International Analysis: America’s Grim Legacy in Iraq

By John Tirman — The Mark News —

 The Iraq War is now eleven years old, still tearing up the country but no longer with the assistance of U.S. troops.  Between 500,000 and 700,000 people died in 2003-2011.  The monthly civilian toll now is as high as it’s been since 2008.  It is a riven country, at odds with itself, fending off jihadists from Syria, morally and physically drained by more than twenty years of war (starting with Operation Desert Storm in 1991) and crippling sanctions. 

And that’s not all.  We now know, thanks to the courageous efforts of several researchers, that environmental toxins have likely poisoned the country, toxins that are also due to the U.S.-instigated war.  The munitions the United States used in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom are the apparent culprits, and, like the grim Agent Orange legacy in Vietnam, controversy and denial animate much of the discussion.

Two agents are at issue.  One is depleted uranium, which is used to harden bullets and mortar shells to enable them to more easily penetrate the target.  Depleted uranium (DU) is slightly radioactive and harmful if inhaled, though the extent of this hazard is unclear and most studies discount widespread impacts.  The most likely effect is chemical (rather than radiological), and affects kidneys, according to studies conducted in manufacturing DU applications.  Other metals used in munitions could have similar effects.

A second candidate is white phosphorous (WP), which was used extensively in Fallujah and possibly elsewhere by U.S. forces to light up a field of battle and as an incendiary.  A known carcinogen, the army called its use of WP “shake and bake.”  A shell containing WP could burn toxic smoke for 15 minutes.  Israel also used WP extensively in its assault on Gaza in 2008-09, but said last year it would no longer use the agent.

These, among other toxic materials, have largely been ignored in the aftermath of the war, a war that Americans have largely buried mentally.  But epidemiological studies have raised the distinct possibility that such agents have taken a sizable human toll, particularly in Fallujah and other places of intense fighting.

One such peer-reviewed study by molecular biologists in 2010 found high rates of birth defects among Iraqis in Fallujah, indeed “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied,” according to the lead author.  That’s a pretty stunning conclusion.  Another scientific study found that “since 2003, congenital malformations have increased to account for 15% of all births in Fallujah, Iraq. Congenital heart defects have the highest incidence, followed by neural tube defects. Similar birth defects were reported in other populations exposed to war contaminants.”

A leading suspect for these effects is depleted uranium, though many official bodies, including the World Health Organization, assert that based on most studies DU is not enough of a hazard to explain birth defects.  A comprehensive report issued by a coalition of activists seeking to ban DU responds that studies have not been done in enough war zones to understand the dynamic effects of the weapons and the environment—certainly a plausible perspective.  The subject deserves considerably more study—independent study—to get a satisfying answer, because there’s no indication that the U.S. military will not use DU or WP weapons in the future.  (Neither is classified as chemical weapons, though a case could be made that they should be.)

It defies logic that there are no effects from these contaminants when the high levels of “genetic damage” are coincident with the conduct of the U.S. war.

The military’s rote response in most cases of wrongdoing is denial.  Remarkably, the American people and their political leaders are in denial about the impacts of the Iraq War as well.  Many news media elites insist that war mortality is no more than 100,000, and there’s little attention to the millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes by the war. That the shattered society earns little heed today is no surprise—it’s a misadventure everyone wants to forget.

But the mothers with malformed babies and high rates of infant pathologies are grim reminders of our legacy.  It happens in all “our” wars, leaving a legacy of the uncaring bully.  We should be better than that.

John Tirman is executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies.  He is author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press).

John Tirman is the Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the Center for International Studies in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars (Oxford University Press).


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  1. Jason W. Smith, Ph.D. says:

    I think your readers may find the following interesting as it explains why the US has no guilt or concern over the damage it has done to Iraq. Getting control of the oil reserves and strategic military position that Iraq might have offered was the real reason for their involvement there and now they face defeat because of the in process restoration of the old Soviet Union,

    Those of you who have been reading each successive edition of my Handbook “The ABC’s of Communism, Bolshevism [year] (currently 2014)” know that I have stated in each that it was only a matter of time until the Soviet Union was restored in new form. (The first five editions were published under the title “The Fundamentals of Historical Materialism, Bolshevism [year]”)

    The reason for that prediction were:

    1) The positive history of the USSR was so overwhelmingly good.
    2) The negative history beginning with the Krushchev coup in 1953 of Modern Revisionism in power in Russia and the Socialist Republics had to become clear to the Russian and Republican peoples. Of course, the dissolution of the Old Warsaw Pact of Peoples Democracies would have to become clear in terms of cause and process to those populations also. I discuss the capitalist restoration process in Chapter 18 of ABC’s.
    3) The necessity of Socialism being restored had to become clear. Although the path to that restoration would probably come in steps. As a first step the New Class government in Russia which would finally be forced by reality to see the true nature of capitalism in its US imperialist hegemonic shape. The next step would be to move in the direction of restoring the form of the Soviet Union. Eventually the New Class and Soviet working people would have to ally and restore the positive socialist content of the old USSR and that would be the third and final step.
    4) In the meantime the People’s Republic of China was the new homeland of the global socialist stage. This too would require time for people to come to understand. Beginning with understanding the fact that there was no necessary Marxist-Leninist prescription that communists must follow the dominant state owned economy form that Stalin and Mao had had to follow. This new road was possible because the global shift in the balance of class forces was now in our favor. For example, the total boycott of Soviet industrial development that preceded the Five-Year Plans and denied Russia development capital (chapters 15 and 16 in ABC’s) was entirely reversed with the post-1975 availability of capital from the great capitalist banks for the PRC.

    I also pointed out that the USA had thrown away its opportunity to hold sway over the capitalist world with its Iraq and Afghan Wars. The fact that the US rulers bought into the thesis that far from losing they were isolating the only powers that could oppose their one nation rule over the world (the Wolfowitz Kagan doctrine) is a comment on their ignorance. Fortunately for us they have not the slightest concept of scientific history and so they are doomed to failure. We on the other hand are the sole possessors of the science of dialectical-historical materialism. That is to say we are the sole possessors of the science of society, culture and their history. The fundamentals of all of this is provided to you in the ABC’s of Communism, Bolshevism 2014 now available worldwide from Kindle books in e-book form at www. amazon. com.

    The first definitive turning point in the direction of restoring the old Soviet Union in its new form began when NATO finally overstepped its bounds. Much like the Nazi’s at Stalingrad, today’s number one enemy of the people of the world, the USA, has stepped into the trap prepared by the Russian Army. It is ironic that the current unfolding trap is only a few miles from Stalingrad (now called Volgograd). The current imperialist defeat began with the liberation of Crimea and is now going to feature the destruction of the Nazi regime in Kiev. The process of restoring the Soviet Union is now in the Second Step phase.

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