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The Pentagon's 'Nonlethal' Gas | The Nation

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The Pentagon's 'Nonlethal' Gas

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John Alexander, the former head of the JNLWD and author of Future War: Non-Lethal Weapons in Twenty-First-Century Warfare, says such weapons can and should be used in any upcoming military action in Iraq--which would, in most interpretations, put the United States in the ironic position of violating the same international laws that it is ostensibly seeking to force Iraq to comply with.

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

About the Author

Bill Mesler
Bill Mesler is a Baltimore-based journalist who writes frequently for The Nation.

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It is about two feet long, cylindrical and far denser than steel. When fired from a U.S. Army M1 Abrams tank, it is capable of drilling a hole through the strongest of tank armors. The makers of this tank-killing ammunition say it is the best in the world. But there is one problem with the Pentagon's super bullet: It is made of radioactive waste.

The first time the Army used this "depleted uranium" (D.U.) ammunition on a battlefield was during the Gulf War, in 1991. Yet despite Pentagon assurances that only a small number of U.S. troops were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U., a two-month investigation by The Nation has discovered that hundreds and perhaps thousands of U.S. veterans were unknowingly exposed to potentially hazardous levels of depleted uranium, or uranium-238, in the Persian Gulf. Some soldiers inhaled it when they pulled wounded comrades from tanks hit by D.U. "friendly fire" or when they clambered into destroyed Iraqi vehicles. Others picked up expended rounds as war trophies. Thousands of other Americans were near accidental explosions of D.U. munitions.

The Army never told combat engineer Dwayne Mowrer or his fellow soldiers in the First Infantry Division much about D.U. But the G.I.s learned how effective the radioactive rounds were as the "Big Red One" made its way up the carnage-ridden four-lane Kuwaiti road known as the "highway of death." Mowrer and his company saw the unique signature of a D.U. hit on nearly half the disabled Iraqi vehicles encountered. "It leaves a nice round hole, almost like someone had welded it out," Mowrer recalled.

What Mowrer and others didn't know was that D.U. is highly toxic and, according to the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, can cause lung cancer, bone cancer and kidney disease. All they heard were rumors.

"Once in a while you'd hear some guy say 'Hey, I heard those things were radioactive,'" Mowrer said. "Of course, everybody else says, 'Yeah, right!' We really thought we were in the new enlightened Army. We thought all that Agent Orange stuff and human radiation experiments were a thing of the past."

So Mowrer and his comrades didn't worry when a forty-ton HEMTT transport vehicle packed with D.U. rounds accidentally exploded near their camp. "We heard this tremendous boom and saw this black cloud blowing our way," he said. "The cloud went right over us, blew right over our camp."

Before they left the gulf, Mowrer and other soldiers in the 651st Combat Support Attachment began experiencing strange flulike symptoms. He figured the symptoms would fade once he was back in the United States. They didn't. Mowrer's personal doctor and physicians at the local Veterans Administration could find nothing wrong with him. Meanwhile, his health worsened: fatigue, memory loss, bloody noses and diarrhea. Then the single parent of two began experiencing problems with motor skills, bloody stools, bleeding gums, rashes and strange bumps on his eyelids, nose and tongue. Mowrer thinks his problems can be traced to his exposure to D.U.

The Pentagon says problems like Mowrer's could not have been caused by D.U., a weapon that many Americans have heard mentioned, if at all, only in the movie Courage Under Fire, which was based on a real-life D.U. friendly-fire incident. The Defense Department insists that D.U. radiation is relatively harmless--only about 60 percent as radioactive as regular uranium. When properly encased, D.U. gives off so little radiation, the Pentagon says, that a soldier would have to sit surrounded by it for twenty hours to get the equivalent radiation of one chest X-ray. (According to scientists, a D.U. antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays.) Plus, the military brass argues that D.U. rounds so effectively destroyed Iraqi tanks that the weapons saved many more U.S. lives than radiation from them could possibly endanger.

But the Pentagon has a credibility gap. For years, it has denied that U.S. soldiers in the Persian Gulf were exposed to chemical weapons. In September Pentagon officials admitted that troops were exposed when they destroyed Iraqi stores of chemical weapons, as Congress held hearings on "Gulf War Syndrome." The Pentagon also argued, in its own defense, that exposure to chemical weapons could not fully explain the diverse range of illnesses that have plagued thousands of soldiers who served in the Persian Gulf. Exposure to D.U.--our own weaponry, in other words--could well be among the missing links.

