In a recent interview on Pacifica Radio's Flashpoints, Major Doug Rokke of the US Army reported that on September 10, 2001 the UN declared "depleted uranium" munitions to be weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and that their use was illegal. Previous UN resolutions in 1996 and 1997 had included such munitions, in which projectiles are manufactured from waste products of the uranium enrichment process, in lists of WMD and urged that their use be discontinued. Yet, as reported by the . "This war was about Iraq possessing illegal weapons of mass destruction - yet we are using weapons of mass destruction ourselves.... Such double-standards are repellent."
Some observers noted that the use of DU munitions, combined with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's congressional testimony on February 5 that the US might use non-lethal weapons (such as tear gas or so-called "calmatives"), could in part explain the chemical protective gear and antidotes that US and British forces have encountered in locations previously occupied by Iraqi military. Others declared reports of DU weapon use as yet another example of an historical double standard in the US and Britain concerning chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Citing attempts to intentionally spread smallpox among Native Americans in the 18th century, and use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, British journalist and filmmaker John Pilger wrote in 1999: "Only one nation on earth has used all three WMDs: the United States."
Smallpox: The Original Bio-weapon?
Ironically, as Colleen Flight writing for BBC History notes, "Britain was probably the first nation to come up with the idea of using smallpox to kill its adversaries," During the French and Indian Wars (1754 - 1763), the commander of British forces in North America was Sir Jeffrey Amherst. After the formal conclusion of the war in 1763, British treatment of the Native American population led to renewed armed attacks against British forts. Under the leadership of chief Pontiac, Native Americans attacked the fort at Detroit, and other British outposts, including Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania. At that time Amherst wrote to Colonel Henry Bouquet "Could it not be contrived to send smallpox among these disaffected tribes of Indians? We must use every stratagem in our power to reduce them." Bouquet replied, "I will try to inoculate the [Native American tribe] with some blankets that may fall in their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself." "Smallpox decimated the Native Americans, who had never been exposed to the disease before and had no immunity," the BBC's Flight concludes. Others have noted that smallpox was introduced to North America by the earliest Europeans, and had wrought widespread havoc in the Native American community well before Amherst's scheme. Nonetheless the letters speak for themselves.
The journal of William Trent, commander of Fort Pitt during its siege in 1763 documents that attempts to spread smallpox among the Native American population may have taken place prior to Amherst's letter. On May 24th 1763, Trent wrote that "Turtles Heart a principal Warrior of the Delawares" approached the Fort, ostensibly to warn of an impending attack. "Out of our regard to them we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital," Trent wrote, adding, "I hope it will have the desired effect."
British forces may also have tried to use smallpox as a weapon against American forces during the American Revolutionary War. According to BBC History, "in December 1775, the British fort commander reportedly had civilians immunized against the disease and then deliberately sent out to infect the American troops. A few weeks later a major smallpox epidemic broke out in the American ranks, affecting about half of the 10,000 soldiers. They retreated in chaos after burying their dead in mass graves." According to Elizabeth Anne Fenn, writing in, , had George Washington not instituted a program of inoculation among the colonists, the Americans might well have lost the war.
Fenn notes that the balance of power between Native Americans and Europeans was significantly affected by smallpox, which devastated some whole tribes in the 1780s. And as is the case today, the threat of biological weapons was sometimes as effective as their use. Long after the war, the mere threat of infection served to pacify portions of the Native American population.
The most monumental deployments of weapons of mass destruction by the United States remain the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, with nuclear weapons at the conclusion of World War II. According to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, located in Hiroshima, the initial bombing killed between one-third and one-half of the combined populations of the two cities, or between 150,000 and 220,000. Nearly 10% of the cancer deaths among survivors who suffered significant radiation exposure have been attributed to radiation. Survivors are at greater risk for a range of non-cancer health problems including:
- Uterine myoma
- Chronic hepatitis and liver cirrhosis
- Thyroid disease
- Cardiovascular disease
Some survivors also suffer from a deficiency of helper T-cells, which play an important role in the immune system's response to microbial infections. This effect may in turn lead to problems such as atherosclerosis, and an increased risk of heart attack.
Hiroshima survivors who were exposed have shown increased rates of mental retardation, and some impairment of growth and development. These effects were more pronounced in individuals who had been exposed between the 8th and 15th weeks of gestation.
According to RERF researcher Donald Pierce, cancer risks for A-bomb survivors are actually increasing. "For those exposed at ages less than 30 years, nearly half of the excess deaths during the entire 40 years of follow-up have occurred in the last five years," he told interviewers for a National Institute for Science in Education project. In general, the younger survivors were at the time of the blast, the greater their increased risk of developing radiation-induced cancer.
