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           Home >  Health N Environment  > Health  :

Reflections on War: the immediate and long-term effects of modern weapons

Commander Robert Green, Royal Navy (Retired)* - 21/08/03

Address on Anzac Day, 25 April 2003, St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington

Part 1

Rob Green's background/health effects of Depleted Uranium weapons

As a former British naval officer who served for 20 years from 1962-82, the nearest I came to war was as a member of the Intelligence team in the Command bunker outside London from where the Falklands War was controlled in 1982. I know what a close-run thing that war was. After the British nuclear submarine HMS Conqueror had torpedoed the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, the Argentine Air Force inflicted heavy losses on British ships, in which several of my colleagues died. Had one of our aircraft-carriers or troopships been sunk before the troops got ashore, British forces would have been in deep trouble. As withdrawal was unthinkable, attempting an opposed amphibious landing with depleted air or ground forces would have raised the spectre of Gallipoli.

I became a New Zealand citizen on 12 September 2001, with Americans in shock from the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Before then, I had a superficial knowledge of what happened at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Since then I have done more homework about the carnage and suffering endured by the Anzac troops. I would like to take this opportunity to add my personal acknowledgement of what they went through, and the massive and enduring impact it must have had on their families.

Since then, the relentless march of weapon technology has produced nuclear weapons. As backseat aircrew in carrier-borne Buccaneer strike jets and later anti-submarine helicopters, I was trained to deliver a 100 kiloton thermonuclear weapon - about eight times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb - against a military air base outside Leningrad, and to drop 10 kiloton nuclear depth-bombs against Soviet nuclear attack submarines which were too fast for our lightweight torpedoes.

Thirty years later, in 1999 I landed at my target - by then St Petersburg's airport - to speak at a conference reviewing nuclear policy and security on the eve of the 21st century. In a TV interview, I apologised to the citizens of St Petersburg that, had my nuclear mission been completed, it would inevitably have caused horrific indiscriminate casualties and long-term poisonous effects from radioactive fallout, quite apart from extensive collateral damage to the beautiful ancient capital of Russia. What is more, I now concluded that nuclear weapons would not save me - and they would not save the Russians either.

One factor which played a part in my rejection of nuclear weapons concerns the Falklands War. Britain's Polaris nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine force did not deter Argentina's President Galtieri from invading. If British forces had faced defeat, I doubt that he would have believed even Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have seriously threatened a nuclear strike on Argentina. Yet rumours emerged after the war that a Polaris submarine had been moved south within range of Buenos Aires. If she had so threatened, Galtieri would have very publicly called her bluff and relished watching US President Reagan try to rein her in. The Polaris submarine's Commanding Officer, briefed by me on the Soviet threat before he went on so-called 'deterrent' patrol, would have been faced with a bizarre shift of target and new rules of engagement. In the last resort, would he have either refused the firing order or faked a malfunction, and returned to face a court martial with a clear conscience? In the event, this nightmare did not arise; but I suddenly saw the huge danger of placing any leader in such a crisis with the nuclear option at their disposal. The failure of nuclear deterrence could have led the Royal Navy to have multiplied the ignominy of defeat by being the first to have broken the nuclear taboo since Nagasaki.

However, what brings me to speak here is not primarily the continuing possibility of use of nuclear weapons, especially by Israel, India or Pakistan; but also by the US or even UK, both of which threatened to do so if Iraq used chemical or biological weapons. My subject tonight is the effects, both immediate and longer term, of new conventional weapons, which have actually been used by the US and UK military in their invasion of Iraq.

With what I am about to say, it is important to bear in mind that the Law of Armed Conflict, encompassing the Hague and Geneva Conventions, prohibits use of weapons which:

  • fail to discriminate between combatants and innocent civilians (Principle of Discrimination)
  • cause harm disproportionate to their preceding provocations and/or to legitimate objectives (Principles of Proportionality and Necessity)
  • cause unnecessary or superfluous suffering (Principle of Humanity)
  • cause widespread, long-lasting and severe damage to the environment (Principle of Environmental Protection)
  • use asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or substances (Principle of Toxicity)
Long-term health effects
Let me take the long-term problem first. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, I have read with growing concern about a surge of unexplained illnesses, cancers and children born with genetic deformities among the Iraqi people, especially in the south near the battlefields. At the same time, both US and UK veterans have reported similar health and reproductive problems.

At the end of that war, the United States reported 760 troop casualties: 294 dead and the rest wounded or ill. Now 8,000 are dead, and 221,000 of those same troops are claiming disability benefit. In Britain, more than 600 veterans have died and 9,000 are seriously sick with multiple ailments. This amounts to around 30% of all troops who went to the Gulf.

