Poisoned in the Desert: Exposing the Gulf War Syndrome

As we move closer to a war in Iraq, Bush is making patriotic appeals to stand behind our soldiers. But a look at what happened to troops in the Gulf War shows that we can have no confidence that this administration will look out for our troops’ interests.

As of July, 1999, of the 579,000 American veterans who served in the 1991 Gulf War, 251,000 (43%) were seeking medical treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (Tashiro, Discounted Casualties). As of May 2002, 159,238 veterans have been awarded service-connected disability by the Department of Veterans Affairs for health effects collectively known as the Gulf War Syndrome (Seattle P-I, 11/12/02). These widespread symptoms include chronic fatigue, joint pain, kidney and liver disorders, respiratory ailments, and forms of cancer.

Many researchers and several veterans organizations believe that depleted uranium (DU) is the primary cause of Gulf War Syndrome. Facing public outcry, the Defense Department admitted in 1998 that about 436,000 soldiers had entered areas contaminated by DU, and had been exposed to radiation.

Depleted uranium (uranium-238) is the by-product of extracting uranium-235 from uranium ore for use in nuclear reactors or nuclear weapons. This radioactive metal is a highly toxic waste that has been produced in very large quantities since the 1940’s. Because there is so much of it, and because its half-life is extremely long (4.5 billion years, about the age of the earth), its disposal presents a major problem.

The US government’s “solution” was to create a use for it as an armor-piercing munition. More dense than iron or lead, DU is a very effective weapon. The problem is that DU projectiles burn on impact, diffusing 20-70% of their mass into the air as uranium oxide particles. One shell can spray DU particles over a radius of almost a quarter mile.

The US government was aware of the hazards of DU well before the Gulf War. A 1974 military report noted: “In combat situations involving the widespread use of DU munitions, the potential for inhalation, ingestion, or implantation of DU compounds may be locally significant” (Seattle P-I, 11/12/02) .

The military’s official rationale for not taking measures to prevent exposure to DU, despite knowing the danger, was reported by the General Accounting Office in 1993. “Army officials believe that DU protective methods can be ignored during battle and other life-threatening situations because DU-related health risks are greatly outweighed by the risks of combat.”

To the military, the benefits of using DU weapons outweigh the costs. Not only does it help “solve” the problem of toxic waste disposal, but the weapons are very effective. And the growing demand for DU weapons by the US and other countries means huge profits for military-industrial corporations who produce them.

If the world knew the true danger posed by DU, there would certainly be efforts to ban DU weapons. In 1999, a UN subcommittee considered DU to be hazardous enough to propose an initiative banning its use worldwide. The initiative has remained in committee since then, blocked primarily by the US, according to the International Educational Development/Humanitarian Law Project.

General Vesser of the Office of the Special Assistant to the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Gulf War Illness tries to justify the continued use of DU by claiming: “At this point, there is no scientific evidence indicating any detrimental impact of DU on human bodies…DU munitions will definitely be used in the future, as they were in Kosovo.”

Many sick and disabled veterans have applied for compensation under the 1998 Gulf War Veterans law, which provides about $25,000 a year. However, very few have been granted that much, and all cases that established a causal relationship between an illness and exposure to DU have been rejected.

Socialists oppose this war against Iraq, but we also fight for soldiers’ rights. Most soldiers are working class or people of color who are systematically targeted by military recruiters. We oppose the exploitation of soldiers by capitalist governments, who use them to serve the interests of big business (such as the oil industry). Of course, the corporate owners and the politicians are not the ones fighting and dying, but ordinary workers and youth.

We believe that all workers, including soldiers, should have the right to unionize in order to fight for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. All soldiers should have basic trade union rights, such as a grievance system, an appeals process, and union representatives to defend them.

In order to make sure that soldiers aren’t exposed to DU in the future, all DU weapons must be banned from use or testing. In general, all weapons and military equipment should be fully tested by researchers independent from the US military and military-industrial corporations.

Justice #32, November 2002