However, the lessons of Vietnam and Agent Orange were learnt and committed to the books of history to appear as a brief note in a school history class. But were the lessons really learnt or just acknowledged in an attempt to make the mistakes go away?
Since 1991, in the first Gulf War, the United States and the United Kingdom (at least) have been using Depleted Uranium weaponry and the story has the potential to follow the same path as that of Agent Orange.
Depleted Uranium (DU) is the by-product of processing Uranium ore for use in nuclear reactors (and weapons) and from re-processing spent reactor rods. It is 60 percent as radioactive as natural uranium and it is estimated that America has stockpiles of between 480 million to 680.4 million kilograms (1.058 billion - 1.5 billion pounds) in hazardous waste storage sites. Like all nuclear waste it is very expensive to dispose of. However, it has unique properties that make it ideal for bullet tips and tank armour at a cheap price and in high quantity.
DU is a very heavy, dense metal. It is 2.4 times as heavy as Iron. If a warhead made of steel (an Iron based alloy) was replaced with the same weight of DU it would be half its cross-section area and being that much thinner doubles the warheads penetrative effect. It also has a similar density to Tungsten, a metal used in many "kinetic energy weapons", that is, a weapon that does not contain an explosive for penetration purposes, i.e. a bullet. DU is also the second hardest common metal to Tungsten. All these qualities make it almost as useful as Tungsten for use in weapon systems and when you consider that there is a lot of it lying in storage its is easy to imagine why it might be used over its rival metal. However, DU has one property that elevates it way above other possible metals. It is pyrophoric. This means that it ignites (at 500°C, generated when it hit its target) and burns (at some 2000°C) in ordinary everyday conditions. This not only adds massively to its penetration power but also means it is likely to ignite fuel or shells in a tank or storage depot for example.
So far then, if you must wage wars, DU has all the properties to get weapon manufacturers, traders and government officials drooling. Except it is still radioactive and, as you might imagine, firing your nuclear waste at your enemies has its downsides.
When a DU tipped shell or bullet hits a target and ignites it produces a fine black cloud of dust; a radioactive cloud of dust. The larger particles in this dust can settle and give the appearance of soot but more than 60% of the dust is invisible to the human eye and can be easily carried by the wind and be absorbed by rain clouds, etc. In the United States DU contamination was recorded up to 25 miles from one manufacturing site. The main form of radiation emitted from Depleted Uranium is alpha radiation, high energy but with a range of only a few millimeters. As a result it is largely harmless if slight precautions are taken, i.e. wearing gloves while carrying shells and bullets. However, if inhaled into the lungs the dangers are catastrophically greater, and as a dust cloud it is not hard to comprehend how this could occur. Inhaled particles get into the lymph and blood systems, bones and reproductive organs. The alpha radiation will then permanently damage nearby tissue. While research on the effects on humans is worryingly low (or at least unreleased) research involving mice and rats has shown that DU can result in cancerous tumors and genetic mutations, and pass from mother to unborn child, resulting in birth defects. Information collected in Basra hospital from 1991 to 2000 shows massive increases in leukemia's and other malignancies among children, some having increased as much as 600%. There are other theories as to these sudden rises but none can provide satisfactory evidence for such great rises in illnesses. The British government has even suggested these statistics can be entirely blamed on Saddam Hussein's mistreatment of his people, yet there are no claims of such a nature in Iraq.
However, there is other evidence that DU is not as harmless as is claimed. Many U.S. soldiers who have served in the various wars involving the United States since the first Gulf War have been left needing constant medical attention for a wide array of grim illnesses and many claim it was due to exposure to Depleted Uranium without prior warning when searching old battle sites for "trophies" and "souvenirs". Their claims are still unrecognized by the U.S. government. In fact, the U.S. government has carried out tests on a pathetic 32 soldiers in its answer to the questions they faced. In the test they used outdated and obsolete testing methods and as a result concluded that there was no danger. The effort on behalf of the U.S. and U.K. governments to either question or acknowledge complaints has been nothing short of farcical. There have been numerous well supported motions in the U.N. to ban DU weapons but the U.K., U.S. and France, three of the permanent members of the Security Council, have constantly rejected these calls.
The soldier's plight in turn highlights the dangers to the population of Iraq. Children are at risk from simply playing in areas where a tank or truck has been destroyed, the same goes for anyone else who may be in the area. DU has also been used in varying amounts in the Balkans and Afghanistan. It is estimated that the U.S. alone fired 118 tonnes of DU munitions in the latest Iraq war and 259 tonnes in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991. Additionally, while the U.S. and U.K. deny any ill effects of Depleted Uranium, the United Nations Environment Program identified 311 polluted sites in Iraq in 2005. The cleaning of these sites cannot commence until the fighting has ended which seems to very a long, long way off yet. And in case you were wondering, DU has a half-life of almost 4.5 billion years, that is 4.5 billion years until it is half as radioactive as it is today, so it isn't going anywhere soon.
The official reason for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (or at least one of them) was to topple the régime of Saddam Hussein and install order, democracy and freedom to the people of Iraq. All that has been brought is chaos and destruction, crisis after crisis and the ever increasing possibility of all-out civil war and the shattering of the country. Added to this they are polluting areas of Iraq in the most serious way. This does not constitute even the most distorted definition of the word freedom. While Depleted Uranium is not considered as a form of nuclear weaponry its has many of the hall marks on a smaller scale and its blasé use by governments of the world only underlines their complete disregard for the "ordinary people", workers of the world and even the soldiers who are doing their bidding. There is the very real prospect that we are facing an almost carbon copy of the Agent Orange events, it may take years for the truth to surface but eventually the isolated voices will grow to such volume that governments will have to take note and research their actions. By then it will be too late. Cancers and birth defects don't vanish with government apologies and compensation. More people need to be made aware of the untold crimes of the imperialists in their self-righteous wars to save humanity because, in the end, their may not be much of humanity left to save.