News and Features
It should surprise no one that the European revolutionaries are not inspired by the American dream. Nobody, after all, expected the fighters for national liberation in the post-Napoleonic era to cherish the memory of Metternich, and the United States is now a much mightier pillar of the new Holy Alliance for the preservation of the status quo. It intervenes, directly or by proxy, wherever the social order is threatened, from Taiwan to Greece to Guatemala. Whenever they are under attack, profit and privilege can rely on the forces of "freedom." In Vietnam the American bombers spell out for the local population the bloody message "Better dead than red." The Green Berets are ready to jump in order to rescue the ruling oligarchies of the banana and other republics of Latin America (though the profits of US companies are now better insured by training local troops for the struggle against "subversion"). Like a black knight in nuclear armor the United States Navy patrols the seas, proclaiming that no more social revolutions will be allowed, that China's in 1949 was the last to be tolerated, while the Cuban affair was simply a misunderstanding. The Vietnamese resistance aroused enthusiasm far from Hanoi and Saigon because it challenged American presumption and proved that human courage still counted even in the world of nuclear balance. The Tet offensive in 1968 drove Western students to action because it revealed that the enemy was not invincible. Che Guevara, alive or dead, was hailed as a symbol of solidarity, of the international nature of the anti-imperialist struggle.
The salesmen of the American dream, and they are legion in Europe, prefer to bypass this role of international gendarme, or to justify it in terms of domestic achievement. They point to the democratic niceties, to the civil liberties the United States can still afford. They stress even more the economic achievement, the technological lead, the intellectual investment that vast accumulation has rendered possible, the level of research and management, the high productivity--in short, the superior wealth of the nation; and they turn to the young revolutionaries with the rhetorical question: Can you dismiss the American model in spite of all this? The answer is not in spite of it but because of it. The most frightening prospect, the American nightmare, is that with so much wealth man should not be able to build a different kind of society. In fact, the Europeans are merely echoing the indictment of America's New Left which, instead of being dazzled by the moon, points to the dark side of American society; its inequality and racism, its collective poverty and private plenty, its derelict health services, its belated discovery of pollution and urban chaos--and to the system responsible for it all.
To its admirers, the United States has discovered the secret of perpetual motion for capitalism. Advertising, as a new dynamic method of sales promotion, is a way of getting rid of industrial surpluses superior to that of coffee burning in agriculture. Above all, with military expenditures absorbing, even in official figures, about one-tenth of the national product, the state has a powerful lever to direct the rhythm of output. Advanced capitalism differs from its predecessor. The vagaries of the cycle are less pronounced, unemployment is relatively smaller, growth comparatively more regular. This is not the place to discuss whether this post-Keynesian equilibrium, resting on a militarization of the economy unprecedented in peacetime, is stable and lasting. The painful discovery of America's rulers is that even while the going is good, the system runs into new contradictions. American expansion meets resistance at home, as well as abroad. The outsiders rebel. The hitherto passive blacks refuse to continue being pariahs in the alleged land of plenty. The growing movement of protest among students and the radical part of the intelligentsia is a symptom of something deeper--the clash between the direction to which the expansion of productive forces is geared and the social needs of our age.
The "consumer society" is a misnomer suggesting that at least, as regards consumption, the average citizen is the uncrowned King. Though his material conditions have in many ways improved beyond recognition, modern man is still an alienated producer and a highly conditioned buyer of goods, a dissatisfied purchaser of leisure and pleasure with very little control over his environment. A producer society, guided by industrial and commercial profit, would be a much more accurate description. That problems such as pollution and urban decay are tackled only when they become unbearable is in the logic of things. Modern capitalism has changed enough in method and manner to face up to the unprofitable when it is under pressure. But it has preserved its essence. Profit remains its ultimate driving force, and it is intrinsically unable to confront the collective or individual problems of our society from any other angle. Consciously or unconsciously, this is what the protest is really about.
