Vol II no. 12 June 10, 2003  
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Nuking Iraq

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches “Politics and the Media” at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG’s Board of Directors. His other commentaries are also available online.


We are occasionally praised for something good we have done. More frequently we are blamed for something bad we shouldn’t have done. But we never get credit for all the bad things we didn’t do. Is this fair?

In a spirit of tolerance, I’m willing to apply a looser standard to the right-wing ideologues who have set up shop in the nation’s capital, and to their cheerleaders in the increasingly shrill conservative media. So here’s my olive branch:

Let’s give credit where credit is due – the Bush team didn’t nuke Iraq.

They thought about it, and they talked about it, and they edged toward it – but they didn’t do it. Well, not exactly.

In fact, despite the concerns of most of our NATO allies, we did use depleted uranium munitions (I’ll call them DUMs, for short) in the 1991 Gulf War, then in Bosnia, and again in Bush’s 2003 war on Iraq. Radiation-related illnesses and deaths caused by our battlefield use of DUMs will plague the civilians and combatants on both sides for years to come.

But later for that. We should acknowledge that the Bush war planners stopped short of dropping the big one on Saddam. Two cheers for restraint.

Don’t think it was a no-brainer. According to military affairs analyst William M. Arkin, writing in the Los Angeles Times, a good deal of brainpower was devoted to thinking the unthinkable.

“At the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) in Omaha and inside planning cells of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Arkin wrote in January, “target lists are being scrutinized, options are being pondered and procedures are being tested to give nuclear armaments a role in the new U.S. doctrine of ‘preemption.’”

Arkin writes a regular column on military affairs, and has access to officials – including Pentagon dissidents – who confirmed that the Pentagon was tending toward what another national newspaper called “nuclear option creep.”

Two factors steered the strategists. First, the problem of mounting a credible deterrent to a regime threatened with destruction – “evil” people who were, in the planner’s scenarios at least, armed with weapons of mass destruction, and capable of any desperate act of revenge. If Saddam had WMDs, perhaps only even more dramatic WMDs would deter him from using them. Our government’s bipartisan policy of no nukes against non-nuclear countries makes an exception in the case of responding to attacks involving chemical or biological weapons.

The second factor was a practical one: perhaps only nuclear weapons would work against the really deep, “bomb-proof” bunkers we believed Saddam to have constructed. Conventional “bunker-busters” like the apocalyptic-sounding MOAB might penetrate to the bottom. But if Saddam were brewing bacteria down there, a conventional weapon might simply disperse the toxins, while a nuclear weapon would be more likely to incinerate the little buggers, along with the people who made them.

On their surface these are reasonable considerations. Or if not, they are at least understandable discussions for military planners to be engaged in. But the conversations are not taking place in an ivory tower, as hypotheticals. The talk of nuclear options is problematic on its face, and the moreso when it takes place in an environment where propaganda has impaired critical thinking, and where mendacity has become a legitimate mode of political discourse.

Back in the early ‘60s, when Khruschev and Kennedy rattled nukes over Berlin and Cuba, the self-styled “futurologist” Herman Kahn coined an expression with the title of his book, Thinking About the Unthinkable (1962). But it was his On Thermonuclear War (1961) that first rocked the establishment and, some argued, lowered the threshhold for nuclear war by treating it not like a form of madness but a policy option. (Herman Kahn became the model for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.)

In the present climate, when blind patriotism trumps intelligent discernment of political and economic causes and effects, the degraded discourse favored by the Bush administration is more than a discomfort to liberals’ sensitivities. These guys have nuclear weapons. They also possess the capacity to justify anything for at least fifteen minutes, and the effrontery to ignore and outwait the squawks of those who call them bullies or liars.

They also see themselves as confronting – or positioning you and me to confront – an “Axis of Evil,” as part of a “War on Terrorism.” They claim we are facing enemies who respond only to brute force, and disdain the complexity of traditional international relationships and commitments. Even as our best friends are alienated, our worst enemies – some of them with nukes of their own – are taunted with rhetoric, with economic weapons, and, perhaps tomorrow, with U.S. troops.

Arkin expressed the concern of many U.S. military and civilians alike, that considering a nuclear option “moves nuclear weapons out of their long-established special category and lumps them in with all the other military options – from psychological warfare, covert operations and Special Forces to air power in all its other forms.”

