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Reflections on War: the Immediate and Long-Term Effects of Modern Weapons
Anzac Day, 25 April 2003
Commander Robert Green's address at St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington.
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:
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.
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.
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 armor 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.
The alarm may at last have been raised. In the 2 April edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Brian Vastag wrote that, although the US government claims it is safe, the consensus among US medical researchers is that not enough is understood about DU's acute and long-term effects.
On 27 March, US Democrat Congressman Jim McDermott introduced legislation entitled the Depleted Uranium Munitions Study Act. Co-sponsored by six other Democrat members of Congress, this requires studies on the health and environmental impact of DU munitions, as well as cleanup and mitigation of depleted uranium contamination at sites within the United States where DU has been used or produced.
McDermott, a medical doctor, has been concerned about this issue since veterans of the Gulf War started experiencing unexplained illnesses. His concern deepened after visiting Iraq, where Iraqi pediatricians told him that the incidence of severely deformed infants and childhood cancers had skyrocketed. He said: "Depleted uranium is toxic and carcinogenic and it may well be associated with elevated rates of birth defects in babies born to those exposed to it. We had troops coming home sick after the Gulf War, and depleted uranium may be one of the factors responsible for that. The need for these studies is imperative and immediate. We cannot knowingly put the men and women of our armed forces in harm's way."
On 8 April, the US Embassy here in Wellington felt sufficiently pressured by critical media reports to arrange a video conference on "Depleted Uranium: the Facts", which I attended. We were linked up with a retired British Army Colonel called Terry Taylor, who is President of the US office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. There was no representative from the State Department! He was a total apologist for US policy and DU. The Embassy issued copies of the 14 March Pentagon briefing referred to earlier, which stated that "independent studies conducted by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Office, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Kingdom Royal Society have found no cause and effect between DU use and illnesses."
The WHO's April 2001 study states: "General screening or monitoring for possible depleted uranium-related health effects in populations living in conflict areas where depleted uranium has been used is not necessary". None of these dismissive reports, however, have involved original field work or tested victims exposed to DU. Their information is based upon simulated models and they refer only to studies made on workers exposed to low concentrations of uranium dust in uranium ore. They have taken as a 'given' the dose-limits set by International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and have applied them to internal as well as external radiation, ignoring the more recent research in radiation biology and human epidemiology. It is now known that even one particle of alpha radiation can cause damage at a cellular level. Also, the WHO is compromised by a 1959 agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, whereby it is required to consult with the IAEA over any study into health effects of radioactivity, and "adjust" any findings "by mutual consent". This may help to explain why the WHO study concludes by emphasising the need for further studies on kidney damage from DU, shifting attention away from its radioactivity to its toxicity.
I managed to ask several questions, which put Col Taylor on the back foot for a while. He kept on repeating that it is a "discriminate" weapon - but admitted that more studies were needed on long-term effects. He also claimed DU was only being used against armoured vehicles, which was not true. Afterwards, I emailed a list of further questions to him: to date I have had no reply.
Last week, the Royal Society - apparently furious that the Pentagon had claimed it had its backing - felt obliged to issue a media release highlighting recommendations from its study last year into the health hazards of DU. These included the need for DU fragments to be removed, and areas of contamination around impact sites to be identified and "made safe". The Pentagon has no plans for such a clean-up. However, the UK government has just announced that it will publish details of where and how much DU was used by British forces, will help clear up DU munitions, and hoped that the US would do the same. Also, the Royal Society called for long-term sampling of water and milk in areas where DU munitions have been used. This may have been prompted by a recent UNEP report "Depleted Uranium in Bosnia and Herzegovina" that DU has been found in drinking water seven years after it was fired, and that other water sources should be used.
At the same time, the New Scientist magazine weighed in with an editorial which argued that US and UK government statements "imply a level of knowledge that we simply do not have." A feature article highlighted Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist at the US Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, who is due to complete an investigation into DU for the Pentagon next year. Already she has some insight into the damage it can do. Last year she showed that depleted uranium from pellets implanted in rats dispersed all over the animals' bodies, turning up in bones, muscles, kidneys and liver. Rats breeding six months later had fewer offspring than normal.
Her latest study reveals something even more unusual. When human bone cells are exposed to DU, some suffer immediate genetic damage. Even more than a month after the DU was removed, new cells were forming with broken chromosomes or other genetic damage. So the DU had a delayed effect.
More alarming still, she found that tiny amounts of DU, too small to be toxic and only mildly radioactive, cause more genetic damage in cells than either the toxicity or radiation alone could explain. Her latest results corroborate a tentative report by the Royal Society, which suggests that the toxicity and radioactivity of DU reinforce one another in an unknown way, to the extent that more than eight times as many cells suffer genetic damage than predicted. Thus, the health risk of DU could be grossly underestimated. This could have huge implications for the nuclear industry.
One person who is convinced DU-induced genetic damage causes real health problems is Albrecht Schott, a biochemist who recently retired from the Free University of Berlin. The day before the US, UK and Australian armed forces invaded Iraq, he published a study carried out with scientists at the University of Bremen. The first of its kind, it looked at genetic damage in the white blood cells of 16 former soldiers who believed they had been exposed to DU in the 1991 Gulf war or in the Balkans. They found that damage to chromosomes in the white blood cells was on average five-and-a-half times higher in the veterans than the rest of the population.