The similarity of some of its manifestations on both sides of the Atlantic is quite natural. The Englishman, the Frenchman or the German traveling in the United States is less struck by contrasts than by resemblances. He has the strange impression of making a journey through his own country's more or less distant future. For the most political among them, however impressed they may be by the technological progress, it is a journey to night's end. They know that this is their inevitable prospect unless Europe can forge a different kind of society. The bitter controversies between "Europeans" and "anti-Europeans" are really irrelevant in this context. The conflict that has begun cuts across continental as well as national frontiers. The European protesters who look ahead are joining hands with America's New Left. In Western Europe the real division is between those who seek socialism and those who opt for the American model. "Et tout le reste est littérature." It was no accident if during the French May crisis the United States authorities trembled for the fate of Gaullism. They sensed, quite rightly, that the forces then launching the assault against Gaullism are the same that are waging the struggle against Europe's American future.
The conflict is now intercontinental, and so is the solidarity. Revolutionary "grouplets" across Western Europe used to look exclusively to the Third World, to the Vietnamese or the Latin American guerrillas fighting against imperialism from without. They are now also looking to America's young radicals, who are beginning to carry on the same struggle from within. By the same token, they have discovered their own independent and intermediate role.
In mood at least, there are some parallels between the present period and the middle of the 19th century in Europe. Then, too, solidarity was the order of the day, and during the so-called "Spring of the People," fighters for national liberation journeyed from country to country battling "for your freedom and ours." Now, whatever policemen may think, direct intervention is still rare. The community of purpose and struggle is nevertheless growing. Europe's young students and workers salute their fellows across the Atlantic with the new message: "Against your present and our future."
West wind, east wind.... There is nothing new in the violent reaction of Europe's radicals against American interventionism nor in their hostile rejection of the American model. The real novelty is that the Soviet Union has practically vanished as a counter-attraction. During the French crisis there were many references to the Bolshevik October, but none, apart from contemptuous dissociation, to the bureaucratic rule of Stalin's heirs. This antagonism or indifference to the Soviet model--revisionist for some, Stalinist for others, irrelevant for most--characteristic of the May movement, was one of the reasons why orthodox Communists viewed it from the start with deep mistrust. Yet even the orthodox in the West are by now highly discreet about citing the Soviet Union as an example. They are particularly reticent about dwelling on the prospects of the Soviet bloc since the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Spring in 1968 flourished in unison in Paris and Prague, but hopes faded separately. The French crisis was over, at least temporarily, by the time the Russian tanks rolled into Prague on August 21, and their invasion marked the beginning of the end of the unique experiment of Czech students and workers. The epilogue in Prague came after the French act, and thus could not affect it. But it has affected the European horizon. The Czech tragedy throws a new light on the problem of the dismantlement of Stalinism in Eastern Europe. It makes it necessary to reassess the hope of a Socialist revival within the Soviet bloc and, by the same token, the chances that inspiration in Europe may once again come from the East.
From your very first encounters at the modernized Warsaw airport you know that you have entered the kingdom of private enterprise. The operator at the money exchange hands me $30 worth of zlotys, though I gave her $40; when I protest, she adds the difference without a fuss. A cabbie offers to take me downtown for 200,000 zlotys, explaining that the cheats in the taxi stand outside will charge more because their meters start at 50,000. When I reply that the radio taxi coming to collect me will cost less than a third of his "reduced" fare, his knowing smile and shrug say, So not all new arrivals are suckers. But you have to try to get on in this world.
Returning to Poland after a year, I wanted to see how the patient was faring after nearly three years of "shock therapy" introduced by Leszek Balcerowicz, the former finance minister, and sponsored by the International Monetary Fund. My first impression was that things are the same, only more so. The image of Western prosperity is striking. The heart of Warsaw is packed with cars. They may not be more numerous but they are bigger, Western Europe's compacts replacing the tiny Fiats made in Poland. "Marketing is an art" says the slogan at the railway station advertising a magazine called "Businessman". Across the street, outside the Marriott hotel, the bellboys wear pith helmets; inside, the gambling casino is open twenty-four hours a day. The latter is mainly for foreigners, but along the city's two most elegant avenues, New World and Krakow Suburb, the smart shops displaying expensive cars, elegant amber jewelry and other luxury goods cater to the natives; and these stores have customers. The upper crust is visibly rising.