No-one knows how many Iraqis died in that war. Estimates range between 100,000 and 200,000. However, the average monthly death rate in Iraq has increased from just over 2,000 a month in 1989 to over 15,000 in recent years. By 1998, UNICEF was citing a total of half a million excess deaths of children under 5 years of age. This was due in part to the bombing of vital civilian infrastructure and the continuation of sanctions. But more insidious has been this eruption of illnesses, and deformities among children of both the Allied military and Iraqi people. For example, a survey made by the US Veterans' Administration of 251 veterans' families in Mississippi showed that 67% of children conceived and born since the war had rare illnesses and genetic problems.

New weapons in the 1991 Gulf War
The 1991 Gulf War saw the first operational use by the US of several new conventional weapons. 'Smart', precision-guided missiles and bombs made their debut, promising less indiscriminate 'collateral' damage and casualties. Less fanfare was given to the US and UK army's Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Designed as an area weapon, the load from one launcher creates enough blast to kill or incapacitate anyone inside the equivalent of about two rugby pitches.

Because the MLRS is ground-launched, its range is limited. So the Pentagon developed several air-dropped area munitions with equivalent effects. The 1,000kg Mark 84 Joint Direct Attack Munition (J-DAM) generates a massive fireball and shockwave which also unleashes nearly 500kg of superheated steel fragments, killing anyone within 120 metres and causing injuries out to 1,000 metres.

Air-dropped cluster bombs were used: again specifically anti-personnel weapons, these comprise a drum which explodes, scattering hundreds of bomblets which then detonate like airborne landmines filled with razor-sharp shrapnel. The bomblets have a 10% failure rate, and are painted bright yellow - similar to the food parcels dropped in Afghanistan.

Not content with this level of indiscriminate lethality, in the campaign to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001, we heard that the US used several 6800kg BLU-82 'daisy cutter' weapons against al-Qaida cave complexes. Apparently, it is so big that it was pushed out of the back of a C130 transport aircraft. First deployed in Vietnam to clear minefields, and again in the first Gulf War, it is a hypo-barometric fuel-air munition which covers a wide area with a cloud of aluminium powder. When it detonates about a metre above ground, it creates a 5500 deg C fireball around 1km in diameter, with a shock wave producing a blast pressure of 73kg/sq cm (1,000lb/sq in) effective out to nearly 5km, which is close to that of a tactical nuclear weapon without the fallout. Such is the pressure generated by the blast that underground tunnels and structures are crushed and the people inside incinerated. For the recent invasion of Iraq, the US produced a more aerodynamic version, dubbed the 'Mother Of All Bombs', capable of being delivered by B1 and B2 bombers.

Use of Depleted Uranium
During the first Gulf War, a new material called Depleted Uranium, or DU, proved itself in anti-tank shells. Depleted Uranium is mainly Uranium 238, which occurs as a natural ore. It is what is left after most of the fissionable isotopes Uranium 234 and Uranium 235 have been extracted from the ore for use as fuel for nuclear reactors or bomb material.

About 700,000 tonnes of this hazardous radioactive waste had accumulated over the past half century throughout the United States and in Britain, until the American military discovered that it had a use. An extremely hard 'heavy' metal nearly twice as dense as lead, it has excellent armour-piercing capability. Unlike other heavy metals that tend to flatten on impact, DU 'self-sharpens' as it ignites on impact at high speed. The nuclear industry, desperate to find solutions to its waste problem, was only too happy to give it away. Thus any alternative, like tungsten (which is lighter), would be much more expensive.

However, when DU burns it oxidises into tiny, insoluble aerosol particles. These are chemically toxic, and if ingested can cause a kidney disease called nephritis. Some scientists are concerned that, because DU burns at very high temperatures, particles from it have physical and chemical characteristics of ceramic, which would cause a far higher radiation dose than the same amount inhaled in a factory where DU is chemically processed. If so, then DU dust from used munitions would behave more like DU shrapnel which, when found in the bodies of US Gulf War casualties, has now been acknowledged to be a problem. Moreover, tests with particles have shown that they are so fine that they could pass through the filter of an anti-gas respirator.

As far back as 1943, scientists on the Manhattan Project toyed with using powdered uranium on the battlefield as an air and ground contaminant. Inhaling it would cause 'bronchial irritation' and the acute radiation effects could induce ulcers and perforations of the gut followed by death. Though 40% less radioactive than natural uranium, the greatest radiological danger from DU is from inhaling the dust into the lungs where the material can remain for years, emitting alpha radiation which is very damaging to soft tissue. DU can damage cells in the lung, bone, kidney, and lymph glands, causing cancer in those organs as well as leukaemia. With a half-life of 4.5 billion years, its effects are forever unless it can be removed.

DU dust was found in the air in Iraq five years after the initial bombing. It enters the soil, surface water and eventually the ground water. The dust is deposited on plants and grazed by animals which are then used for food. Studies in Iraq have shown that there is a strong correlation between polluted soil and the proximity of polluted vegetation. Food such as onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelon, garlic, meat and fish all had higher levels of radioisotopes.