I haven’t seen a recent poll on the subject, but I’d bet that a majority of Americans now accept that Bush’s war was spurred on by tactical untruths – most people will no doubt prefer the term “exaggerations” to “lies” – spread by practically everyone in the top ranks of his administration. The two biggest whoppers were that Saddam and Osama were partners in crime, co-planners of 9-11; and that Saddam was bristling with weapons of mass destructions, in horrific and specific quantities itemized by the Bush team.

We know better now. U.S. policy choices established Osama bin Laden – an outspoken critic of Saddam – as the patron saint of suicide bombers. And the only nuclear weapons in Iraq were deployed by “coalition” troops.

But, for a few weeks this spring, a majority of Americans trusted their leaders’ warnings and received those warnings unfiltered by a constructively skeptical media, and feared the worst. At that time, believe it or not, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that “Most Americans favor using nuclear weapons against Iraq if Saddam Hussein attacks U.S. military forces with chemical or biological weapons.” Never mind that the people who would “confirm” that Saddam had committed such a crime would be the same people advocating for the use of nukes.

Keep in mind, too, that these were folks of a preemptive mindset. They outlined and then acted on a carefully-reasoned rationale for unilateral, preemptive aggression. So the spectre of the “first strike” – all but unthinkable since we retaliated (for Pearl Harbor) with nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – was, for a while at least, on the table.

As Arkin writes, “the Bush administration’s decision to actively plan for possible preemptive use of such weapons, especially as so-called bunker busters, against Iraq represents a significant lowering of the nuclear threshold. It rewrites the ground rules of nuclear combat in the name of fighting terrorism.”

What about the nuclear weapons we did unleash?

The United States and Great Britain routinely use offensive and defensive weapons manufactured from depleted uranium. As Scott Peterson writes in the Christian Science Monitor, in our brief 2003 attack we left no less than 75 tons of radioactive munitions in Iraq:

    At a roadside produce stand on the outskirts of Baghdad, business is brisk for Latifa Khalaf Hamid. Iraqi drivers pull up and snap up fresh bunches of parsley, mint leaves, dill, and onion stalks.

    But Ms. Hamid’s stand is just four paces away from a burnt-out Iraqi tank, destroyed by – and contaminated with – controversial American depleted-uranium (DU) bullets. Local children play “throughout the day” on the tank, Hamid says, and on another one across the road.

    No one has warned the vendor in the faded, threadbare black gown to keep the toxic and radioactive dust off her produce. The children haven’t been told not to play with the radioactive debris. They gather around as a Geiger counter carried by a visiting reporter starts singing when it nears a DU bullet fragment no bigger than a pencil eraser. It registers nearly 1,000 times normal background radiation levels on the digital readout.

The Associated Press points out that medical problems still result from the use of DUMs in the 1991 Gulf War, and that “Iraqi doctors and scientists – and the United Nations to a lesser extent – are worried that birth defects and childhood cancers could surge in the aftermath of the latest conflict.”

DUMs are manufactured from the radioactive waste product of nuclear plants. Much more dense than steel or lead, depleted uranium is used to make unstoppable armor-piercing bullets for use against tanks. Sandwiched inside non-radioactive plates, it's also used for armor against the enemy’s anti-tank weapons.

The Monitor conducted an independent investigation of four sites in Baghdad “and found significant levels of radioactive contamination ...In the first partial Pentagon disclosure of the amount of DU used in Iraq, a US Central Command spokesman told the Monitor that A-10 Warthog aircraft – the same planes that shot at the Iraqi planning ministry – fired 300,000 bullets. The normal combat mix for these 30-mm rounds is five DU bullets to 1 – a mix that would have left about 75 tons of DU in Iraq.”

Pentagon officials claim the radioactivity left by DUMs is “relatively harmless and a necessary part of modern warfare,” Peterson writes. But a U.S. soldier was quoted as saying, “After we shoot something with DU, we’re not supposed to go around it, due to the fact that it could cause cancer.”

“Six American vehicles struck with DU ‘friendly fire’ in 1991 were deemed to be too contaminated to take home, and were buried in Saudi Arabia. Of 16 more brought back to a purpose-built facility in South Carolina, six had to be buried in a low-level radioactive waste dump,” according to the story.

The radioactive material in DUMs has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. They thus become the most enduring aspect of the American legacy in Iraq.

But for the moment let’s not concentrate on the bad things we might have done. Let’s give credit where credit is due for the bad things left undone. Postwar Iraq may not be radiation-free, but we didn’t drop the big one.

© 2004 Alton Miller
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