On my last visit I wanted to know how fast this buying spree could produce a capitalist class, so I looked at the new rich [see "Poland's New Men of Property," November 11, 1991]. This time I wanted to know how the rest of the country lives, including the much-faster-spreading new poor. To see them, you don't really have to leave the capital, yet I advise those who still echo the hymns to the "Polish miracle" of Harvard free-marketeer Jeffrey Sachs and his ilk to make a short train journey from the Marriott to the city of Lodz.
Down and Out in Lodz
With foreign capital and the huge czarist-era market for its textiles, Lodz grew like a mushroom in the second half of the nineteenth century to become Poland's second-largest city; its population is 850,000. Its factories are spread haphazardly across the metropolitan area. My wife and I walk along one such proletarian fortress--building after building behind a brick wall--stretching, it seems, for miles. At the end, along Weaving Street, is a grim block of flats for the workers; opposite, next to a lake, is a white gem of a palace, yesterday the home of the manufacturer, today a textile museum. With such a socially eloquent landscape the inhabitants may not require a long refresher course to grasp the nature of capitalism.
Poland's textile capital, however, is not what it used to be. Deprived of the Soviet market and attacked on the home front by cheap imports, Lodz is in crisis. Although restructuring, so far, has led to the closing of departments rather than whole enterprises, unemployment, by official count, has already reached 18 percent of the labor force. The contrast with Warsaw hits the eye. Even in the upper parts of the main thoroughfare, Piotrowska Street, the shops do not have the chic of the capital's. At the other end of this very long road poverty sweats through the walls. The nearby flea market, with peddlers from Vilnius or Kiev, is miserable not only by Western but also by Polish standards. Anka Rozanska, a sociologist prominent in the local League of Women, knows a great deal about this wounded city. Usually, she works with single mothers or distributes contraceptive devices received from France. She has much to say about the growing shadow of the Catholic Church (of which more later), but to hear about unemployment she takes us to the horse's mouth.
The Committee for the Defense of the Jobless, at the end of a labyrinthine courtyard, has two bare rooms and a dozen people inside. Although men are more numerous, it's chaired by a woman, Lucyna Kosterkiewicz. She speaks in bursts, with passion: "Without family or friends we couldn't survive.... Dispersed we're nothing, lower than dirt." Another woman, who used to work in a glass factory, was unable to pay for coal to heat her house. So she ran up a large electric bill and now the Electricity Board is threatening to cut off her power. Couldn't she go to a special welfare office for a subsidy? I asked. She did, she said. It was like going to confession, only they wanted to know about her "riches." A man proclaims: This is no capitalism with a human face. It's a more bloodthirsty variety. There's a black market for labor; employers hire for less than twenty-eight days so they won't have to pay for social benefits. Another man claims that for the jobless it might as well be the guillotine at age 40. Women say economic demise comes even earlier for them, since to get a job "you must be young, childless and have a big bosom." Lucyna raises the tone: "We forget the taste of butter, the smell of ham.... I wrote to [President Lech] Walesa and heard not a word.... Ours is a voice in the desert."
We move from the committee to the employment office, where the jobless must report to get their unemployment benefits (35 percent of the average national wage for a year, eighteen months in depressed areas, and then you go on welfare). Today is men's day, and we see a line of them wearily standing on the staircase and continuing out into the courtyard; it's like an old newsreel from the Depression. The last time I was here was eleven years ago, during a Solidarity-sponsored "hunger march." Anka, who was among the marchers, says in parting, "Today, if we staged a march, the slogan would be less metaphorical."
`A Nation of Shopkeepers'?
Lodz, with its many factories, is not the gloomiest area. The situation is much more desperate in smaller towns like Mielec or Swidnik, linked to one industry and often connected with arms making. Yet to focus the light only on these sore spots would distort the picture. The plentiful supply of goods--the fact that, if you have money, you can buy anything in Poland, ironically including kosher food, without standing in line--is described as a great conquest even by those who find it difficult to make ends meet.