Kenny Duncan, one of the soldiers tested, was 21 when he served with the Royal Corps of Transport, helping to shift Iraqi tanks destroyed by DU shells in the 1991 Gulf War. He believes his exposure to DU has left his family with a painful legacy. All his children were conceived after he was exposed. His eight-year-old son suffers constant headaches and has deformed ears and toes. His two other children also have deformed toes and both suffer bowel and bladder problems. One is also partially deaf.
Dr Schott reckons the reason is likely to be DU: "The high levels of genetic damage we observed do not occur naturally. I believe alpha radiation from DU to be the cause of these chromosome aberrations. Uranium molecules in the blood can travel to every part of the body, including the areas where sperm and eggs are. This, and the presence of chromosome aberrations, increases the probability of cancer and other genetic conditions significantly. They lead to a higher probability of genetic damage in the person's babies and then damage can be passed on to the children's children." A spokesman for the UK Ministry of Defence dismissed the study: "We consider the tests undertaken in Germany neither well thought out nor scientifically sound."
Dr Chris Busby, who represents British Gulf War veterans on the MoD's Depleted Uranium Oversight Board, fears another outbreak of "Gulf War Syndrome". On 3 April he wrote: "Recent calls to 'unite behind our boys' sound hollow in the ears of many veterans of the first Gulf War They were not protected by the Ministry of Defence their symptoms, and even deaths, were dismissed as of 'psychological origin'. Their calls to have themselves tested for the residue of the DU weapons they had been exposed to were denied and are still being blocked Many have paid from their pensions to have their blood and urine tested abroad, no longer trusting government laboratories We must all press for the abandonment of DU weapons, which are a form of indirect chemical and nuclear warfare and certainly represent a weapon of mass destruction." A motion submitted by Dr Busby to the DU Oversight Board to introduce a range of warnings before, and treatment after, the war was voted down on 11 March.
Other straws in the wind include the fact that, during the 1991 Gulf war, US army guidelines recommended surgeons just to "do their best" to remove DU fragments from personnel injured in friendly fire incidents. Today, surgeons are required to be "aggressive" in removing any fragments, even if this means disturbing surrounding tissue.
On 6 April, UNEP recommended that a scientific assessment of sites targeted with DU munitions be conducted in Iraq as soon as possible. UNEP field studies of sites in the Balkans following use by the US military in 1999 were the first international field assessments of how DU behaves in the environment. UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer said: "An early study in Iraq could either lay fears to rest or confirm that there are indeed potential risks, which could then be addressed This is especially important to protect human health in a post-conflict situation." By the end of April, UNEP will publish a 'desk study' on the Iraq environment that will provide the necessary background information for conducting field research. This research will examine risks to groundwater, surface water, drinking water resources, waste management and other environment-related infrastructure, factories and other potential sources of toxic chemicals. [Among Iraq's strategic resources it should not be forgotten that, in addition to having the second largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia, it has the most extensive river system in the Middle East, including the Tigris and Euphrates.]
Last Tuesday 22 April, Foreign Minister Phil Goff announced that New Zealand will provide up to 15 Defence Force personnel to assist the UN with clearing unexploded mines and other munitions in Iraq. It is vital that these personnel are fully briefed about the hazards of DU, and are equipped with the latest respirators and other protective clothing to minimise the risk to them of inhaling or ingesting DU dust. I also urge the Government to offer full support to the UNEP proposal for a proper field study in Iraq, and if possible to provide participants. Also, there is an urgent need to sponsor a UN General Assembly resolution reflecting these needs.
To summarise, today we have been remembering the Anzac landings at Gallipoli, and all those who have given their lives in the service of this country since then. My fear is that, had Depleted Uranium been used at Gallipoli, there might be widespread genetic deformities among the surviving troops' descendants, and the land could still be contaminated. I think it is highly significant that Israel, which first used DU in its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, withdrew it from service in the late 1980s apparently because of fears of "fouling their own backyard". Note that the US and UK have only used DU in operations far from their own territory.
The struggle of the New Zealand nuclear test veterans for justice and compensation continues. DU shows all the signs of being a similar problem, where there is a clear US and British military and political vested interest in avoiding or suppressing evidence of health effects. If such effects are proved, there will be public outrage and international pressure to outlaw and withdraw DU munitions, followed by the prospect of paying huge compensation.
However, I suspect that DU is not the only culprit. Let us be in no doubt that the US military industrial complex is off the leash and on the march, bankrolling both Republicans and Democrats. With US military spending now as much as the next eight countries combined, the pressure to test new weapons is relentless and growing. Iraq has been the latest testbed, and we may never know what other new weapons were put through their paces there.
The circumstantial evidence is growing that, despite claims of precision guidance, some of the latest weapons have become too destructive and polluting, not just for the defeated military and innocent victims, but for the so-called "victorious" military forces and other personnel brought in afterwards to help clear up the mess. Perhaps ironically this could generate a new and powerful way to curb aggressive, illegal war and enforced regime change: namely, that the US administration and its British accomplice find that, through the revelations of the horrific long-term health effects, they cannot find enough citizens of the calibre required to fight their wars for them.
(c) Commander Robert Green