From Hades to Ranch Hand
In the decade between 1961 and 1971, as part of the chillingly named "Operation Hades," US planes sprayed Agent Orange, a defoliant containing the carcinogen dioxin, over nearly 15% of the land area of South Vietnam. The military purpose of Agent Orange was to deny the enemy the cover of trees and shrubbery by causing the plants' leaves to fall off. In addition to cancer, dioxin causes congenital defects and can lead to fetal death. A congressional inquiry determined that Operation Hades had dumped the equivalent of six pounds of dioxin for every inhabitant of South Vietnam. After that revelation the name of the program was changed to Operation Ranch Hand. A pattern of deformities emerged in what came to be known as the "Agent Orange babies." Children were born with no eyes, deformed hearts, undersized brains, and stumps for legs. In 1999 John Pilger observed a group of "Agent Orange babies" at Tu Do hospital in Saigon, noting that "The war that officially ended in 1975 goes on; contaminated soil and water are poisoning a third generation."
American and Australian veterans of the Vietnam conflict eventually received some compensation from the manufacturers of dioxin. A class action suit originally filed in 1979 against Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock Corporation, Hercules Inc., Uniroyal Inc., T-H Agricultural & Nutrition Company, and Thompson Chemicals Corporation was settled out of court in 1987 for $180 million. As of 1999, however, Vietnamese victims had received nothing.
A Canadian study determined that dioxin is present throughout the food chain in Vietnam, and called for international assistance in decontaminating land and water. Pilger notes that "The cost of one F-16 bomber would pay for this."
The Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, agreed to by hundreds of nations as of 2001, including the US, prohibits military use of chemicals and outlaws whole classes of non-lethal agents. (The treaty does permit the use of non-lethal agents for law enforcement purposes.) Non-lethal agents came to public attention during the summer of 2002 when the Russian military used so-called "calmative" gas against Chechen rebels who had seized a Moscow theater. The knock-out gas ended the hostage situation, but more than 100 hostages died from the chemical agent.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld surprised observers worldwide when he told the House Armed Services committee on February 5, 2003 that the US was trying to write rules of engagement (ROE) that would permit troops to use non-lethal agents in Iraq. "Absent a presidential waiver, in many instances our forces are allowed to shoot someone and kill them, but they are not allowed to use a non-lethal riot control agent," he said. "We are trying to find ways that non-lethal agents could be used within the law, within the treaty.... It is a very awkward situation, but there is a time when non-lethal riot agents are perfectly appropriate.It's difficult to write an ROE so a single human being knows what he can do .... General (Richard) Myers (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and I spent this week an hour to an hour and a half fashioning rules of engagement simple enough so people who have the task on front line ... can make a decision what they can do and can't do."
As noted above, Rumsfelds's testimony might in part explain the presence of chemical protective gear and antidotes that the US military uncovered in locations occupied by Iraqi military.
"You Can't Clean Up the Mess"
"Today the technology of war has got to a point where, as we know now from numerous engagements, you can't clean up the environmental mess," Major Doug Rokke told Flashpoints' Dennis Bernstein in a recent interview. And while his statement would appear to apply equally well to the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and chemical weapons in Vietnam, Rokke's particular concern is depleted uranium munitions. Rokke may be the world's leading expert on the effects of depleted uranium. At the conclusion of Gulf War I he was tasked by General Norman Schwarzkopf to clean up the environmental and health hazards, or "mess" as Rokke calls it, from the residue of US DU munitions. He subsequently wrote educational and safety materials for handling DU munitions, which became US Army regulation 700-48.
"Depleted uranium" is really a misnomer, says Rokke. Of every 100 pounds of uranium run through the enrichment process to prepare it for use as fuel in a nuclear reactor, or for nuclear weapons, 0.6 pounds of fissionable material results. The remaining 99.4 pounds is uranium 238, also called depleted uranium.
Rokke calls uranium munitions "a high-velocity kinetic energy penetrator."
Each individual tank round that's fired by the Abrams tank is over 10 pounds of solid uranium 238. We know from US Department of Energy reports and also from the US Army Environmental Policy Institute report it is also contaminated with plutonium, neptunium, and americium in many cases. Uranium munition that's fired by the A10 "Warthog" aircraft, is approximately 3/4 of a pound for each individual round, and the A10 can fire at a rate of up to 4000 rounds a minute. That's a ton and a half of solid uranium fired into a target per minute. The uranium munitions are also contained in a lot of the bunker buster bombs, and also sub-munitions -- land mines -- such as the ADAM and PDM. We also have it in a 25mm round that is fired by the Bradley fighting vehicle, and also by the US Marine Corps's LAV. In addition to that we have a 20mm round that's fired by the Navy --- that's the Phalanx Naval System. So what we're seeing is because uranium munitions are absolutely effective in combat, they are an absolute killer and destroyer, the military has put them into almost every munition they can think of. It's extremely effective. It kills and destroys everything that it hits.
