Our Latest Wars Are Killing a Lot More Americans than You Think

Mr. Johnson is author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire and, forthcoming, The Sorrows of Empire: How the Americans Lost Their Country.

Most young Americans who enlist in our all-volunteer armed forces -- roughly four out of five -- specifically choose non-combat jobs, becoming computer technicians, personnel managers, shipping clerks, truck mechanics, weather forecasters, intelligence analysts, cooks, or forklift drivers, among the many other duties that carry a low risk of contact with an enemy. They often enlist because they have failed to find similar work in the civilian economy and thus take refuge in the military's long-established system of state socialism -- steady paychecks, decent housing, medical and dental benefits, job training, and the possibility of a college education. The mother of one such recruit recently commented on her 19-year-old daughter, who will soon become an Army intelligence analyst. She was proud but also cynical:"Wealthy people don't go into the military or take risks because why should they? They already got everything handed to them."

These recruits do not expect to be shot at. Thus it was a shock to the rank-and-file last month when Iraqi guns opened up on an Army supply convoy, killing eight and taking another six prisoner, including supply clerk Jessica Lynch of Palestine, West Virginia. The Army's response has been,"You don't have to be in combat arms [branches of the military] to close with and kill the enemy." But what the Pentagon is not saying to the Private Lynches and their families is that they stand a very good chance of dying or being catastrophically disabled precisely because they chose the U.S. military as a route of social mobility.

There are serious unintended consequences to our most recent"no contact" or"painless dentistry" wars that contradict the Pentagon's claims of low casualties. The most important is the malady that goes by the name"Gulf War Syndrome," a potentially deadly medical disorder that first appeared among combat veterans of the 1990-1991 Gulf War. Just as the effects of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War were first explained away by the Pentagon as"post-traumatic stress disorder,"" combat fatigue," or"shell shock," so the Bush administration is now playing down the potential toxic side effects of the ammunition now being widely used by its armed forces. The implications are devastating, not just for America's adversaries, or civilians caught in their country-turned-battlefield, but for American forces themselves (and even possibly their future offspring).

The first Iraq War produced four classes of casualties -- killed in action, wounded in action, killed in accidents (including"friendly fire"), and injuries and illnesses that appeared only after the end of hostilities. During 1990 and 1991, some 696,778 individuals served in the Persian Gulf as elements of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. Of these 148 were killed in battle, 467 were wounded in action, and 145 were killed in accidents, producing a total of 760 casualties, quite a low number given the scale of the operations.

However, as of May 2002, the Veterans Administration (VA) reported that an additional 8,306 soldiers had died and 159,705 were injured or ill as a result of service-connected"exposures" suffered during the war. Even more alarmingly, the VA revealed that 206,861 veterans, almost a third of General Schwarzkopf's entire army, had filed claims for medical care, compensation, and pension benefits based on injuries and illnesses caused by combat in 1991. After reviewing the cases, the agency has classified 168,011 applicants as"disabled veterans." In light of these deaths and disabilities, the casualty rate for the first Gulf War is actually a staggering 29.3%.

Dr. Doug Rokke, a former Army colonel and professor of environmental science at Jacksonville University, was in charge of the military's environmental clean-up following the first Gulf War. Dr. Rokke notes that many thousands of American troops have been based in and around Kuwait since 1990, and according to his calculations, between August 1990 and May 2002, a total of 262,586 soldiers became"disabled veterans" and 10,617 have died. His numbers produce a casualty rate for the whole decade of 30.8%.

A significant probable factor in these deaths and disabilities is depleted uranium (DU) ammunition, although this is a hotly contested proposition. Some researchers, often paid for by the Pentagon, argue that depleted uranium could not possibly be the cause of these war-related maladies and that a more likely explanation is dust and debris from the blowing up of Saddam Hussein's chemical and biological weapons factories in 1991 in the wake of the first Gulf War, or perhaps a" cocktail" of particles from DU ammunition, the destruction of nerve gas bunkers, and polluted air from burning oil fields. But the evidence -- including abnormal clusters of childhood cancers and deformities in Iraq and also evidently in the areas of Kosovo where, in 1999, we used depleted-uranium weapons in our air war against the Serbians -- points primarily toward DU. Moreover, simply by insisting on using such weaponry, the Pentagon is deliberately flouting a 1996 United Nations resolution that classifies DU ammunition as an illegal weapon of mass destruction.

