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The well -kept secrets of depleted uranium and the toxic economy of war in Iraq

Invisibility and the Toxic Economy of War in Iraq, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/27076/invisibility-and-the-toxic-economy-of-war-in-iraq by Toby C. JonesIn April 2008 a small US engineering firm—Stafford, Texas-based MKM Engineers—brought to a close almost two decades of toxic cleanup work on a former US military facility just west of Kuwait City. Seventeen years earlier, in July 1991, a defective heating unit on a military vehicle loaded with 155mm artillery shells at Camp Doha caught fire and ignited a devastating inferno. The blaze injured several dozen people and damaged scores of other vehicles, including several highly prized M1A1 tanks.[1]

Thousands of artillery shells cooked in fire, setting off an extended explosive chain reaction. Ricocheting debris and bursting ordinance sent base personnel scurrying for safety in what quickly came to be known as the Doha Dash.[2] The fire also unleashed a toxic plume. Seared metal—the detritus of broken war machines and spent artillery—always leaves a hazardous legacy. But the base was also home to thousands of 120mm anti-tank depleted uranium (DU) artillery shells, weapons forged from the waste of the American nuclear fuel cycle. DU weapons are both radioactive and toxic. Normally, depleted uranium not put to military or other industrial use, is handled and stored as hazardous waste. The American Environmental Protection Agency and the Pentagon today have strict guidelines in place for its handling with both recognizing it as a danger to human and environmental health. At Camp Doha over 600 of the nuclear waste-turned-weapons detonated in the fire, coating the sky with noxious black smoke and dust that drifted for miles.[3]
Although having been informed over many years that DU, particularly its chemical toxicity, constituted a threat to health and environments, the US military limited its effort to address the mess in Kuwait.[4] Damaged machines were quietly returned to the US either to be scrubbed or destroyed. Spent weapons and some contaminated sand were packaged into barrels, many of which were shipped to remote parts of the Kuwaiti desert and buried. Claiming that it had only a minimal legal obligation to address the fallout and commit to the recovery of the environment around the base, the US abandoned the cleanup job only partially completed by the end of 1991.
Halliburton, the giant oil services company, carried out additional work on the site after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But it was not until 2008 that the area around Camp Doha was fully neutralized and the danger abated by engineers from Texas. Financed by the Kuwaiti military, MKM Engineers oversaw the final excavation of the site, digging up almost 7,000 tons of toxic and irradiated sand. Once unearthed the poisoned sand was loaded aboard the container ship BBC Alabama and shipped thousands of miles away to the Port of Longview, Washington, nestled on Columbia River in the southwestern part of the state. From there, the sand was transported by rail to a private hazardous waste facility outside of Boise, Idaho where it was permanently buried.[5]
The details of the fire at Camp Doha and its toxic legacy—in which the US military forsake its responsibility to ameliorate a toxic site, only to have much of the site itself ultimately transported back to the US for final treatment and disposal, are absurd.
The global movement of hazardous waste remade as weapons in the United States and put to use the Middle East, in this case to be returned as waste years later, is remarkable and disturbing.
Beyond the details of the fire at Camp Doha, though, why does this episode help us think critically and more broadly about economies and political economies of war?
Below I suggest we set aside more conventional ways of thinking about the value of weapons and arms in war economies, particularly the oft-reported details of the monetary value of weapons bought and sold between global powers. (from monetary to exchange) Weapons systems are always also parts of environmental and health economies and ecologies. To think about this in part, I point toward broader visibility and invisibility as well as how we might use the environmental and health impacts of DU weapons’ use — which remain little known and more disturbingly, often deliberately obscured from view—to expand our frame of what a war economy includes and how parts of it are able to function.
It is the furtive character of DU weapons manufacturing, its testing (primarily and secretly in the American southwest), the scale of its use, and ultimately, the nature and impact that result, that makes it simultaneously difficult to investigate, but also so useful for the American military and its clients.
I suggest that the relative invisibility of DU weapons systems is more than just an idiosyncratic footnote to wars in the Middle East more generally. While non-DU weapons have almost certainly killed more people, caused more damage, and profited investors more significantly, the power of smaller systems and their secretive character transcends their relative “market share.” In one way this has to do with broader politics of visibility and war.
Much happens, from profit to pain, out of sight. War and those it benefits carry on much more easily, and perhaps enthusiastically, as a result. Indeed, the invisibility of key aspects of war and its wages create small, but critical access ways for a broader range of private, corporate and political interest to benefit. They also bracket off or diminish suffering of various kinds, including long term environmental and health impacts.
The magnitude of the damage done in Kuwait was relatively small compared to the devastation of war elsewhere, particularly in Kuwait’s northern neighbor Iraq, where the country was ravaged by the long American war there between 1991 and 2011.[6] The small cost of the Camp Doha fire, perhaps around $40million, is minor in comparison to the trillions of dollars of spent on war and damage in Iraq.[7] And while weapons manufacturing and sales, and the routine exchange of billions of dollars in oil revenues for American weapons and military systems, are critical for understanding the importance of the political economy of war in the Middle East—and its global entanglements—depleted uranium weapons, while not insignificant, make up a small fraction of the amount of weapons industry’s profit on wars in the region.
Since the 1970s when depleted uranium waste first began to be fashioned into weapons designed to destroy Soviet tanks, the total number of DU weapons manufactured is unknown. Made in small batches and designed primarily to destroy heavy armor, depleted uranium’s total production likely numbers in the hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds, millions of smaller caliber shells, as well as armor for tanks and other uses. Whatever the actual scale of production over decades, the United States military used DU weapons extensively against military and non-military targets in Iraq between 1991 and 2011—as well as in Afghanistan and Syria.[8] The Pentagon has been unwilling to disclose the full extent of its use of DU weapons, though anecdotal evidence from various media suggests it was widely deployed from Basra to Falluja against human and non-human targets.
The broader context and story around Camp Doha—in which DU weapons were made in places like Concord, Massachusetts, tested in places like Los Alamos, New Mexico, used in Iraq and Kuwait, finally disposed of by a firm from Texas in a global network that passed from the northern Persian Gulf to Idaho—enrolled and touched upon thousands of people, generated an unknown amount of damage and profit, and yet has remained almost entirely unknown. This invisibility is not trivial. Rather, it is productive, arresting the possibility of scrutiny, operating on multiple small levels simultaneously and over time, rendered local rather than caught up in the much broader networks of which it is a part, and almost entirely uncontested because the unseen is unseen.

