Nukes of the Gulf War

by John Shirley

Special Assignments Team

Concealed nerve gas exposure, medical experimentation on soldiers in the field -- could Gulf War military policy get much worse?

How about routine radiation poisoning?

According to the Military Toxics Project, Depleted Uranium (DU), the radioactive byproduct of the uranium enrichment process, is "roughly 60% as radioactive as naturally occurring uranium and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years." The United States has in excess of 1.1 billion pounds of DU waste material.

Waste not, want not. In a perverse twist on recycling, the government currently offers this attractively-dense material free to arms manufacturers. Large and small caliber rounds made of depleted uranium were highly effective in piercing Iraqi armor; tanks incorporating depleted uranium into tank armor effectively resisted penetration. Yet while the Army tested the strategic effectiveness of DU, it skated around health and environmental assessments, as the Army Environmental Policy Institute admitted.

Although munitions such as Tomahawk missiles contain DU in their tips, most DU ammunition was fired from USAF tank-killer aircraft and U.S. tanks employing depleted uranium sabot rounds. The Army reports that it fired 14,000 DU tank rounds during the Gulf War. Over ranges up to and exceeding 3 miles, the Army found DU rounds to be "highly effective in penetrating Iraqi tank armor."

The Air Force's A-10 tank-killer aircraft were used extensively against Iraqi armored vehicles and artillery. The A-10s fired 940,000 of these radioactive rounds -- the equivalent of 564,000 pounds of DU.

When a depleted uranium projectile strikes, up to 70% of the DU penetrator is oxidized and scattered as particulates. According to the U.S. Army, this creates "smoke which contains a high concentration of DU particles. These uranium particles can be ingested and are toxic."

Ironically, while DU armor proved effective in shielding tank crews from impacting rounds, the crews were repeatedly irradiated by their own protection. According to the Military Toxics Project, "the amount of radiation a tank driver receives to his head alone will exceed the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission's] annual standard for public whole-body exposure to man-made sources of radiation. Unfortunately U.S. tank crews were not monitored for radiation exposure during the Persian Gulf War."

American troops came into contact with DU through combat, during the recovery of contaminated U.S. vehicles, and while exploring battlefields after cease fire. Some troops assigned to Kuwait are still being exposed today.

Only after most of the fighting subsided did the Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command warn commanders in the Gulf that "any system struck by a DU penetrator can be assumed to be contaminated by DU." Army studies have found that "personnel inside or near vehicles struck by DU penetrators could receive significant internal exposures." Naturally, this didn't deter the military from using the weapons, since the rounds and armor were found to be highly effective. In the long run, thousands of disguisable American and collateral civilian deaths are acceptable trade-offs for short term military-effectiveness statistics, which benefit the Joint Chiefs -- who, after all, are not at risk from exposure.

As of September 1996, most stateside U.S. soldiers still had not been advised of the dangers of handling or working with DU. Although the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration have provided medical exams to more than 85,000 Gulf War veterans with confirmed health problems, only a handful of these veterans have been tested for DU exposure. Many of these have shown elevated levels of DU in their urine several years after the war.

No battlefield cleanup of DU has come about, nor is a cleanup planned. Locals and still-deployed U.S. troops are being exposed to DU on an ongoing basis. DU particles are transported by the wind and water and are presumed to be migrating into food and water supplies. Children routinely play in and around the hulks of irradiated tanks; soldiers brought irradiated souvenirs home from the battlefield.

Some DU ingested through breathing and wounds lodges permanently in bones and tissue, and acts as a chemical and radiological toxin for the remainder of a person's presumably-shortened lifetime. The Military Toxics Project reports that "large numbers of children near contaminated areas have developed leukemias and other health problems" likely associated with exposure to DU.

The customary military foot-dragging has followed calls for studies on the effects of DU exposure, and there are reasons besides the attractiveness of DU devices. The following segment from the Army Environmental Policy Institute report, leaked in late 1995, reveals a more sinister motive: "The potential for health effects from DU exposure is real; however it must be viewed in perspective... the financial implications of long-term disability payments and healthcare costs would be excessive."

DU rounds are being developed for use in the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the Vulcan Air Defense Gun and in new combat helicopters. U.S. defense contractors have sold DU weapons to the United Kingdom, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia and half a dozen other countries.

No warnings or protective gear for DU were issued before the Gulf War, just as soldiers were not alerted to or protected from nerve gas toxins despite continuous alarms from detection systems. The DU legacy is yet another example of radical irresponsibility toward the well-being of American soldiers and battle-area civilians.

How did it happen? How did we come to subject tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers to nerve gas, with health effects complicated by questionable medical countermeasures which actually worsened toxicity, and now radiation poisoning, all while keeping countless human guinea pigs in the dark? How is the military able to justify these abuses and their cover-ups?

It appears to be policy. And policy has no conscience.