In these dreary, cold days following the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia, some may recall with uneasiness the Cassini scandal of 1997. Cassini is one of NASA’s larger deep space probes. To boost its endurance on its 7-year voyage to Saturn, NASA’s engineers fitted it with an onboard plutonium power plant—which prompted environmental advocacy groups to lobby against the mission. Were a mishap to destroy the probe during launch, they argued, its radioactive cargo could shower back down on Earth to devastating effect. Plutonium is the world’s most poisonous known substance; its lethal dose is measured in micrograms. Cassini went aloft with 72 pounds of it on board.
The Cassini project met resistance mainly because it is a civilian mission, so its details are public knowledge. Military projects associated with the Space Shuttle are a different matter. Because many military Shuttle missions are jealously classified, it’s hard to know whether a given Shuttle flight has a military dimension—or whether this might involve the sort of payload that brought so much bad press to the Cassini endeavor. Any particular Shuttle mission, in other words, may be secretly ferrying plutonium or other potent carcinogens back and forth from orbit. In theory, at least, this includes STS-107—whose disintegration on February 1 has scattered particles and debris over at least two southern states.
If a disaster such as befell STS-107 were ever to release plutonium among the population, chances are pretty good that the government wouldn’t let the American people know about it right away—at least if one considers the sad precedent laid out in The Hidden Wars of Desert Storm. A brief but well-researched and often horrifying documentary on the 1991 Persian Gulf attack, Hidden Wars takes up, among many other issues, the Army’s use of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and Kuwait, and the government’s subsequent efforts to cover up DU’s debilitating effects on Gulf war veterans and Iraqi civilians alike.
Hidden Wars broaches the subject of depleted uranium using the same straightforward but effective formula the movie relies on throughout: talking-head commentary is interspersed with archival footage of Desert Storm and shots taken on the streets of Basra and Baghdad. Through this last, we learn of the mounting human catastrophe in Iraq, which has reached near-biblical proportions since the Gulf attack led to a ruthless 12-year regime of economic sanctions and perpetual “low-intensity” warfare. Civilian casualties—from starvation, radiation poisoning, disease, and other ailments related to the nation’s damaged ecology and decimated infrastructure—number more than one million, by some estimates. Another full-scale bombardment will compound this already wretched situation immeasurably.
“But the losers [in the ongoing Gulf siege] aren’t just the distant populations of the Mideast,” actor John Hurt narrates, as attention shifts from the war’s aftermath in Iraq to its lingering effects in the U.S. According to the title card that follows, mysterious illnesses afflict Desert Storm veterans at alarming rates. Of 696,628 troops who served, 183,629 have filed for help with disabilities—a more than 1 in 4 proportion, among the highest of any war in U.S. history—and “9,572 have died” as of New Year’s Day 2000.
Much of the movie’s case concerning DU revolves around Dr. Doug Rokke. An ex-Defense Department contractor, Rokke attributes the Pentagon’s prevarications about DU to fears that a torrent of liability suits will follow if the truth ever becomes widely known. Common sense should have told the Pentagon that DU is hazardous, Rokke explains; it is derived from nuclear waste and contains traces of plutonium.
His claims alternate with those of National Gulf War Research Center president Paul Sullivan, who cites studies on depleted uranium to argue that particulate DU settles in vital and reproductive organs when it is inhaled, and is passed from mother to child in the womb.
According to Gulf war veterans’ advocate Dan Fahey, by 1990 at least one Army contractor had warned the military about DU’s radiological and toxicological effects on the human body.* So there was reason for them to pass on warnings to American soldiers during Desert Storm. But Gulf War troops, largely unaware of the risks, collected contaminated objects on the battlefield to bring home as souvenirs, rode in M1 tanks armored with DU, and even camped in uranium-polluted areas for as long as two months. Today, the semen of some Gulf War vets contains uranium and they suffer higher rates of birth abnormalities, leukemia, and testicular cancer than the general population.
But their troubles pale in comparison with those of Iraqi civilians. An Iraqi medical doctor at Basra General Hospital describes some of these. DU’s effects are more severe in people with weaker constitutions or immune systems, such as children, the elderly, and the infirm. Many of the doctor’s patients are infants or very young children, whose diseases often go untreated because the medicine they need falls under the liberal “dual use” provisions of the U.N. sanctions.
Unsurprisingly, the movie is full of grisly scenes appropriate to its subject matter: vast fields of charred and dismembered corpses, which littered the Kuwaiti and Iraqi desert during the Gulf war but never made it onto U.S. TV; Saddam Hussein’s purging of political opposition by mass firing squad; emaciated youngsters who pick through the bombed-out rubble that still clutters Iraq’s major cities. But the birth defects are the worst of it.
Directors Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brohy spend much time following the doctor at the Basra hospital on his rounds, as he tries to ease the suffering of prematurely born babies in incubators, infants with distended bellies, teenagers whose limbs have taken the shape of the bones inside them. But even Ungerman and Brohy flinch from the war’s most bizarre harvest, the stillborn. These we see only in a series of mercifully brief, fading images: lifeless fetuses that emerged distorted from the womb, swollen and translucent, so misshapen they are hard to recognize as human.
DU isn’t Hidden Wars’ only concern but it gets the most emphasis, taking up the lion’s share of the movie’s scant 64-minute running time and bringing the film to its unsettling conclusion. DU is bound to be used in virtually unlimited quantities in any upcoming Gulf War sequel, and the Bush administration’s unbridled commitment to the militarization of space “exploration” ensures that more plutonium-bearing payloads will be shot into orbit in the coming years, even if most of us never find out about them.
Americans under the flight paths of these missions will be at risk for alien malignancies such as the doctors in Basra and Baghdad have seen, half a world away. Radioactive poison is a legacy of laissez-faire capitalism’s most guilty indulgence—endless post-modern warfare—and isn’t merely being exported to foreign lands most Americans have never seen. It’s coming home.
*In The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military-Industrial Complex, Dr. Helen Caldicott names one study concerning DU’s tendency to accumulate in vital organs, the—brace yourself for some serious bureaucratese—April 1997 Annual Report to the Congress of the Research Working Group of the Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board (http://www.va.gov/resdev/report3.htm). She also cites Dan Fahey’s report, “Depleted Uranium Weapons,” on what was known about the hazards of DU in the months leading up to the Gulf War.
Dr. Caldicott writes that the Defense Department has acknowledged the hazards of depleted uranium at least once: in a January 1998 report that states, “combat troops or those carrying on support functions generally did not know that DU-contaminated equipment, such as enemy vehicles struck by DU rounds, required special handling…. The failure to properly disseminate information to troops at all levels may have resulted in thousands of unnecessary exposures.” (See The New Nuclear Danger, page 155.)