The Joe Biden administration recently managed to persuade politicians and a number of outspoken pundits to applaud the provision of cluster bombs to the Ukrainian government for use on Ukrainian soil. One war crime leads to another, so perhaps no one should be surprised that the U.S. government has now opted to ship depleted uranium-tipped missiles to Ukraine as well. The notion that the use of such weapons will help to defend democracy should jar the cognitive faculties of any person with a functioning cortex.
Democracy is “rule by the people,” while unexploded ordnance, such as the bomblets left behind by cluster munitions, kills future persons in no way supportive of a war which took place before they were born. Similarly, the babies of women exposed to the dust generated by depleted uranium-tipped missiles, found to be carcinogenic and teratogenic in both Kosovo and Iraq, have their prospects radically diminished as a result of the decisions of military and government officials to deploy such weapons. The flawed arguments used to rationalize the shipment of cluster bombs to Ukraine have evidently quelled any analogous concerns among those who support the provision of depleted uranium-tipped missiles to that land.
The primary reason for the near silence in the mainstream media on the issue of DU-tipped missiles is that the Pentagon itself steadfastly denies that the munitions pose any real danger to the inhabitants of the lands where they are used. This is accomplished by setting the epistemological bar unachievably high: demanding something akin to mathematical certainty before admitting that weapons waste harms human beings. The usual “Correlation is not causation!” slogan is recycled every time the government undertakes to defend itself from allegations that it is poisoning people. It happened in Vietnam, after the use of Agent Orange; in Iraq, after the bombing of chemical factories in 1991; in Iraq, again, after the use of open-air burn pits from 2003 on…
In cases where U.S. troops themselves have suffered through exposure to toxic weapons waste, an acknowledgement of causation may finally emerge, decades after a conflict, as in the case of Agent Orange in Vietnam, long after the policymakers have receded from public life. (In an interview with Errol Morris in the 2003 film The Fog of War, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara infamously claimed, to his eternal shame, that he did not recall having authorized the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.) Contemporaneously, the public relations apparatus of the Pentagon reflexively denies any and every allegation of malfeasance, effectively enabling evil by protecting those who perpetrate pernicious policies. When eventually, as in the case of Agent Orange, it becomes undeniable that correlation was in fact causation, the denial of moral responsibility for the harms done is systematically defended through appeal to the good intentions of the government administrators who implemented what proved to be disastrous policies. They meant to do well!
Unfortunately, the press, including once-reputable outlets such as NPR (National Public Radio), now serve primarily to parrot the official proclamations of what has transmogrified into a military state. In its cursory treatment of the planned shipment of depleted uranium-tipped missiles to Ukraine, which was opposed by many organizations and countries, NPR host Leila Fadel interviewed one “expert,” Toghzan Kassenova, who cheerfully explained that “it’s important to remember that depleted uranium is considerably less radioactive than natural uranium.” Kassenova concluded his segment with a rousing endorsement of the plan to send the controversial weapons to Ukraine.
Despite the existence of studies demonstrating anomalous “correlations” between proximity to spent DU-missiles and the incidence of cancer and birth defects, which are most plausibly explained as instances of causation, the U.S. government and its propagandists remain steadfast in their insistence that no proof exists that the use of such weapons in Kosovo and Iraq, among other places, ever harmed anyone. No cancer, no birth defects. The cranks just pulled together all the birth defects and cancer cases they could find and blamed them on the entirely innocent military!
Fortunately, we have a few good critics, including David Swanson of World Beyond War, who have looked very closely into this matter. In a 2019 article in Foreign Policy Journal, Swanson explains that the primary reason why the U.S. government is able to deny that correlation is causation is that in most of the places where depleted uranium munitions have been used, no studies have been conducted at all. But the absence of a proof of causation is certainly not a proof of noncausation. When studies of the negative health consequences for persons in war zones are limited in number, and “scholars” pen papers with “counterarguments” such as that “depleted uranium is less radioactive than the natural uranium to which people are already exposed,” then the military can point to those “expert” opinions as the basis for blundering ahead, destroying lives in apparently good conscience, with the responsible officials wallowing in a carefully cultivated and guarded state of ignorance.
This very same tactic, mutatis mutandis, the erasure or denial of relevant evidence, was literally weaponized throughout the drone wars in the Middle East, when every military-age male reduced to ashes by a missile was labeled an Enemy Killed in Action (EKIA), unless specific evidence demonstrating his innocence was brought forth. The victims carbonized were in no condition to do this, obviously, but their family members and neighbors were strongly deterred from airing their concerns, even in cases where the person was undeniably innocent of any wrongdoing, because they knew how easy it was to end up on a hit list of “associates” for seeming to support people who had already been classified as evil terrorists on the basis of purely circumstantial evidence.
Alas, habits of deferential delegation die hard, and over the more than two decades of the Global War on Terror, U.S. citizens have been trained to accept even the most outrageous, undemocratic of policies—such as the use of lethal drones to assassinate suspected perpetrators of future possible terrorist acts—as perfectly permissible, so long as the Pentagon and the president say that it is. Targeted killing through the use of missiles delivered by drones is empirically indistinguishable from the summary execution of suspects. Yet this “Take no prisoners!” practice—directed, it is worth pointing out, nearly exclusively at persons of color located abroad—has been largely accepted and indeed vaunted as a form of “smart war” supposedly used, too, in defense of “democracy.” Both the populace and politicians such as self-proclaimed death penalty opponent Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) continue to praise the military as it carries out mafia-style hits on persons suspected of possibly harboring dangerous thoughts. So pommeled by Pentagon-produced propaganda have the brains of politicians become that the blatant contradictions on display nearly never manage to be recognized as such.
