Last November, when stories first appeared in the European press of deaths from leukemia among Italian soldiers who had served in the Balkans, alarm bells started ringing across the Continent. The leukemia was–and still is–believed by many independent experts to be caused by radiation from depleted uranium (DU) arms used in the Balkans during the war. Since most European countries are members of NATO, most of them have troops stationed in or near areas believed to be contaminated.
In France, the February 2000 broadcast of a documentary about DU triggered a steadily increasing demand for more and better information. At the same time, reports were surfacing in Belgium of illness among that country’s troops stationed in the Balkans. Early this year, Spain and Greece announced they will screen their soldiers for contamination, and Portugal has decided to remove its troops entirely from Kosovo.
Country after country summoned US ambassadors or dispatched delegations to NATO headquarters in Brussels in search of more information about DU. But NATO–which in effect means the United States–has stuck to the Pentagon’s oft-repeated refrain: If there is a problem, soldiers’ health should certainly be studied, but it is impossible that DU is involved because its radiation is so low as to be utterly harmless.
A major reason for Pentagon evasiveness is the almost 200,000 Gulf War vets apparently suffering from the variety of illnesses lumped together as Gulf War Syndrome who have filed claims against the VA for service-related illnesses. Three-quarters of that group are now classified by the VA as disabled, and almost 7,000 of the original total have died.
In the case of contamination by Agent Orange in Vietnam, the Pentagon ended up admitting claims from anybody who had served in the theater after use of the defoliant had begun. If this were repeated in the case of Gulf War Syndrome, most of the almost 700,000 vets who served on the ground in the Persian Gulf would be eligible to press claims.
Further, in addition to helping solve the serious problem of what to do with nuclear waste, DU weapons play a key role in the US military’s concept of a “no loss” war. If such arms performed brilliantly against tanks in the Iraq war, they performed equally brilliantly against the Serbian regime’s huge underground installations (“hardened targets” in military jargon) in Kosovo, where NATO has admitted to using some nine and a half tons of DU. Hence, far from planning to remove DU from its arsenal anytime soon, the Pentagon wants to increase its use.
Thus, duly attentive to its own interests, the US government has consistently pressured its NATO allies and the UN–which has assumed responsibility for Kosovo–to keep the lid on DU contamination investigations (to the extent that such inquiries cannot be thwarted outright). Such pressure, however, has not stopped information from slowly leaking out, as evidenced by the French documentary and the reports from Belgium. But until the Italian government decided in December to launch an official inquiry into DU use in Kosovo, there was no general awareness of the danger among the European public. Significantly, Britain, whose government has long been at odds with its own veterans over Gulf War Syndrome and is the only country other than the United States to admit to using DU, has been a low-key but insistent supporter of the Pentagon line.