DU, or Uranium-238, is a waste product of power-generating nuclear reactors. It is used in projectiles like tank shells and cruise missiles because it is 1.7 times denser than lead, burns as it flies, and penetrates armor easily, but it breaks up and vaporizes on impact --which makes it potentially very deadly. Each shell fired by an American tank includes ten pounds of DU. Such warheads are essentially"dirty bombs," not very radioactive individually but nonetheless suspected of being capable in quantity of causing serious illnesses and birth defects.

In 1991, U.S. forces fired a staggering 944,000 DU rounds in Kuwait and Iraq. The Pentagon admits that it left behind at a bare minimum 320 metric tons of DU on the battlefield. One study of Gulf War veterans showed that their children had a higher possibility of being born with severe deformities, including missing eyes, blood infections, respiratory problems, and fused fingers. Dr. Rokke fears that because the military relied more heavily on DU munitions in the second Iraq War than in the first, postwar casualties may be even greater. When he sees TV images of unprotected soldiers and Iraqi civilians driving past burning Iraqi trucks destroyed by tank fire or inspecting buildings hit by missiles, he suspects that they are being poisoned by DU. (The Pentagon has since sacked him for criticizing NATO commanders for not adequately protecting their troops in areas where DU ammunition was used, such as Kosovo in 1999.)

Young Americans being seduced into the armed forces these days are quite literally making themselves into" cannon fodder," even if they have been able to secure non-combat jobs. Before we begin to celebrate how few American casualties there were in the brief Iraq war, we might pause to consider the future. The numbers of Americans killed and maimed from Gulf War II are only beginning to be toted up. The full count will not be known for at least a decade. The fact that the U.S. high command continues to rely on such weaponry for warfare is precisely why the world needs an International Criminal Court and why the United States should be liable under its jurisdiction. Because of its potential dangers and because the alarm has been raised (even if the Pentagon refuses to acknowledge this), the use of DU ammunition should already be considered a war crime – one that may also destroy the user in a painfully crippling way.


David Wood,"Shaky Economy Alters Equations of Risk in Today's Military," San Diego Union-Tribune, April 27, 2003; Doug Rokke,"Gulf War Casualties," September 30, 2002, on line at <www.rense.com/general29/gulf.htm>;"UK to Aid DU Removal," BBC News, April 23, 2003; Frances Williams,"Clean-up of Pollution Urged to Reduce Health Risks" and Vanessa Houlder,"Allied Troops 'Risk Uranium Exposure,'" Financial Times, April 25, 2003; Steven Rosenfeld,"Gulf War Syndrome, The Sequel," TomPaine.com, April 8, 2003; Susanna Hecht,"Uranium Warheads May Leave Both Sides a Legacy of Death for Decades," Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2003; and Neil Mackay,"U.S. Forces' Use of Depleted Uranium Is 'Illegal,'" Glasgow Sunday Herald, March 30, 2003.

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

Copyright Chalmers Johnson

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More Comments:

Stephen Kriz - 5/20/2003

Just wondering, Jim?

If you are so cocksure that DU is not a problem, maybe you would like to volunteer your own children to play around it for a few weeks, the way the children of Iraq do?

Firing our radioactive waste at anyone is any egregious crime against humanity and Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, Perle, Feth, Tommy Franks and all of the others who knowingly engage in this practice should be tried as war criminals.

Alec Lloyd - 5/14/2003

I wasn't really trying. I put as much effort into it as the article deserved.

Military duty is harzardous. People are injured in training all the time. For paratroopers (for example) a 10 percent injury rate per jump is normal. Over time, these veterans will claim disability.

The article gives no context, no breakdown, simply a bunch of numbers designed to look scary.

Gus Moner - 5/13/2003

Assuming your contradiction holds water does not automatically lead to the assumption you make that "the rest of his article shows the same lack of regard for basic research."

It mattes not what the rates where for other wars, they still are a shocking 29%. Minimise that for the 29% afflicted.

They could have been in contact with the material anywhere along the supply chain.

Inded the fumes could have played a role. So what? They're still ill.

I think you can do better than this rebuttal.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/13/2003

I'm still trying to figure out how one can flout (disobey) a non-binding Chapter 6 resolution. I think I liked Johnson better when he was promoting the Japanese model for our emulation -- he was just as wrong then, but at least it fell ostensibly within his field of expertise.

Wesley Smart - 5/13/2003


Well put.

Alec Lloyd - 5/12/2003

Mr. Johnson clearly has never been through basic training. He states:

"These recruits do not expect to be shot at."