The unquenched thirst for consumer goods is a notable feature throughout Eastern Europe.The heart of Warsaw is a vast bazaar. Next to the Palace of Culture, a skyscraper in Stalinist gothic, there are now two tentlike stuctures, one housing a supermarket, the other, small shops. The vast terrain is surrounded by a wooden fence decorated with painted trees. Inside is Eastern Europe's souk, a warren of booths, stalls and kiosks offering cheap manufactured wares from all over the globe. The novelty is the spread of decent restaurants, not just McDonald's, as well as the emergence of sex shops. Otherwise, despite the development of a normal commercial network, one can still see in Warsaw, say, lavatory fixtures being peddled at a street corner straight off a truck or meat sold in the open from a table on Wiejska Street, next to the houses of Parliament.
This commercial revolution was designed, successfully, to break the state's control over trade. But what about the next stage on the agenda--capital investment? Statistics published while I was in Warsaw provide some economic and social background necessary to tackle this question.
For now at least, the economic downturn has bottomed out. Since April, production has even been rising slightly, and for the year as a whole it should equal the volume of 1991. Foreign trade shows a surplus. But this is as far as the good news goes. Even if the fragile recovery continues, unemployment is expected to climb from the present 13.6 percent of the work force to 18 percent by the end of next year. And the long-term decline in production has been halted at a very low level: Industrial output is one-third lower than in 1989, and real wages have dropped by 30 percent. Even if slightly exaggerated, because of the mysteries of the private sector, the figures are dramatic. How has the post-Communist regime survived three years of such belt-tightening?
It went through the big economic transformation of 1990 driven by the euphoria of victory and squandering the good will of Solidarity. Last year the discontent grew. This past summer Poland experienced a wave of strikes: thirty ÃÂ´eight in July and thirty-five in August, most notably in the copper mines and in the car factory taken over by Fiat. The stoppages, I gather, were not as unsuccessful and unpopular as depicted in the Polish media (the Western press--guess why?--is no longer keen on Polish strikes).
This interpretation was confirmed by many sources, including Ewa Spychalska, the new leader of the ex-Communist union confederation, the O.P.Z.Z. (with a membership now more than twice that of Solidarity!). Tall and fortyish, Spychalska started professional life as a teacher and switched to become a building technician when she became the main breadwinner in the family. She did belong to Solidarity, like so many millions, but was also a Communist Party member and has no intention of "apologizing for it for the rest of my life." She argues that, while the workers did not get all they had asked for, the summer strikes strengthened unity of action among the rank and file and forced the government to seek a dialogue with all unions, not just with Solidarity. The government, while unyielding during the strikes, may have been prompted by the discontent to look for a deal with the unions through an enterprise pact. Which brings us back to the transfer of ownership and the search for new forms of capital accumulation.
Power and Property
Even before 1989 the bulk of land belonged to smallholders. Now 80 percent of retail trade and about three-quarters of the building industry is also in private hands. In manufacturing, however, the proportions are still the other way around. The Ministry of Property Transformations is putting the last touches on Poland's version of "universal privatization." The plan should involve 600 of the country's most attractive state enterprises. Ownership of these will be divided among twenty or so National Investment Funds to be run by management teams, quite a few of them foreign. Adult Poles will be allowed to buy a voucher for shares in these funds at a fixed price equivalent to a tenth of their monthly wage. The purpose of the operation is to create capitalist interests, to get foreigners involved, to give some people a real stake in private industry and to give the bulk of the population the illusion that they were not completely robbed.
For other companies the government is introducing a "pact on the state enterprise in the process of transformation." This is expected to give labor unions some say in the way their plants are privatized and, during the transition period, to limit the handicaps public enterprises suffer (unlike private companies, they must now pay a "dividend" to the state and a special tax on certain wage increases). The project, still to be voted on by Parliament, is sponsored by Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissident who is now Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. Kuron has given up his old socialist ideals, but not his way of life. The plain-speaking minister dressed in blue jeans is still the country's most popular politician. He admits that to combine a "social contract" with "primitive accumulation" is not easy. He believes he can win over the unions, including the O.P.Z.Z., but he also believes they have little influence.
