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A Vet Watches Rerun of a Bad War

While the military sings the praises of depleted uranium rounds, a veteran of the first Gulf war says civilians and troops will bear the cost of the Defense Department's lies.
 
 
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It's a surreal fantasy. Here I am again: Dick Cheney and Colin Powell on television talking about Saddam Hussein. Military pundits arguing over strategy. Protesters accused of aiding the enemy.

There's only one difference this time -- instead of waiting it out on the border with Iraq, I'm glued to CNN.

Imagine if in the summer of 1985, President Ronald Reagan had announced that Vietnam had been remiss in its international obligations. In the face of international opposition and internal dissent, he ordered the U.S. Armed Forces to "liberate" Saigon from its Communist masters. Sound like a surreal fantasy? Imagine the reaction of Vietnam veterans. Some might be cheering it on; after all, we need to go back and finish what we started. Most, perhaps, would feel sadness, resignation, even horror.

That's how I feel, every time I see the troops over in Kuwait, every time I see CNN swooning over all of the exciting weapons and hardware, every time my old unit: the 4th Battalion, 64th Armor "Tuskers" is in the media because they are back in Iraq once again.

On the eve of a bad rerun of a bad war, the surreal fantasy played out again, like the same old bad movie our President loves to cite. This time it was the Pentagon, last Friday, describing the delights of the depleted uranium ammunition we are preparing to fling about the desert.

Dr. Michael Kilpatrick of the Pentagon helped preside over the festivities. Dr. Kilpatrick was part of the investigation into Gulf War veterans' illnesses by the Pentagon, which spent $140 million on a PR effort to convince the public that no veterans were sick, in spite of medical evidence to the contrary. Inspires confidence, doesn't it? It should. We can trust them, of course we can. After all, it's the Pentagon.

The fact that the Pentagon's own studies have found cancer in rats, among other problems, is simply brushed aside. The terrible toll in childhood leukemia, birth defects and other problems in southern Iraq is passed off by saying "Saddam didn't allow a World Health Organization study of the population."

Kilpatrick and Col. James Naughton speak in glowing terms of the advantage depleted uranium rounds give Americans in combat. I was a tank crewman in the Gulf, so this is a subject I can relate to, having personally loaded two dozen or so depleted uranium SABOT rounds and sent them into targets in southern Iraq. It is popularly repeated in the media and by the military that depleted uranium gave American forces an incomparable advantage on the battlefield and therefore, in a indirect way, saved lives.

However, according to a report recently released by Dan Fahey, an expert on depleted uranium, only 500 of the 3,700 Iraqi tanks destroyed in the Gulf were destroyed by depleted uranium rounds. In fact, the real danger for enemy tanks was the Maverick missile.

One of the real tragedies of the Gulf War is that the majority of exposures to depleted uranium were completely preventable. The primary danger from DU occurs when it strikes a hard target, when a substantial portion of the depleted uranium burns up into a fine, respirable dust. According to a 1998 report issued by the National Gulf War Resource Center, as many as 400,000 troops passed through areas potentially contaminated with depleted uranium. A former President of the NGWRC who did not fight in any battles, but visited a frontline battlefield some days after the cease fire, had his picture taken next to a tank that had been hit by a DU round. Seven years later, he still had detectable levels of uranium in his urine.

The Pentagon, then as now, insisted that depleted uranium munitions are perfectly safe, and did not warn the troops of basic techniques to avoid contamination. Quite the opposite: The military ferried rear-echelon troops up to the front for "battlefield tours." At the same time, neither the Iraqi government, nor the coalition, made any attempt to clean up the battlefield and remove contaminated tanks and other equipment. As a result, children play on contaminated tanks, and salvaged parts and scrap metal have made their way into the local, devastated economy.

And so it goes. Another war, another fight in the Gulf. I don't know how this war is going to turn out; no one does. Uncertainty and risk are the only guarantee in war. Of one thing I have no doubt: It is the civilians and the troops who will bear the cost of the Defense Department's lies -- friends of mine who are still in uniform today, who are back in the Middle East. They will live or die based on their skill and speed and luck, and possibly our prayers. I'm afraid for them, and I'm afraid for all of us.

Charles Sheehan-Miles is executive director of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and author of the novel, "Prayer at Rumayla" .