scattering poisonous seeds of which many are just now coming to fruition.  Many of these problems are extremely complicated and the answers not immediately clear. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we approach the issues of DU and Gulf War Syndrome with the same degree of concern and compassion as we do the more spectacular problems of full-blown nuclear warfare.

*Forrest Wilder is the 2004 Ruth Floyd Summer Intern at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a graduate of the University of Texas.