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Depleted uranium -- made in USA


“If they do these things in the green wood, what will they do in the dry?” (Luke 23:31)

Recall that Jesus spoke these words to the “daughters of Jerusalem” as he carried the cross. Then, he went on to his execution.

It’s Dec. 31, 1999, as I write from my jail cell in Towson, Md. One looks to tomorrow, the new century and the new millennium with gratitude and hope. But what prepares us for this new time? Who will remake tomorrow’s world and with what? Have we learned from the crimes of the past, pledging not to repeat them?

The 20th century has been dubbed “the bloodiest of centuries,” with over 200 million dead from war. How many more are crippled physically, psychologically, spiritually by war? Four hundred million? How many more victimized and destroyed by the spirit of war -- genocides, tortures, disappearances, gulags, pogroms, economic sanctions? Incalculable! How many are alive today who have not been scarred in some way by war? The harvest of death and destruction from war is appalling, stupefying.

If we executed the Lord of Life in the green wood, what will we do in the dry wood? The 20th-century’s wars reveal a dramatic shift from the number of soldiers killed in war to a huge increase in the number of civilians killed in war; as well as the introduction of nuclear weapons, more efficient weaponry and the development of entire economies -- such as that of the United States -- based on war. Unless these trends are checked and reversed, the bloody 20th century will become a template for the 21st.

What does the general silence over war from pulpits, Congress, the media, campuses and business communities indicate except a sullen insistence on the right to kill one another?

As I have asked these questions during this past year, I watched as the United States used “depleted uranium” with its special bomber, the “A-10 Warthog,” not only in Iraq but on Yugoslavia.

As my friends brought back reports of fatalities from the scourge of economic sanctions on Iraq, they also spoke of witnessing hideously deformed “jellyfish babies,” Iraqi children reminiscent of children born out of our nuclear testing in the South Pacific. These cruelly deformed children are the children of fathers who were exposed to depleted uranium during the Gulf War and recent bombings.

Just before the war ended in Yugoslavia, NATO admitted firing depleted uranium again, using the A-10 Warthog in the Balkans. “My God,” I thought, “the nuclear alchemists have succeeded in doing something that they’ve tried to do for decades, compress the gap between nuclear and conventional weapons.” It hit me with crushing force that our warriors were fighting with nuclear weapons again. Whatever faint illusion I had about American goodwill toward disarmament fled abruptly.

I found my anti-war friends, staunchly biblical and committed to nonviolence, slow to comprehend the ominous nature of depleted uranium. This mystified me. Was this another instance of the Bomb covering its tracks, creating a demonic aura around itself that befuddled and obscured sensitive consciences? Whatever the case, it helped to explain the virtual absence of resistance to our nuclear warring in Iraq and Yugoslavia.

The New Testament sums up “the law and the prophets” with the simple commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If that’s how we are to worship God, if that’s how we build justice and peace in the world, then how do we regard depleted uranium except with horror?

A depleted uranium shell, fired from an A-10, strikes a tank or personnel carrier, quickly penetrates the armor and burns the crew alive. Meanwhile, its impact aerosolizes radioactive heavy-metal particles, scattering them up to 25 miles, to be breathed or ingested. These dustlike particles are not only carcinogenic, they are genetically destructive. Hence, the chronically ill or deformed children of Desert Storm veterans.

Susan Crane, Liz Walz, Steve Kelly and I decided to engage in a Plowshares action aimed at depleted uranium. We chose Dec. 19, the last Sunday of Advent, an appropriate time to enact the conversion and atonement needed to welcome Jesus into this deranged world. We saw our act as public worship and reparation for our sins and those of our country.

At 4 a.m., we cut the chain locking an antiquated gate (the “security” around our nation’s weaponry is often a joke) at the Warfield Air National Guard Base in Essex, Md., and discovered two rows of A-10 Warthogs parked on the tarmac, some 100 yards from the gate.

We picked two Warthogs and hammered on them to remind Americans that these perverted aircraft fired 95 percent of all depleted uranium munitions during the Iraqi and Yugolsavian wars, and that they must be disarmed. The World Court maintains that use of the A-10 and its depleted uranium is illegal. We maintain that they have no right to exist.

Liz Walz and I hammered first on the Gatling gun protruding like a shark’s snout from the nose of the A-10. Then, we struck the bomb and missile pylons beneath the wings, and then the undercarriage. Finally, we poured our blood on to the fuselage. Susan and Steve did similar disarmament on the other Warthog. In fact, Steve discovered a ladder, climbed on a wing, removed the vinyl cover from an engine and poured his blood directly into it.

Our disarmament of the A-10 and depleted uranium munitions was certainly symbolic, but no less real. We kept our action symbolic by refusing to do the maximum damage possible, to show the universal need and possibility of disarmament. We represented everyone in disarming these deadly planes. In turn, everyone has a responsibility to disarm nuclear weapons and all weapons of war.

Depleted uranium has a half-life of over 4 billion years. It is only slightly less radioactive than raw uranium. It joins other nuclear efforts of the past 55 years, most of them led by the United States, to put the world’s people on a virtual death row -- mining and processing uranium, exposed uranium tailings, nuclear weapons testing, nuclear weapons fabrication and nuclear power generation. Dr. Rosalie Bertell claims that over 1 billion people have died, have been poisoned or are dying from nuclear power generation alone.

Nuclear war or global irradiation: Which is our fate? As one unusual judge recently put it during a Plowshares trial, “As long as one nuclear weapon exists, war is imminent!” The Russians and the United States have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. Nuclear war could start from a mad official decision. It could also begin from a nuclear accident or from technical failure.

But the United States, with its depleted uranium, has chosen a softer approach to nuclear war. The United States gives depleted uranium free of charge to weapons manufacturers and ships it to dozens of “friendly” nations, openly inviting them to make their own nuclear weapons, fight their own nuclear wars and irradiate the planet further.

To get rid of its vast stockpile of depleted uranium (the U-238 residue of its nuclear weapons program), the United States has shipped secret cargoes of depleted uranium on air freighters. Their airframes contain depleted uranium as ballast. Several horrendous crashes have resulted, like the Israeli El Al 747 that went down outside Amsterdam in 1992. When such aircraft crash and burn, ballast and cargo burn also, spraying the radiated particles over a considerable area.

“If they do these things in the green wood, what will they do in the dry?”

Long before the development of depleted uranium, Thomas Merton speculated that nuclear weapons prepared Christ for a second crucifixion, this time in the human family. Polls indicate that over 70 percent of Americans desire serious nuclear disarmament. Are depleted uranium weapons a devil’s brew that sidesteps the majority’s desire for nuclear disarmament?

The power mongers from corporate, military and political life have imposed this lunatic burden of nuclearism on everyone and put us all on a kind of nuclear death row.

Where does one look for hope as the world sinks deeper into social psychosis? To the people alone, particularly to people of faith. In the past, the people alone checked the mad ambitions of the pharaohs. Today, those who try to follow Jesus throughout their lives and through their actions can do the same.

If we wake up and live out the nonviolent resistance exemplified by Jesus, we can discard the biblical metaphors of the green and dry wood. Jesus Christ will live, now and forever. And so will we. n

Philip Berrigan currently awaits trial in a Baltimore jail and faces up to five years in prison. He can be reached at: #995-923, Baltimore County Detention Center, 44 Kenilworth Drive, Towson MD 21204.

National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2000