Let there be no illusion. This is not Solidarity returning to its egalitarian origins or its ideas of self-management. Indeed, Kuron is backed by the most monetarist ministers in the government who, like himself, opted for the Balcerowicz shock-therapy plan yet fear that privatization will run into trouble if it is seen by the workers as daylight robbery.
It's `Them' Again
The transfer of property has obvious political as well as economic purposes. The parties throughout Eastern Europe speak, in a sense, for classes in the process of formation, and this is why they often speak with strange voices. The Parliament's lower house, or Sejm, with its twenty parties (of which none captured more than 14 percent of the vote in last year's elections), provides a good example of such a dissonant chorus. But one of its most prominent members, the historian Bronislaw Geremek, gave me another explanation of the political confusion. The main conflict in Eastern Europe, he argued, is between the reformers who want to lead their societies toward the Western model and the opponents of change. The snag is that the Western consensus politics is based on the existence of a large middle class, absent in Poland. Some, therefore, wish to reshape society by authoritarian means. He maintains that big changes, notably in property relations, can only be carried out with popular consent.
Geremek's interpretation was the only possible one to justify the coexistence in one government of his party, the vaguely secular and leftish Democratic Union, with the jingoist and clerical Christian National Party. The "reformist" link between the coalition partners is the acceptance of the Balcerowicz line and of the pattern prescribed by international finance. The price paid for the shock therapy, however, is a heavy one: the divorce of the former Solidarity leadership from a people who barely three years ago had swept it triumphantly into power.
The fatal flaw of the "communist" regimes throughout the area was their alienation, the fact that the population thought in terms of "us" and "them." In Poland today most ordinary people talk once again about "them"--the crafty ones, the profiteers--lumping together Lech Walesa, the government and the parliamentarians into this category. This is no rehabilitation of the old regime. It is a condemnation of the new one.
The current governmental coalition was brought together last July, partly by the fear of a McCarthyite purge prepared by a crazy interior minister. The present Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka, was picked because she was sufficiently unknown not to offend prominent rivals and sufficiently Catholic to have the blessing of the church. Most deputies fear an election and thus don't want to challenge Suchocka, but her government could collapse in a conflict with President Walesa. Yet more worrying than the prospects for the government is the almost immediate loss of legitimacy of the new system.
In Warsaw, as in other eastern capitals, those loosely called democrats warn that, if their road to capitalism fails, the alternative is more likely to be semifascist than socialist. They forget to add that their policy feeds dangerous forms of populism. Discontent in Poland strengthens not only the converted ex-Communists, who are still too discredited to become the main alternative, but also parties like the jingoist Confederation of Polish Independence, which nonetheless appears proletarian compared with the Democratic Union, born of Solidarity. More valid is the claim that the so-called democrats, while no longer leftist in economic matters, are better than their rivals on such issues as nationalism and the rule of law. Even this, however, must be qualified because of a Polish peculiarity--the political power of the church.
The Black Web
"The antiabortion law will be passed," Basia Labuda tells me upon emerging from a parliamentary commission meeting. The bill she refers to will forbid abortion even in the case of rape and will sentence doctors and women involved to two years in jail. Basia, whom I have known as a leftie, has long been converted to capitalism. But she has remained a radical fighter for women's rights against the clerical invasion and was recently attacked by Jozef Cardinal Glemp himself. She says the law will pass partly because of the conduct of her colleagues (she, too, belongs to the Democratic Union): They will bravely vanish on the day of the vote or abstain; even those who will vote against do not have the courage to stand up to the church publicly.
From Basia and many women activists I hear the same story of a Catholic Church spreading its web over society. The church emerged under the new regime in an exceptionally strong position, which it is now trying to institutionalize. It first obtained a decree that religious instruction should be given during school hours, then insisted that it should count as a subject. Now it demands that a church teacher be put on every school council. The abortion ban will be particularly harmful in a country where sex education and birth control lag behind the West (many women are still using the rhythm method, known here as "Vatican roulette"). Once the bill is passed, the clergy is expected to switch to a frontal attack on contraception. Will divorce be next? The church is trying to impose its "values" everywhere, including radio and television.