Scientists point out that D.U. becomes much more dangerous 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. "This is when it becomes most dangerous," says Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. "It becomes a powder in the air that can irradiate you." Some scientists speculate that veterans' health problems stem from exposure to chemical agents combined with D.U., burning oil-field vapors and a new nerve-gas vaccine given to U.S. troops. "We know that depleted uranium is toxic and can cause diseases," said Dr. Howard Urnovitz, a microbiologist who has testified before the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses. "We also know these soldiers were exposed to large amounts of nerve-gas agents. What we don't know is how the combination of these toxic and radioactive materials affect the immune system."

Exactly how many U.S. soldiers were exposed to dangerous levels of D.U. during the Gulf War remains in dispute. Friendly-fire incidents left at least twenty-two veterans with D.U. shrapnel embedded in their bodies. The Veterans Administration is also monitoring the health of eleven more soldiers who were in tanks hit by D.U. but who were not hit by shrapnel, and twenty-five soldiers who helped prepare D.U.-contaminated tanks for shipment back to the United States without being told of the risk. The tanks were later buried in a radioactive waste disposal site run by the Energy Department.


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No Protection

The Nation investigation has also discovered that the average infantry soldier is still receiving no training on how to protect against exposure to D.U., although such training was called for by an Army report on depleted uranium completed in June 1995. On the training lapses, the Pentagon does acknowledge past mistakes. Today the Army is providing new training in D.U. safety procedures for more soldiers, particularly members of armor, ordnance or medical teams that handle D.U. on a routine basis. "I feel confident that if an individual soldier has a need to know, they will be provided that training from the basic level on," Army Col. H.E. Wolfe told The Nation. But Wolfe confirmed that even now, not all infantry will get D.U. training.

Although the full hazards of these weapons are still not known, the law allows the President to waive restrictions on the sale of D.U. to foreign armies. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Pentagon has already sold the radioactive ammunition to Thailand, Taiwan, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Korea, Turkey, Kuwait and other countries which the Pentagon will not disclose for national security reasons. The proliferation of D.U. ammunition around the world boosts the chances that U.S. soldiers will eventually be on the receiving end of the devastating weapon.

A broad coalition of veterans organizations, environmental groups and scientists hope that won't happen. On September 12, they met in NewYork to kick off a campaign calling for an international ban on D.U. weapons. Even the conservative-minded Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion recently passed resolutions calling on the Defense Department to reconsider its use of the controversial weapon.

"Clearly the Department of Defense hasn't thought through the use of D.U. on the battlefield and what kind of exposures they are subjecting our troops to," charged Matt Puglisi, the assistant director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation for the American Legion. "It is a very effective weapon, which is why the D.O.D. really doesn't want to see it re-examined. We only spent a couple of days [in winning the Gulf War]. But what if we had a fight that took years and years? We could have tens of thousands of vets with D.U. shrapnel in them."

The Gulf War Test

The U.S. Army began introducing D.U. ammo into its stockpiles in 1978, when the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in intense competition over which side would develop the most effective tank. Washington feared that the Soviets with their T-72 had jumped ahead in the development of armor that was nearly impenetrable by traditional weapons. It was thought that D.U. rounds could counter the improved Soviet armor. But not until Iraq's Soviet-supplied army invaded oil-rich Kuwait and President Bush sent an expeditionary force of 500,000 to dislodge it was there a chance to battle-test the D.U. rounds.

American M1 Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers fired D.U. rounds; the A-10 Warthog aircraft, which provided close support for combat troops, fired twin 30-millimeter guns with small-caliber D.U. bullets. All told, in the 100 hours of the February ground war, U.S. tanks fired at least 14,000 large-caliber D.U. rounds, and U.S. planes some 940,000 smaller-caliber rounds. D.U. rounds left about 1,400 Iraqi tanks smoldering in the desert. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recalled one commander saying his unit "went through a whole field of burning Iraqi tanks."

The D.U. weapons succeeded beyond the Pentagon's wildest dreams. But they received little public attention compared with the fanfare over other high-tech weapons: smart bombs, stealth fighters and Patriot missiles (which looked good, even if they didn't, as it turned out, work). D.U., perhaps the most effective new weapon of them all, was mentioned only in passing. "People have a fear of radioactivity and radioactive materials," explained Dan Fahey, a former Navy officer who served in the gulf. "The Army seems to think that if they are going to keep using D.U., the less they tell people about it the better."

As the U.S.-led coalition forces swept to victory, many celebrating G.I.s scrambled onto--or into--disabled Iraqi vehicles. "When you get a lot of soldiers out on a battlefield, they are going to be curious," observed Chris Kornkven, a staff sergeant with the 304th Combat Support Company. "The Gulf War was the first time we saw Soviet tanks. Many of us started climbing around these destroyed vehicles." Indeed, a study by the Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm Association found that out of 10,051 Gulf War veterans who have reported mysterious illnesses, 82 percent had entered captured enemy vehicles.

