News Flash: War Might Kill You

Over here in Europe, it is being called the worst crisis ever to hit NATO. The Italians are furious, the Portuguese prime minister has “lost confidence” in the United States, the British are howling about a cover-up, and Madeleine Albright has been forced to make calming statements. Have the Russians invaded Germany? Have the Americans pulled their troops out of Europe? Is World War III about to break out? No: The Europeans have just discovered that weapons are dangerous and that war can kill you.

This is not to say that there is no substance behind the fuss, which concerns the risks—and possible dishonesty about those risks—to allied soldiers, who took part in peacekeeping operations in Kosovo and who might have been contaminated by dust from some American ammunition used there. The ammunition, made from depleted uranium, is alleged to cause various forms of cancer and kidney disease. Or perhaps “alleged” isn’t strong enough. According to the British press this morning (click here for the Daily Telegraph’s version and here for the Guardian’s), it now seems that a good four years ago, a British army medical report stated that “inhalation of insoluble uranium dioxide dust will lead to accumulation in the lungs with very slow clearance—if any. Although the chemical toxicity is low, there may be localised radiation damage of the lung leading to cancer. Uranium compound dust is therefore hazardous.”

Predictably, when this story began to break, Britain’s ministry of defense failed to make this old report public. Instead, on Tuesday of this week the armed forces minister got up in front of Parliament to announce that the risks posed by depleted uranium ammunition were “very low,” if indeed there were any risks at all (click here for the full statement). One Guardian columnist even claims that in 1999, the ministry of defense definitively told him—lied to him, that is—that no weapons tipped with depleted uranium were being used in Kosovo at all.

But it is not only the British who are worked up about an apparent cover-up. No less than seven Italians, former Kosovo peacekeepers, have recently died of leukemia; a Portuguese peacekeeper has also contracted leukemia, and another has died of a mysterious brain disease. Other nations have been worried about the issue since the war ended. Due to unexplained “bureaucratic” problems, however, a team of U.N. scientists who asked the United States to identify possible locations of high radiation in Kosovo, were not given that information for more than a year and couldn’t begin work until last November. This week, the Germans, the Italians, the Norwegians, and the Greeks all called for a ban on the use of the ammunition until it can be determined whether it is “safe.” But although NATO’s ambassadors have now voted against the ban, somewhat lessening the danger of an actual break in the alliance, I don’t expect that will stop the public grumbling, which has hardly been quieted by the photographs of men wearing white anti-radiation suits and carrying metal radiation counters that have appeared all over television and newspaper front pages in Europe this week.

And yet—there is something deeply rotten about the moral outrage, most particularly when it comes from NATO countries like Germany, which enthusiastically backed the Kosovo bombardment at the time. And it points to something deeply disturbing about the current state of the NATO alliance as well. I don’t want to downplay the seriousness of the environmental hazard posed by radiation, nor the possible mendaciousness of the various governments who have denied its existence: If we were talking about the risk posed by, say, a commercial chemical plant, the correct response to an apparent American government cover-up would indeed be shock, outrage, and lawsuits. But we are talking about soldiers. They were sent off to a war. In wars, dangerous weapons are used. Sometimes soldiers are killed by the dangerous weapons used in wars, even by the dangerous weapons used by their own side. Throughout history, soldiers who went off to fight in wars were aware of that risk.

Or at least they used to be. These days, soldiers are often called “peacekeepers,” and wars, or the military occupations which follow wars, are referred to as “peacekeeping operations.” These euphemisms might have their uses for the purposes of justifying participation in a conflict, but they have the side effect of forcing everyone to forget that wars do usually result in casualties. The fact that the war in Kosovo caused so few casualties, at least on our side, actually makes that war, by historical standards, an almost freakish exception—although this is something that a number of NATO country leaders appear to have forgotten.

In fact, ammunition is never “safe.” Weapons are hazardous to human beings, to animals, to the environment. Whole regions of France were uninhabitable at the close of World War I; children in Afghanistan are still stepping on land mines left behind when the Red Army withdrew more than a decade ago. People did die in Kosovo because of the NATO bombardment—most of them Serbs and Albanians—and people may well go on dying. If the leaders of NATO countries want to avoid being responsible for all deaths altogether, they shouldn’t fight any wars at all. But if leaders of NATO countries want to go on fighting wars, or at least maintaining their capability to fight wars, outraged protest against “unsafe” American weapons is hypocritical in the extreme.