Actually, they do. I went through basic training with support personnel; the closest thing to a combat branch in my company was a fellow who was going to rig parachutes. The rest were musicians, nurses, truck drivers and air conditioner repairmen.

The one thing constantly driven home was "there is no front line." That is why every army soldier goes through infantry-style basic training.

I can only assume the rest of his article shows the same lack of regard for basic research.

What, for example, are the disability rates for Vietnam veterans ten years after the fact? Or, for that matter, those who served in Panama or Korea?

Surely Mr. Johnson can provide us with truly damning statistics proving an airtight link to the use of DU and the vague illnesses he describes?

Also, what were the causes of death over that decade? It may come as a shock to some, but last I heard, being the military was a dangerous profession. People even die in peacetime accidents—many unrelated to military duty.

What were the locations of that third of the Desert Storm army that has fallen ill? What were the nature of the disabilities? Only a small percentage of the total force was in the combat zone. How could they be exposed to a material if they weren’t anywhere near it? And might not the fumes of a thousand oil fires have played a small part in any illnesses they may have developed?

Mr. Johnson’s article tells us much about his motivations, but nothing about the threat of DU.

Jim Williams - 5/12/2003

Mr. Johnson should check out his facts with radiation experts before he goes off half-cocked, and not just with a guy fired by the DoD for incompetence.

These apparently damning statistics about Gulf War casualties(they fall into Mark Twain's "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics" category) are patently meaningless without comparative information and more specifics. The article neglects to say what sort of VA claims Gulf-war vets made or why they got their pensions. Many Gulf War vets I know received partial disability pensions due to injuries - knees, backs, etc. People whose hearing got worse while in the military can even get a pension. It is also not clear to me from the article that these pension requests (ranging from a 10% to a total disability) all derive from war-related activities. A guy I know who was shot at Mogadishu later got a disability pension not for that wound but for destroying his knees in subsequent Special Forces training.

For comparative purposes, the article's author should state the normal rate of disability pensions/VA visits for soldiers in peacetime and also discuss the seriousness of the cases, just as the rates of deaths and cancers need to be compared to general rates for those of similar age and activities and locations.

For instance, I visited the VA when I was in grad school since I got free dental care for two years after my ETS. I wonder if I am now considered by Johnson as a Vietnam-era casualty. Perhaps Johnson should write up post-Vietnam war dental tartar as a serious service-related disability.

I have talked with an expert on the impact of radioactive waste, including uranium ore, on humans. He informs me that uranium oxides produced by burning uranium are insoluble, indicating almost no chemical absorption of uranium dust by bodies. The levels of radiation from depleted uranium are so low that you'd have to eat it as a key long-term element in your diet to get a significant dose. Even then, it would be about as dangerous as working in a fertilizer faculty (a key ingredient for fertilizers comes from an ore with traces of uranium), yet epidemiological studies of fertilizer workers indicate no evident danger. Airborne dust will not do the trick, unless people deliberately linger in intense smoke from a uranium fire for days. He calculated as a theoretical maximum possible dose from a DU fire 8.5 millirems (not seriously harmful in a one-time event) - and that's assuming that all dust in the smoke was respirable and stayed in the lungs. In reality, large particles probably wouldn't make it that far, while most small particles would be breathed out. The residue from firing DU rounds is not going to produce such a concentration. Fumes from gun barrels are mostly discharged outside of the tanks/aircraft, so a much lower dose is probable there - perhaps equivalent to the danger of hiking and camping on granite mountains. Furthermore (as in the case of "dirty weapons"), uranium dust is so heavy that it settles out of the air very rapidly. If it ain't radiation doing it or chemical processes doing it, then it ain't done by depleted uranium.

If anyone wishes to make their own calculations, the Department of Energy has a radiation threat calculator (RESRAD - Residual Radiation) at http://www.ead.anl.gov for caluculating the threat of chronic exposure to DU.

I think the green left realizes that uranium and radiation evoke a visceral response from their true believers and thus tries to score cheap political points by repeating this argument. In other words, many such alarmists are bold-faced liars. Unfortunately, we find many such "spin-doctors" on all sides of the political spectrum today - such as right-wing attempts to connect abortion with breast cancer. Superficially, they're plausible, until you start to examine the statistical validity of the argument.

If writers like these sincerely believe the propaganda they spout, they are rash, naive, scientifically illiterate, illogical, and/or too lazy to check their facts, instead of boldfaced liars. Historians especially have the obligation to consider evidence from all perspectives.

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