Other soldiers might have been exposed to harmful levels of D.U. as they rescued comrades from vehicles hit by friendly fire. A Gulf War photo book, Triumph in the Desert, contains one dramatic picture of soldiers pulling wounded Americans from the burning hull of an Abrams tank that had been hit by a D.U. round. Black smoke from the depleted-uranium explosion billows around the rescuers. Still other G.I.s picked up fragments of large-caliber D.U. rounds or unexploded small rounds and wore them as jewelry, hung around the soldiers' necks. "We didn't know any better," said Kornkven. "We didn't find out until long after we were home that there even was such a thing as D.U."

But the Americans facing perhaps the greatest risk from D.U. were those who had been hit by D.U. shrapnel, especially those still carrying radioactive fragments in their bodies. Robert Sanders, who drove a tank, was one apparent casualty. On the third day of the ground war, his tank was hit by a D.U. round fired from another U.S. tank. "I had stinging pain in my shoulder and a stinging pain in my face from shrapnel," Sanders said.

Military doctors removed the shrapnel. Several years later, however, Sanders heard that D.U. was radioactive and toxic, so he obtained his medical records. He found an interdepartmental fax saying doctors had removed bits of an "unknown metal" from his shoulder and that it was "probably D.U." Four years after he was wounded, Sanders took a urine test for depleted uranium, which revealed high levels of it in his system. The Pentagon had never made an effort to tell him of his likely exposure.

Even the end of the ground war on February 28, 1991, did not end the threat of exposure to U.S. soldiers. Government documents reveal that in one accident alone, at a camp at Doha, about twelve miles from Kuwait City, as many as 660 rounds weighing 7,062 pounds burned, releasing dark clouds of D.U. particles. Many of the 3,000 U.S. troops stationed at the base participated in cleanup operations without protective gear and without knowledge of the potential dangers.

The Aftermath

At war's end, U.S. forces left behind about 300 tons of expended D.U. ammunition in Kuwait and Iraq, a veritable radioactive waste dump that could haunt inhabitants of the region for years. In August 1995, Iraq presented a study to the United Nations demonstrating sharp increases in leukemia and other cancers as well as other unexplained diseases around the Basra region in the country's south. Iraqi scientists attributed some of the cancers to depleted uranium.

Some U.S. officials and scientists have questioned the Iraqi claims. But former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has made two recent trips to Iraq, observes that "the health ministry and doctors particularly in Basra and the south are terribly concerned about a range of problems that were not experienced before: fetuses with tumors, high rates of leukemia." And a secret British Atomic Energy Authority report leaked to the London Independent in November 1991 warned that there was enough depleted uranium left behind in the Persian Gulf to account for "500,000 potential deaths" through increased cancer rates, although it noted that such a figure was an unlikely, worst-case scenario. That figure was based on an estimate that only forty tons of D.U. was left behind.

Another study, by Siegwart Gunther, president of the Austrian chapter of Yellow Cross International, reported that D.U. projectiles "were gathered by children and used as toys." The study noted that a little girl who collected twelve of the projectiles died of leukemia. Gunther collected some D.U. rounds in southern Iraq and took them to Germany for analysis. However, when Gunther entered Germany, the D.U. rounds were seized. The authorities claimed that just one projectile emitted more radiation in five hours than is allowed per year under German regulations.

Cleaning up the radioactive mess in the Persian Gulf would cost "billions," even if it were feasible, said Leonard Dietz, an atomic scientist who wrote a report on depleted uranium for the Energy Department. But the Pentagon maintained in a report that "no international law, treaty, regulation, or custom requires the U.S. to remediate Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm battlefields."

Those who suggest otherwise have found that they must fight the military industry as well as the Pentagon. In January 1993 Eric Hoskins, a public health specialist who surveyed Iraq as a member of a Harvard team, wrote an Op-Ed in The New York Times warning that D.U. may be causing health problems in Iraqi children. A few weeks later a harsh letter to the editor accused Hoskins of "making readers of limited scientific literacy the lawful prey of his hyperbole," which reaches the "bizarre conclusion that the environmental aftermath of the Persian Gulf war is not Iraq's fault, but ours!" The author, Russell Seitz, was identified as an associate with the "Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University."

Though the letter appeared to be the work of a neutral scientist, the Olin Institute at Harvard was established by the John M. Olin Foundation, which grew out of the manufacturing fortune created by the Olin Corporation, currently the nation's only maker of D.U. antitank rounds. Seitz did not answer a request from The Nation seeking comment.

