April 21, 2014
A Different Kind of Legacy
By John Tirman
Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist, Center for International Studies, MIT

Over a decade after the United States’ invasion of Iraq, the embattled country is still experiencing sectaian violence and political instability on a daily basis. Analyst John Tirman argues that the war has also left behind an environmental wreckage that will plague Iraq for decades to come.

The Iraq War is now 11 years old and still tearing up the country, but no longer with the assistance of U.S. troops. Between 500,000 and 700,000 people died from 2003–2011. The monthly civilian toll now is as high as it’s been since 2008. It’s a riven country, at odds with itself, fending off jihadists from Syria, and morally and physically drained by more than 20 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 – another consequence of the war instigated by the United States. 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.

These toxic materials, among others, have largely been ignored in the aftermath of the war.

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 targets. 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), a known carcinogen, which U.S. forces used extensively in Fallujah and possibly elsewhere to light up fields of battle, and as an incendiary. The Army referred to its use of WP as “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 and 2009, but said last year it would no longer use the agent.

These toxic materials, among others, have largely been ignored in the aftermath of the war. 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.

A 2010 peer-reviewed study by molecular biologists found high rates of birth defects among Iraqis in Fallujah – “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied,” according to the lead author. 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.”

But the mothers with malformed babies and high rates of infant patholo- gies are grim reminders of our legacy.

Depleted uranium is a leading suspect for these effects, 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. The subject deserves considerably more independent study.

Currently, there’s no indication that the U.S. military will stop using DU or WP weapons. They’re not 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 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 no more than 100,000 people have been killed, 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 of America’s wars: We’re leaving a legacy of the uncaring bully. We should be better than that.

John TirmanJohn Tirman is the Executive Director and Principal Research Scientist at the Center for International Studies in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).