It seems like an obvious point that if you want to help a country fight a war, you should try to do so in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good — say, by exposing its people and food sources to toxic ammunition with a track record of long-term negative health effects.
Not so for the governments most ardently backing Ukraine’s war effort it seems, with the Wall Street Journal recently reporting that Joe Biden’s administration is set to supply Kyiv with depleted uranium rounds for the Abrams tanks it approved in January. If the supplies go through, the United States will become the second country to provide Ukrainian forces with the toxic ammunition, after the UK government made headlines for doing so this past March.
Given that both are now going to be sending the rounds to Kyiv, we’re likely to hear this case being made more and more, both by these governments themselves and by the small army of commentators and weapon-maker-funded think tank experts recruited to fight the “information war” over this conflict.
We should be very suspicious. There’s a reason why the use of such shells is so controversial and widely rejected, and why their use over the years by the US, British, and Russian militaries has been so widely criticized.
The US Environmental Protection Agency explicitly says that depleted uranium “is dangerous when it is inside your body” and that it’s a “serious health hazard” when ingested or inhaled, and it urges Americans to get as far away as possible even from firing ranges where the substance is still used in ammunition. The US Department of Veterans Affairs likewise calls it “a potential health hazard if it enters the body.”
The UK government itself recognized the health risks in the past, even as it handed the rounds to its soldiers to use in foreign wars. A leaked 1997 British Ministry of Defence (MoD) paper caused embarrassment when, in the face of its minister’s denials about depleted uranium’s dangers, it stated that exposure “has been shown to increase the risks of developing lung, lymph and brain cancers.” Despite dismissing it as a discredited paper written by a trainee, two years later, as the UK prepared to invade Iraq, it handed out information cards to its troops warning them that depleted uranium “has the potential to cause ill health.”
Today the MoD cites research from the Royal Society, the UK’s leading national scientific academy, as proof that the health and environmental impact of depleted uranium in Ukraine “is likely to be low.” Yet as Declassified UK has pointed out, not only has the Royal Society not published anything on the topic since 2002, charging that it’s not “an active area of policy research,” but it actually rebuked the Pentagon when it tried to pull this same trick during the Iraq War in 2003. At the time, the Royal Society, described by the Guardian as “incensed,” told the paper that troops and civilians were at short- and long-term danger from the substance, especially children.
That cutoff date for the Royal Society’s research is significant, since the US coalition forces’ liberal use of depleted uranium in Iraq, in an estimated more than three hundred thousand rounds, was followed by an explosion in cancers and birth defects in the country, particularly in Fallujah. One study of more than seven hundred households in the city likened it to the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing — worse, even, since Fallujah saw a markedly bigger increase in leukemia than was documented after the atomic bombing. One of its authors called it “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”
So it’s no wonder that other, friendly governments have routinely objected to the presence of depleted uranium in their countries. A leaked diplomatic cable showed that the discovery of such rounds being used by US forces on a Kuwaiti base sparked a minor diplomatic incident between the country and Washington in 2009. The same year, the Belgian parliament unanimously voted to ban investment in depleted uranium weapons.
A public outcry led the MoD to stop test-firing the rounds on a military range in Scotland in 2013. After what one South Korean legislator described as an “endless debate,” the country last year finally returned 1.3 million of the rounds to the United States that it had been storing in a warehouse. Even weapons maker Lockheed Martin, not exactly known for putting moral concerns over profit, ceased production of the stuff shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, only saying that the decision came down to “sustainability” and not financial reasons.
In fact, the UN General Assembly has adopted resolutions in both 2020 and 2022 calling for raising awareness about depleted uranium’s health and environmental effects, and to work to protect against and address those harmful effects — resolutions that the vast majority of the world’s nations voted for. Only five countries didn’t both times: France, Israel, the UK, the United States, and Liberia.
The relative lack of outcry about the Biden administration’s decision stands in stark contrast to the outrage whipped up the very same week over Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book set in Russia. Even though Gilbert’s book takes place a century ago, has nothing to do with war or certainly its glorification, and is simply about a Russian family living in exile from the Soviet government, the mere act of setting a story geographically in Russia was declared such an unspeakable crime in the current context that she ended up pulling the book.
Gilbert’s book wouldn’t have had any impact whatsoever on the Ukrainians suffering from Moscow’s invasion one way or the other. But there’s a very real risk Ukrainians could suffer terrible long-term consequences from these depleted uranium rounds, on top of everything else they’re going through. That those who most loudly proclaim their solidarity with Ukrainians have little to nothing to say about the latter says a lot about the perverse nature of US discourse on this war.