Fifteen years ago this month, the United States spearheaded a fantastically bloody war on Iraq as part of its ongoing effort to ensure the Iraqi nation’s perpetual misery.
Straight-up carnage aside, there were some other more trivial yet still “spectacularly unsavoury” results of the invasion, as veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn recalls: “Soon after US occupation officials took over Saddam Hussein’s palace complex in central Baghdad as their headquarters … the lavatories in the palaces all became blocked and began to overflow. Mobile toilets were rapidly shipped into the country and installed in the palace gardens.”
Increasing rates of cancer and birth defects
As it turned out, the Americans had failed to read up on bathroom traditions in the Middle East, or to realise that in many parts of the world, defecation is not accompanied by massive quantities of toilet paper.
While such visuals were no doubt also metaphorically relevant, given the excrement that passes for US policy in the region, the fallout of the war on Iraq has been toxic in far more extraordinarily pernicious ways.
This is the same US, of course, that goes into warmongering hissy-fits each and every time the word ‘radioactive’ comes up in the context of Iran, while also engaging in countless other varieties of hypocritical rampage
Consider, for instance, Cockburn’s 2010 article for The Independent, headlined “Toxic legacy of US assault on Fallujah ‘worse than Hiroshima'”. In it, he outlined the results of a study by British scientist Chris Busby and colleagues Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi on the increase in reports of cancer, birth defects, infant mortality and other forms of suffering in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, the focus of a particularly vicious US assault.
To be sure, as one of the top polluters on the entire planet, the US military has never been thrilled about acknowledging what would appear to be obvious: that saturating the environment with toxic materials will have repercussions on both environmental and human health, including the health of the United States’ own warriors, as underlined by the afflictions affecting veterans of the Vietnam War and first Gulf War, among other imperial escapades.
According to Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an award-winning toxicologist based in Michigan, “around six billion bullets were expended into the Iraqi environment” between 2002 and 2005 alone – which, along with bombs, have led to “public contamination with … toxic metals”.
Depleted uranium: a long-term hazard
But the US military arsenal extends far beyond traditional guns and bombs. In 2012, Robert Fisk wrote about a 14-month-old Iraqi named Sayef who had a severely enlarged head, was blind, paralysed and unable to swallow. Noting that much blame for the rise in congenital birth defects in Fallujah had been directed at the United States’ use of white phosphorus there, Fisk was nonetheless forced to include the caveat: “No one, of course, can produce cast-iron evidence that American munitions have caused the tragedy of Fallujah’s children.”
Yet the possibility of a cause-and-effect relationship becomes more and more difficult to deny. Already in 2009, the Guardian had reported that doctors in Fallujah were “dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities in infants” as the previous year, such as a baby born with two heads.
A member of the US army counts rounds of depleted uranium ammunition in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2004 (AFP)
In 2013, Al Jazeera quoted Sharif al-Alwachi of the Babil Cancer Centre in southern Iraq, who attributed escalating cancer rates since 2003 on the US military’s use of depleted uranium (DU) weapons. Al Jazeera also threw in the following uplifting note: “The remaining traces of DU in Iraq represent a formidable long-term environmental hazard, as they will remain radioactive for more than 4.5 billion years.”
Indeed, DU constitutes a can of worms unto itself. A 2016 Washington Spectator essay titled “Irradiated Iraq,” by Washington, DC-based investigative journalist Barbara Koeppel, remarks on the convenient US classification of its own uranium weapons as “conventional” when in fact “they are radioactive and chemically toxic”.
This is the same US, of course, that goes into warmongering hissy-fits each and every time the word “radioactive” comes up in the context of Iran while also engaging in countless other varieties of hypocritical rampage.
Koeppel cites former United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter’s observation: “The irony is we invaded Iraq in 2003 to destroy its non-existent WMD [weapons of mass destruction]. To do it, we fired these new weapons, causing radioactive casualties.”
Luckily for the US, there are plenty of members of the national media and wider domestic landscape willing to succumb to the notion that DU is simply Something We Don’t Talk About; you might even say the issue itself is radioactive.
The Iraq war was born and raised in torture
Others, however, have wholeheartedly embraced the destructive wonders of DU, as was the case with a US special operations soldier I spoke with earlier this year. This young man had just completed tours of duty in Iraq and Syria, where the US recently came under criticism for its renewed use of DU; he expressed dismay that sectors of the international community had failed to appreciate the effectiveness of the weaponry in question.
Back in 2001, the International Committee of the Red Cross offered some watered-down thoughts on DU, gently suggesting that international humanitarian law “prohibit[s] weapons, means or methods of warfare of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering, which have indiscriminate effects or which cause widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment”.
Price is not worth it
What these oh-so-civilised legal musings leave out is that war itself is nothing if not unnecessary suffering, whether it kills by “conventional” weapons or more creative ones. US sanctions, too, are weapons – as was clear from the US response to reports in 1996 that half a million Iraqi children had died because of them: “We think the price is worth it.”
Granted, there is a distinct nefariousness associated with munitions that continue to maim, deform and kill long after the conflict is seemingly said and done with. From the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the poisoning of Vietnam with Agent Orange, to the military contamination of Iraq, to the millions of cluster bombs fired at Lebanon in 2006 by the US-sponsored state of Israel – many of which failed to explode on impact and thus still pose a deadly hazard to children and other civilians – it seems there are plenty of ways to indefinitely prolong unnecessary human suffering.
Now, as we mark the 15th anniversary of the 2003 US war on Iraq, with loads more US-backed global noxiousness in the pipeline, the price is most definitely not worth it.
– Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.