At least 350 tons of DU were used in munitions in Iraq in 1991. The Pentagon has been reticent about using it in Afghanistan. In addition to the 'daisy cutters', several hundred tons of smart bombs and cruise missiles were used, including many designed against hardened or deeply buried targets (the 2 ton GBU-37 Bunker Busters, 2000lb GBU-24 Paveway smart bombs, Boeing AGM-86D, Maverick AGM-65G and AGM-145C hard target capability cruise missiles). All these are described in open sources as having a 'mystery high-density metal' in them.

The mystery metal is 50-75% of the weight of the bombs - up to 1.5 tons in the GBU-37 Bunker Buster bombs. If this is DU, because of the sheer quantity areas up to 40km downwind of target zones could be contaminated, depending on wind strength and direction. If the US used DU in Afghanistan, this means that New Zealand SAS forces as well as innocent Afghan civilians could have been affected. However, it may take a generation before some effects appear, as has been experienced by the New Zealand nuclear test veterans.

In September 2002, an independent field survey was conducted in Afghanistan in areas where such weapons had been used. The team reported that those exposed at the time of the bombing reported 'flu-type illnesses throughout entire neighbourhoods, beginning within the first few weeks and lasting two or more months after the bombing. The more seriously ill show progressive symptoms which have persisted for 10 to 12 months. Community reports may indicate that up to 25% of newborns suffer congenital and post-natal health problems.' That is one in every four babies.

The same study took samples from people near Jalalabad. Results showed levels of uranium contamination in urine samples between 400 to 2,000 higher than normal. This raises the question as to whether the US may be using uranium as well as depleted uranium metal. Research has not as yet provided conclusive evidence, but no industrial or other sources of uranium are known in this area. The UK government was warned of potential uranium contamination in the Afghan bombing in October 2001, but rejected calls for weapons inspection, health and environmental surveys. Military radiation surveys and medical records in Afghanistan have not been published.

This is reflected in the experience of allied Gulf War veterans and Iraqi civilians. Many babies in Iraq are now born with serious genetic defects, sometimes without limbs or head and misformed internal organs. There are higher numbers of Down's Syndrome births, and many young children now have cancer or leukaemia. The majority of these are under five years of age which is itself an indicator of early exposure to radiation. An epidemiological study made in Iraq by an Iraqi doctor shows a direct correlation between the rise in childhood cancer and leukaemia and the high exposure to DU dust in certain parts of Basra. The rise has been 384% and 300% respectively. Both allied veterans and the Iraqi population are also suffering from neurological disorders, respiratory problems, immune deficiency syndromes and rare kidney and bowel diseases. These are all consistent with the radiological and toxic effects of internal exposure to DU.

What about the invasion of Iraq? In addition to massive use of cluster bombs and other area munitions, here is a quote from an official US briefing on 14 March: 'The use of depleted uranium in munitions designed to penetrate a tank's armour and for protective plating on the M-1 Abrams battle tank gave U.S. military forces a clear advantage over their Iraqi counterparts in the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict and would do so again if war is waged' Depleted uranium is a hard metal, preferred by the military over the softer, lighter tungsten because it holds its shape and becomes sharper as it passes through the shell of its target when used as a munition. Both the U.S. and United Kingdom have experience working with DU - [which] was also used during the Balkans conflict in Kosovo - note no mention of Afghanistan. The Pentagon went on to claim no evidence linking DU with health effects. NATO blocked independent investigation of bomb and missile targets in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999.

There are now 23 US weapon systems suspected of using from 300 grams to 7 tons of DU metal. Experts have calculated that between 1,000-2,000 tonnes of DU were used. A new concern is that machine guns can now fire DU ammunition, which means that DU will be everywhere on the battlefield. Also, this time, the US military was equally concerned with aerial bombing of fortified structures and underground bunkers as well as with targeting Iraqi tanks. Thus the risk of DU contamination extends into the main cities. The bombs used on the Baghdad restaurant in an unsuccessful attempt to kill Saddam Hussein are believed to have contained tonnes of DU. Robert Fisk reported on 9 April that A-10 Warthogs were firing 30mm cannon DU ammunition into buildings in Baghdad.

Finally, this time all of Iraq has been occupied, and will need military forces to maintain order. In addition, officials, bomb disposal experts and aid workers will flood in. All these people will potentially be exposed to DU dust wherever such munitions were used.

According to UK military documents the health and safety requirements for being in the presence of DU oxides are an anti-gas respirator, protective clothing, (preferably a full NBC suit with pureflow hood) and two pairs of gloves.

What about the 'liberated' Iraqi people? In the absence of 23 million protective suits (which anyway are impossible to wear in hot weather), the very minimum response should be to issue every Iraqi with a service respirator, warn them to stay away from bomb craters, not to touch any metal from munitions and to wash their hands thoroughly before eating - if they have any access to water. The same advice should go to all NGOs, medics, media workers and indeed anyone entering a bombed area.

* Commander Green now coordinates the Peace Foundation's Disarmament & Security Centre in Christchurch with his wife, Dr Kate Dewes.




 
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