Despite the Pentagon's love affair with D.U., there is an alternative--tank ammunition made from tungsten. Matt Kagan, a former munitions analyst for Jane's Defence Weekly, said the latest developments in tungsten technology have made it "almost as effective as D.U." That assessment is shared by Bill Arkin, a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists who has consulted on D.U. for Greenpeace and Human Rights Watch. "It comes down to this," Arkin said. "Is there a logical alternative that provides the same military capability and doesn't leave us with this legacy? The answer is yes, tungsten."

But tungsten is more expensive and must be imported, while the United States has more than 500,000 tons of depleted uranium, waste left behind by the production of nuclear weapons and by nuclear generators. Scientists have long looked for a way to re-use what otherwise must be stored at great expense in remote sites.

"It's just a cost issue," argued Arkin. "But nobody ever thought through what would happen when we shoot a lot of this stuff around the battlefield. It's not a question of whether a thousand soldiers were exposed or fifty soldiers were exposed. We were probably lucky in the Gulf War. What happens when we're fighting a war that makes the Gulf War look like small potatoes?"

Forget Three Mile Island! The buzzword now is "environmentally preferable."

"If we fight Saddam, there is a high probability this is going to take place in Baghdad," says Alexander, who helped compile a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences that endorsed further work developing calmatives. "You know damn well he is not going to fight us in the open again. That means we are talking about tough urban combat. Imagine what the Russians faced in Grozny. Are we as a nation prepared to send troops into combat knowing that we are going to have very high casualties and also knowing that we have weapons systems like fentanyl immediately available to allow us to do the same things without taking any casualties? It doesn't make any sense to willingly sustain casualties because some lawyer wants to sue you over treaties. The people who support the chemical treaties, they say any violation will bring about the end of the world as we know it. Even if these weapons were prohibited, the truth is we've got the wrong treaties to begin with. We might tap-dance around these questions at the Pentagon and at the NAS, but that is the frank answer."

Not everyone in the Administration agrees with this kind of realpolitik or the Pentagon's semantic dance. One high-ranking official at the State Department who deals with chemical and biological weapons issues was disturbed when confronted with the Pentagon's arguments for the legal use of calmatives. The official, who asked not to be identified, defended the development of calmatives for law enforcement uses but was surprised when told that the military had produced a mortar round capable of delivering a chemical payload. "You apparently have more information than I do," said the official. "This is not something that has come up for a formal intragovernmental review. But I assure you I am going to get to the bottom of it."

Despite the reservations of some, the Pentagon's creative legal interpretations were adopted almost verbatim by an NAS report released last October. The NAS agreed that chemical NLWs should be allowed under "legal interpretations of the [CWC] treaty indicating that it does not preclude such work or the employment of such agents in specified and increasingly important military situations." The report noted that "the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons. However, the definition of chemical weapons in the CWC is critical, since it can allow for the use of some NLWs." The report also adopted the Pentagon's Orwellian definition of war, saying that "the United States generally interprets 'means or method of warfare' to mean the offensive use of force in international armed conflict."

In some ways, the military's development of calmatives is part of a larger, disturbing expansion of the country's biological warfare capability. Since the Bush Administration took office, it has embraced and expanded on the Clinton Administration's work to develop new forms of anthrax and the CIA's replication of a Russian germ bomb, according to the 2001 book Germs by Oregonian managing editor Stephen Engelberg and New York Times reporters Judith Miller and William Broad. The Bush Administration has also made it harder to detect violations of current international law by effectively blocking an international draft agreement to create an inspections regime to enforce the BTWC last year. Negotiators from 143 countries had already agreed to strengthen the treaty, which--unlike the CWC and nuclear weapons agreements--has no real enforcement mechanisms. "The Bush Administration's decision to walk away from the draft on the table and to reject any possible future draft was a big mistake," says Elisa Harris, who helped shape the draft when she served as a biological weapons expert on Clinton's National Security Council.

The Administration's decision to back out of the agreement has raised suspicions that Washington itself has something to hide. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Congress passed $6 billion in funding ostensibly for defensive biological warfare measures. But the line between bio-defense and bio-offense is a thin one. The scientific know-how for both is often identical. And America's premier new bio-defense facility, being built at California's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, happens to be right next door to a large fermenter capable of producing biological weapons on a massive scale.

"At every turn, whether we are talking about calmatives or bio-defense, we are acting to give the impression that we are involved in offensive biological-weapons development," says CUNY professor Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, who chairs the Federation of American Scientists working group on biological weapons. "This will only encourage other countries to do the same, under the cover of defense, as the United States is doing. We are encouraging a biological arms race. The doctrine of pre-emption has replaced the doctrine of arms control."

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