All military commanders know "collateral damage" to unintended targets, like civilians, is an unavoidable part of modern warfare.
But now the Pentagon's most potent armor-piercing weapon is itself taking a major hit. It's being accused of contributing to deaths of allied troops deployed in the Balkans, causing a major upheaval within the NATO alliance, and raising questions anew about whether it should be banned outright.
A string of suspicious deaths and illnesses among European troops that served in Bosnia and Kosovo has been attributed by some to the US use of radioactive "depleted uranium" bullets, or DU.
For years, US and allied officials denied that DU battlefield exposures could result in severe health problems. But across most of Europe in recent weeks, reported cases of cancer have emerged, causing the number of official inquiries to spiral. On Saturday, an Italian military watchdog group - set up to monitor health and safety in the armed forces - drew a link between the deaths from cancer of six peacekeepers who served in the Balkans, to DU.
In one instance shortly after the conflict in the town of Djakovica, the Monitor observed Italian troops manning a checkpoint set 100 yards downwind of a bombed Serbian position that was contaminated by radioactive DU dust. Despite strict military rules in the West regarding the handling of DU - which normally require US forces to use respirators, protective suits, and have 14 licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - Kosovo residents have never been warned by NATO of any DU danger.
A toxic heavy metal, DU doesn't disappear: It loses half its radioactivity every 4.5 billion years.
"The question is: Now that the genie is out of the bottle, how do you get it back in? The answer is: you can't," says Malcolm Hooper, a medicinal chemist at the University of Sunderland in northeast England and a member of the British Legion's Gulf War Illnesses Inter-Parliamentary group.
"It will intensify the call for a ban, because these are indiscriminate weapons," he adds. "Of course, the consequence is that the military will lose a very powerful weapon."
The Pentagon and Britain's defense ministry - which both rely on DU as the most effective armor-piercing bullet in their arsenals - rule out a link between DU and any health problems, and say they see no evidence of what's been labeled "Balkan Syndrome."
When the issue is taken up today in separate meetings of the European Union and NATO security committees, European officials may call for further investigations into DU health effects - and whether it should be banned. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson will afterward visit Sweden, which presently holds the rotating EU presidency.
"It is clear that if there is even a minimal risk, these arms must be abolished," European Commission President Romano Prodi said last week. "It is important that we act," added Swedish Defense Minister Bjorn von Sydow, echoing a growing body of opinion in Europe.
The concern sweeping the continent was sparked in December, when Italy announced that 30 of its Balkans veterans had been diagnosed with serious illnesses. It has been further fanned by preliminary findings of a UN investigation, released Friday, showing that eight of 11 inspected DU impact sites in Kosovo - out of 112 identified by NATO - showed traces of radiation. DU bullet fragments were found lying exposed on the ground. Full study results are due in early March.
A host of NATO and EU members are rushing to test deployed troops and Balkan veterans. Britain and Germany have so far refused, stating that they see no need. Besides Italy, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Portugal in the past week have reported similar illnesses or deaths.
US forces have experienced no Balkans-related cases or health-problem patterns, officials say.
The debate over DU and its adverse effects stretches back to the 1991 Gulf War, when American forces used it in combat for the first time. One in 7 American Gulf War veterans claim a variety of ailments known as "Gulf War Syndrome," many of which are similar to recently reported European health problems.
The Pentagon says it will cooperate fully with all requests for DU data, though UN and NATO investigators in the past said they came up against a "brick wall" from Washington on the issue.
"We have not found any link between illnesses and exposure to DU," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon said last week, adding that it's "premature" to link DU and leukemia.
Despite alarmist headlines in the Balkans - "NATO was worse than Chernobyl," read Serbia's popular Vecernje Novosti newspaper - Kosovo's ethnic Albanians point to another concern. Moderate leader Ibrahim Rugova has warned that the bigger risk might be an exodus of NATO peacekeepers who police Kosovo.
Bernard Kouchner, Kosovo's chief UN administrator, has asked the World Health Organization to help assess DU risks in the province. The view among civilians is a "mixture of wishful thinking" that DU is not a threat, and a "feeling of being helpless to change anything, even if it is true," says Ardian Arifaj, news editor of the largest Kosovo daily newspaper, Koha Ditore, in the provincial capital Pristina.
Though there is little systematic data, "no pattern" of health problems has emerged, and so far there is "no panic," he says. "We will have to stay and face any consequences. But on the other hand, no one is ready to blame NATO for hitting the Serbs."
DU is a by-product of the nuclear industry that is an effective bullet because of its high-density, not its low-level radioactivity. A DU bullet bores through armor, burning at such intensity that gas fumes and ammunition in the targeted tank ignite. As the bullet burns, it releases clouds of tiny radioactive particles that can be eaten, inhaled, or carried long distances by the wind. Such dust emits alpha radiation 20 times more powerful than other forms of radiation and especially damaging to body tissue. "It's not rocket science," says Professor Hooper. "It's a question of internal radiation, and when alpha particles are internalized, you have a big problem."
"It was extremely irresponsible not to issue some type of warning, if [the Pentagon] knew where they shot the DU 1-1/2 years ago," says Dan Fahey, a DU expert and US veteran activist. "Hopefully they will learn a lesson from this, that if you're going to use DU in combat, you have to take basic safety measures. You have to keep people away from these areas, and mark them."
He points to a 1990 US military report that predicted public awareness of any DU use would make the weapon "politically unacceptable" and result in pressure to ban it.
"We've put a lot of evidence to [authorities] in the past, and now people are beginning to ... listen," says Terry Gooding, with the UK Gulf Veterans Association. "They say it's not a problem," he adds. "But how many people have to die before they put their hands up and say: 'We made a boo-boo?' "
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society