Occasionally, it goes too far. For example, it claimed a university building in Warsaw seized by the Czar after the insurrection of 1863. The Constitutional Tribunal had to remind the church it can only reclaim property seized after World War II. Indeed, some optimists stress that the tide is turning, that the church is losing popularity. The clergy refuses categorically a referendum on abortion, knowing it would be defeated. There are other developments antagonizing the people: the greed with which the church seizes clinics or grabs land destined for children's playgrounds; the ostentatious wealth of the prelates in poor parishes. The church's struggle is ultimately a losing one against the modern age; if it continues making mistakes, it will soon lose the moral authority it gained in opposing the Communist regime. Poland will cease to be peculiar. Should one look hopefully to such a normal future or worry about the dark ages in between?
Blues in the Night
It is our last night in the capital. We have come back from a visit with Zbyszek Bujak, the underground leader of Solidarity in the days of military rule. He has now joined the Union of Labor, a budding social democratic party whose main spokesman is the economist Ryszard Bugaj and that can rely on the prestige of another veteran in the struggle against the old regime, the historian Karol Modzelewski. Bujak, who started as a workers' leader at the Ursus tractor factory, could help them on the shop floor. It is not easy, he argues; people are tired and, disappointed by collective action, are only out for themselves.
We go to the Palace of Culture. Yes, it now boasts a gaming house called Queen's Casino, with lackeys in tails--"penguins," my wife calls them. It is incongruously situated between socialist realist statues carved in the wall, representing a mighty workman and an intellectual carrying Marx's works. What a sad mixture of symbolic associations: the palace itself, Stalin's gift, standing for revolution betrayed and exported; Marx's aspirations distorted in Zhdanovite fashion and then, poison breeding poison, the greatest workers' movement in the postwar period producing a gambling den.
Am I too harsh? As I was walking earlier in the week along the memory trail to Umschlagplatz, from where thousands and thousands of Jews were sent to their death in Treblinka, I was probably already saying goodbye to the town of my early childhood, to the country I returned to in 1980, full of vague hopes that the workers of Gdansk had opened entirely new vistas. It was a historic beginning, even if it did not fulfill all its promises.
It didn't take me three years to find this out. Yet something did snap as I was having lunch in the Sejm with a man for whom I had great sympathy, a student gone to live with the workers--these students were called "colonizers"--somebody who played a key role in setting up the independent labor unions, in organizing the strikes, in the underground political struggle, and who even today is unspoiled by money. Asked, maybe too bluntly, how the capital of Solidarity was squandered so quickly, he replies, "It wasn't. It was invested--invested in the future of our country." Christ almighty! Unbribed and untwisted, but already talking in the wooden tongue of an apparatchik! Is that the fate of all successful revolutions?
But it was not a revolution. In 1980-81 the openings were many. In 1989, deciding there was no alternative, the leadership of Solidarity reduced them to the Thatcherite road to capitalism. This resulted in the Polish paradoxes: In a semirural country, peasants eagerly awaiting capitalism are going to be swallowed by it; the leadership of Solidarity, brought to power by the workers, chiefly by the proletariat from the big plants, accepts as its task the destruction of that movement. Not a pretty sight.
No wonder that Modzelewski, maybe the brightest among these leaders and one of the few who, while changing, remained true to himself, pondered publicly whether the many years he had spent in jail were worthwhile. No outsider can answer such a question. One may, however, suggest that his struggle was not in vain and that the great battles fought by the Polish workers will not vanish without a trace. One of these days the Palace of Culture will be part of the Warsaw landscape as the Sacré Coeur is in Paris; old cleavages will be replaced by new ones and socialism will cease to be a dirty word. This, judging by the ugly face of capitalism in Eastern Europe, may happen sooner than we think. I was repeating this to myself, not just for consolation, as I was leaving Poland, for a long time, with a bitter taste in my mouth.
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.
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.
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?"
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