When it comes to “national defense,” it is tacitly assumed, when not overtly claimed, that the means needed to thwart terrorism, such as the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023, and war crimes, such as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, are in fact violent. But there is no reason for believing that state-inflicted mass homicide will produce anything but more mass homicide in a vicious vortex to the bottom, as was immediately illustrated yet again with the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza in response to the murder of Israelis by Hamas. Somehow oblivious to how the same “shock and awe” approach wielded by not only al Qaeda and Hamas, but also the United States and Israel, succeeds only in generating more enemies, military supporters such as Boeing beneficiary and Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley exult in the manner of Gyp Rosetti (in Boardwalk Empire), “Give me your blessing: I’ll kill them all!”
In truth, wars for democracy are as self-contradictory as are wars waged for peace. The persons harmed when indiscriminate implements of homicide are deployed in response to what elites have denounced as unacceptable actions by foreign leaders or dissident factions typically have nothing whatsoever to do with the offenses in question. Children, notably, cannot be said in any coherent way to have supported the perpetrators of war crimes or terrorist attacks. Saddam Hussein, a former ally militarily empowered by the United States throughout the Iran-Iraq war, directed his army to invade Kuwait and was turned overnight into the pretext for what became nonstop intervention throughout the Middle East. As the assaults on the Iraqi people, including children, multiplied, dissident groups arose in response to what they took to be the crimes of the invaders in both 1991 and 2003. The vast majority of the people on the ground had no say in what was done by their leaders, or the invaders, or the members of violent factions who rose up in defiance and became progressively more virulent throughout the Global War on Terror.
Until 2011, many people in the United States maintained that because Osama bin Laden was still at large, the military could not abandon Afghanistan or Iraq, nor, by extension, the several other countries into which the ever-more vexing conflict had spread like a gigantic murderous amoeba. But upon Bin Laden’s death, the war became an end in itself. Maybe it was started in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but it continued on long after the perpetrators disappeared because, and only because, the brutal, indiscriminate modus operandi of the U.S. military generated more enemies than it eliminated, thus creating the perceived political pretext to prolong the war. Today, the Taliban rules Afghanistan, just as it did in 2001, so what precisely was achieved from 2011 to 2021?
Despite its abject failures and what can only be described as obscene crimes (see: Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, Baghram, etc.) committed throughout the twenty-first century in the name of “national defense,” the U.S. government persists in posturing as though everyone alive today should be grateful to the Pentagon. Altogether ignoring every country trashed, every nascent democracy crushed, and every community collectively punished by the U.S. military since World War II, including the disastrous Global War on Terror through which countless human beings were traumatized, maimed, and/or killed, the president and other prominent spokespersons for the military state continue to issue proclamations about how they are saving democracy, and the United States is the “indispensable” nation.
When entire populations are punished in lieu of the small number of persons who instigate terrorist attacks such as those of September 11, 2001, and October 7, 2023, more terrorism and killing will ensue, in an ever-more destructive spiral of revenge. That violence breeds violence has been demonstrated by not only the Global War on Terror but also the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel, both of which directly generated the radical dissidents, whether al Qaeda, ISIS, or Hamas, who decided to retaliate in the most shocking of ways. To claim that bombing a densely populated civilian area is permissible, as both the U.S. government and the Israel government have done, belies any claim to be defending democracy given that such actions guarantee that fewer persons than before will ever make it to the polls.
Once one recognizes how fundamentally undemocratic the recourse to war is, then the use of peculiarly nefarious weapons such as landmines, cluster bombs, and depleted uranium-tipped missiles merely underscores that the populace, both conscripted soldiers and collateral damage victims, in addition to all the persons harmed in other ways, are regarded as expendable by political and military elites. For policymakers who view the lives of human beings as their coin to spend in preventing rogue leaders or radical factions from getting their way, the sky is the limit. The specious reasoning relied on in these cases is something along these lines: “Better to die from stepping on a landmine in a free country then to live as a slave!” “Nothing is free, including freedom,” they say, and sometimes the price to pay will be blown-up children who pick up an unexploded bomblet or are born severely deformed because the leader of their country decided that the risk of birth defects to women was outweighed by the need to defend democracy.
The absence of a popular uproar over the latest provision of implements of torture, maiming and murder for use in a meatgrinder war reflects above all the state of nearly total ignorance of citizens regarding the use to which their federal tax dollars are put. Young men, both Ukrainian and Russian, are thrown into the military-industrial complex machine, out of which come profits above all for U.S. military companies, the stock prices of which “coincidentally” continue to rise. Aside from the enrichment of weapons manufacturers and the complex array of companies now contributing to the killing machine in ancillary roles, all that the means of war effect are death and destruction. If democracy somehow emerges after the fighting has stopped, then there is no reason for believing that it could not have been achieved before thousands of lives were lost. The only question, then, for elites, is this: how many people and how much money should be sacrificed before agreeing to settle the dispute at the negotiation table? While elites take their time mulling over their options, the residents of war zones are poisoned, terrorized, and maimed, when they are not entirely erased from the face of the planet.
In what sense do wars support democracy? They merely ensure that many of the persons who made up the populace at the outset of the conflict no longer exist. Despite having never, in most cases, supported the war in which they were destroyed, they will never vote again. Children with severe birth defects or stillborn as a direct result of the exposure of their mothers to deleterious means of destruction such as depleted-uranium-tipped missiles, allegedly deployed in the name of democracy, will never vote at all.