The making and circulation of weapons, typically easily monetized and measured, are only one way to think through the cost of war and the character of its economies. There is a second dimension to the productive power of toxic invisibility for war-makers as well. Because so much around depleted uranium is deliberately mystified and withheld – a pattern that is at odds with how militaries often conspicuously celebrate the power of their weapons systems—military and political authorities have also been able to deny claims about its most pernicious toxic effects. While all war results in long lasting environmental, infrastructural, and embodied suffering, toxic weapons produce consequences that are particularly devastating and long lasting. Given their molecular qualities and the scientific and medical difficulty in linking particular cases of exposure to illness, and especially because they mete out their violence over years and decades—slow violence—the damage they do often persist well after that last bombs were dropped.

In spite of the Pentagon’s efforts to obscure the scale of the use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq and elsewhere as well as what amounts to obstruction of investigation into DU’s effects, Iraqi scientists and doctors, often assisted by global observers, have documented some of health and environmental damage done. The environmental and health impact has been significant and generational. In the face of extensive epidemiological and other evidence, the US military, alongside its allies that employ it in battle as well, deny the toxic dangers of DU weapons. Whatever the arguments put forward by other observers that DU’s hazardous effects are yet unproven, and there are many, claims of uncertainty are not driven by science, but by politics.[9] The evidence that DU causes health and environmental calamity is overwhelmingly understood to be true except to those who have an interest in believing otherwise.

Beyond the politically driven quest for scientific certainty around depleted uranium’s impact on Iraqi bodies and environments, much is lost. Because the impact of DU is denied by those with the power to potentially neutralize its effects, toxic DU dust is left suspended in Iraqi food systems, coated along infrastructure, lodged in the organs and bones bodies, passed on through childbirth, and left on scraps of metal destroyed in the war that themselves have become commodities exchanged in the country’s postwar economy. Iraqis in particularly affected areas come into constant contact with it. Their exposures are repeated and routine and, yet, remain unmeasured and untreated. And while experts can deny the linkage or withhold certainty about the connections between militarized toxins and affected communities, significant networks of suffering exist.

Indeed, alongside the weapons and the political economic terms of their production, use, and the veils that shroud them, the need for care in war-ravaged communities are the “other side” of these small parts of war economies. The injured and sick, particularly those who face long struggles as a result of toxic exposures, are also central to making sense of the economy of war.[10] Suffering and care, then, must also be accounted for not as the afterlife of war, but as central to our moral and economic calculations of what it involves in the first place. Like depleted uranium weapons themselves, the scale and cost of care and the struggle over health are too easily unseen and uncounted.[11]


[1] Associated Press, “56 Soldiers Hurt in Kuwait Blast,” New York Times, 12 July 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/07/12/world/56-soldiers-hurt-in-kuwait-blast.html.

[3] Thomas D. Williams, “The Depleted Uranium Threat,” Truthout, 13 August 2008, http://truth-out.org/archive/component/k2/item/79582:the-depleted-uranium-threat.

[4] For one early example such a warning, see Wayne C. Hanson, “Ecological Considerations of Depleted Uranium Munitions,” Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, United States Atomic Energy Commission, June 1974.

[5] Williams, op cit. See also, Snake River Alliance, “Tons of Waste Shipped to Idaho From Kuwait,” http://snakeriveralliance.org/tons-of-waste-shipped-to-idaho-from-kuwait/; Penny Coleman, “How 6,700 Tons of Radioactive Sand from Kuwait Ended up in Idaho,” Alternet, 16 September 2008, https://www.alternet.org/story/98950/how_6%2C700_tons_of_radioactive_sand_from_kuwait_ended_up_in_idaho.

[6] Toby Craig Jones, “America, Oil and War in the Middle East,” Journal of American History 99, no. 1 (June 2012): 208-218, https://academic.oup.com/jah/article-abstract/99/1/208/854761/America-Oil-and-War-in-the-Middle-East?redirectedFrom=fulltext.

[7] Daniel Trotta, “Iraq War Costs more than $2 trillion: Study,” Reuters, 14 March 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-war-anniversary-idUSBRE92D0PG20130314. On the cost of the Camp Doha fire, see http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2007/im_em/GeneralSession/Knudson.pdf.

[8] Samuel Oakford, “The United States Used Depleted Uranium in Syria,” Foreign Policy, 14 February 2017, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/02/14/the-united-states-used-depleted-uranium-in-syria/.

[9] Toby Craig Jones, “Toxic War and the Politics of Uncertainty in Iraq,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 46 no. 4 (October 2014).

[10] See Omar Dewachi, Ungovernable Life: Mandatory Medicine and Statecraft in Iraq (Stanford University Press, 2017).

[11] Omar Dewachi, “The Toxicity of Everyday Survival in Iraq,” Jadaliyya, August 13, 2013. http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/13537/the-toxicity-of-everyday-survival-in-iraq

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September 4, 2017 - Posted by | depleted uranium, Reference, secrets,lies and civil liberties

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