[W]hen you use uranium munitions, what happens is each individual round, once it leaves the barrel of the gun that fired it, catches fire, 'cause uranium is pyrophoric. So it's already on fire as the round races down range to hit any target. It can be a building it can be a lightweight vehicle, a car or a truck, it can be a tank or it can be an armored personnel carrier. It's effective on everything.... Now when it impacts, you have a 10 pound round of solid uranium, that's fired by the Abrams tank. When that impacts, about 40% or about 4 pounds turns into what we call uranium spalling and oxides. That stuff is on fire, moving extremely high velocity across a confined space, and causes secondary detonations, either due to concussion, or due to ignition (burning).
Within 25 to 50 meters of such an impact, the contamination from uranium oxides is so extensive that military regulations require that soldiers operating in the area must have skin and respiratory protection. Without such protection, the body suffers the combined effects of heavy metal ingestion and radiological toxin. Health effects include:
- Neurological problems
- Respiratory problems
Government awareness of some of these heath effects was documented as early as October 1943. Rokke and members of the team that were tasked to clean up the DU "mess" from Gulf War I, themselves suffered health problems typically associated with heavy metal and radiological toxins. Rokke's own exposure was from inhalation due to faulty gas masks -- masks he asserts are still faulty today. All the members of his team were sick within 24 hours of exposure to DU contamination. Cancers began to appear among members of his team within 8 or 9 months.
Asked whether US and British soldiers might be wearing gas masks in part to protect against potential DU contamination from their own munitions, Rokke affirmed that regulations require "full respiratory and skin protection in an around any uranium munitions use downwind, or in a vehicle that's been hit." The situation is complicated, he said, by General Schwarzkopf's decision at the conclusion of Gulf War I "verified in his book , on page 390, that we would deliberately and willfully blow up chemical and biological stockpiles, weapons stockpiles, and nuclear reactors" that Iraq had. Rokke adds, "And the reason we knew that he had 'em, because the United States deliberately and willfully gave it to him."
Rokke's assertions are substantiated by the Riegle Report, ("U.S. Chemical and Biological Warfare-Related Dual Use Exports to Iraq and their Possible Impact on the Health Consequences of the Gulf War") The report, prepared for the Senate Banking Committee in May 1994, documents that under the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, the US and Britain sold to Iraq:
- VX nerve gas
- West Nile fever germs
- Other germs similar to tuberculosis and pneumonia
- Brucella melitensis bacteria, which damages major organs
- Clostridium perfringens, which causes gas gangrene
The report includes the dates and destinations of all such exports, documenting, for instance that on May 2, 1986, two batches of bacillus anthracis (anthrax)were shipped to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education, along with two batches of the bacterium clostridium botulinum (botulism). Shipments continued even after the March 1988 gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja, in which at least 5000 men, women and children died.
Following Gulf War I, the Defense Department initially claimed that chemical weapons had not been present in the theater. As has happened in the current war, DoD assertions did not jibe with CIA analyses of the same events. A 1999 General Accounting Office Report revealed that the CIA disclosed in 1995 that chemical weapons had in fact been found at a munitions storage site at Khamisiyah, Iraq, and that soldiers might have been exposed in the course of demolishing rockets there. But while the GAO report acknowledged that the Office of the Special Assistant for Gulf War Illnesses (OSAGWI) had directed a review of military training related to depleted uranium, its only mention of DU-related health effects was a note that Gulf War veterans who participated in a clinical evaluation program"did not suffer unusually high rates of kidney damage compared to the general U.S. population."
Rokke believes such assertions by the DoD are part of a deliberate cover-up of the health effects associated with used of DU munitions. "[T]he White House and the Department of Defense is still stating that the health and environmental effects of uranium munitions are a propaganda move by those nations that don't want uranium munitions used against them," Rokke told Flashpoints' Dennis Bernstein, adding, "That's an absolute lie," In a report delivered to a presidential oversight board in 1998, Rokke asserts, the DoD acknowledged 424 individuals with known exposure to depleted uranium. Yet earlier this year the Dod or the Department of Veterans affairs could only identify 90 individuals who were said to be receiving medical care. According to Rokke, "they're not even accomplishing that." Moreover, Rokke notes, DU munitions were used not only in Gulf War I, but in the NATO action in the Balkans. "Anybody that comes in contact with uranium contamination and they inhale it, ingest it or get into the wound, poses a serious risk of adverse health effects, as all has happened to myself, other friendly fire casualties, and other members of the cleanup team, and thousands upon thousands of others who were exposed."
We have to remember, understand, that nobody in the United States can possess even a half-pound of solid uranium 238. They cannot dispose of even a half-pound of solid uranium 238 in any location other than in a licensed secured facility. You cannot do that. However, the United States is deliberately, willfully, because it's an extremely effective combat weapon, throwing hundreds if not thousands of tons in combat areas around the world, refused to provide the medical care as required by numerous directives, and refused to clean up the uranium contamination as required by army regulation, and numerous laws.
Rokke asserts that DU weapons proponents within the Defense Department are responsible for its refusal to acknowledge environmental effects of DU, or undertake proper medicare for victims of DU exposure. To support his allegation, Rokke quoted a document he referred to as the "Los Alamos Memorandum.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1 March 1991. Subject: The effectiveness of depleted uranium penetrators. There is a relatively small amount of lethality data for uranium penetrators, either the tank-fired long version, or the GAU 8 round fired from the A10 close air support aircraft. The recent war has likely multiplied the number of DU rounds fired at targets by orders of magnitude. It is believed that DU penetrators were very effective against Iraqi armor. However, assessments of such will have to be made. There has been and continues to be a concern regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battlefield, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus be deleted from the arsenal. If DU penetrators have proved their worth in combat activities, then we should assure their future existence (until something better is developed) through service DOD proponents. If proponency is not garnered then it is possible that we stand to lose a valuable combat capability. I believe we should keep this sensitive issue at mind whenever action reports are written
"In other words if they don't lie to the public and they find out what a nightmare they won't be able to use it, so they will keep lying," Bernstein asked. "Absolutely," Rokke replied, citing another memo, this one from the US Army's Defense Nuclear Agency, which calls "beta particles from shrapnel and intact rounds" a "serious health threat." Rokke continued:
Today in war, as we did in Gulf War I and that area's a toxic wasteland, you blow up an infrastructure, you release all the hazardous materials associated with a city, a country, industry, agriculture, medicine and everything else. You destroy the water supply. You get the sandstorms up there with individually you should be wearing respiratory protection for because the sand in itself breathed in, in the eyes and the lungs causes serious health effects. And then use uranium munitions.... You can't clean up the environmental mess. And the medical care has not been provided. And even the medical care that they provide is basically treat the symptoms rather than trying to treat and cure the illnesses....The veteran as in all other wars has been abandoned, because of the cost and the liability issues. This is not just liability for a handful of American warriors. This is liability because the health and environmental effects of war affect everybody. Not only immediately, but for years down the road. We can't clean it up and we don't have the medical knowledge to take care of the casualties that result.
Bush has appeared recently at a succession of photo-ops with members of the armed forces, and veterans, yet, as GAO director of defense capabilities, Raymod Decker, testified to Congress in October, 250,000 chemical protective suits among those that have been provided to US troops in Iraq are known to be defective. Moreover, according to Doug Rokke, DoD testimony at the same hearing admitted that "the military is not providing the medical care for the troops now required for deployment." While the needs of Hiroshima bombing victims fade from public attention, the environmental disaster from dioxin in the food chain in Vietnam cries out for increased international attention, and the consequences of depleted uranium munitions have only begun to appear. Having successfully confused the war on terrorism with the war in Iraq for a significant portion of the American public, "You're either for us or against us," Bush has said. Yet in this case, we are against ourselves.
Pilger, John. "Nuclear war, courtesy of NATO" Hidden Agendas: The Films and Writing of John Pilger 4 May 1999
Flight, Colette "Silent Weapon: Smallpox and Biological Warfare" BBC History 2 Jan. 2002
"Journal of William Trent, 1763" from , John W. Harpster, ed. (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1938) cited by Native Web
Rev. of Oct. 2001.
"Frequently Asked Questions about the Atomic-bomb Survivor Research Program" Radiation Effects Research Foundation. Oct. 2002
"Radiation Reassessed" The Why Files. University of Wisconsin. 6 Mar. 2002
"Agent Orange Website" Lewis Publishing Company.
"Overview" Hatfield Consultants, Ltd. Oct. 1998
United States. Cong. General Accounting Office. "Gulf War Illnesses: Procedural and Reporting Improvements Are Needed in DOD's Investigative Processes" GAO/NSIAD-99-59. 26 Feb. 99
United States. Cong. Senate. Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs 103d Cong., 2d Session. 1994
Mackay, Neil and Felicity Arbuthnot "How did Iraq get its weapons? We sold them" 8 Sep. 2002
Brennan, Phil "Rumsfeld: New Rules for Non-lethal Combat" NewsMax 6 Feb. 2003
Thanks to Chris Kee for suggesting this article, and identifying the Flashpoints interview with Major Doug Rokke.
A complete transcript of the Rokke interview can be found here.
See also Leuren Moret's Depleted Uranium:The Trojan Horse of Nuclear War.