Newsnotes 2003 03

Notes On The News

By Gwydion M. Williams

Blowing In The Wind [Depleted uranium]

No-law zones [The ‘War Against Terror’]

Bloody but Green?

War – a cost / benefit analysis

Bury the truth at My Lai [Vietnam War]

Licit Death [Tobacco]

Blowing In The Wind [Depleted uranium]

Depleted uranium is a new hazard of war, and one that the US military are wholly responsible for.

As a lump of metal, depleted uranium is mostly threatening as a blunt instrument, no more dangerous than lead.  But we now know that lead paint and water drunk from lead pipe are a health hazard.  Depleted uranium as debris from exploded shells is much worse, a poisonous chemical and also a source of radioactivity

Depleted uranium is the stuff left over after uranium has been processed for its more fissile elements.  It is ‘depleted’ because it is less radioactive than the natural ore, but that does not make it safe.  The US nuclear industry has vast amounts of the stuff with no normal outlet, so they decidedly to make into shells.  Heavier than lead, it does more damage on impact.

It’s what happens after impact that really matters.  It stays around as powder, a much worse chemical poison than lead and also mildly radioactive.  And unlike most fallout, this radioactivity is not going to fade, not in a thousand years nor in a million years.  And being no longer locked up as an ore or as raw metal, it become much more dangerous.

The military failed to warn even its own troops of the possible dangers.  The ‘not-our-fault’ culture led to a total denial by the military command that depleted uranium could be a risk. So that ordinary US troops saw no need to avoid burnt-out Iraqi tanks where depleted uranium dust must have been concentrated.

One final point.  Do the Israelis use depleted uranium munitions?  Dust from shells would blow over Jew and Arab alike, and my guess would be that they do not use it.  But someone should look into the matter.

No-law zones [The ‘War Against Terror’]

British pensioner Derek Bond spent 17 days in jail before the FBI discovered they had the wrong man.  And this was only because someone tipped them off about the whereabouts of the right man, who was then arrested in Las Vegas.  Someone with criminal connections sympathised with the wrongly-jailed old fellow, maybe.

In such a situation it helps to be white and British, of course.  Another Briton called Lofti Raissi was kept in custody for six months because the FBI claimed he was linked to the September 11th bombers.  But since he was not in one of the USA’s law-free detention centre, he did at least get out when the FBI failed to come up with anything.

Camp Delta at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba somehow evades all of the legal guarantees that the US claims to uphold.  It is not Cuban, there was a treaty signing it over in the days before Castro.  But nor does US law apply to people held there, who are neither regular suspects nor proper prisoners of war.  The US government under President Bush has managed to get round the rules in ways that US judges will not interfere with.

Judges all over the world normally oppose changes to their traditions, however crazy those traditions may be.  And in the West European tradition, they normally insist on independent checks over whether suspects are guilty, or whether the prisoner is really the person suspected.  But after September 11th,  a world safe for judges became more important

Let justice be done, though the Heavens fall—but not in my backyard!

Bloody but Green?

Demonstrations are unlikely to stop a war on Iraq.  But they may well stop a war on Iran or North Korea.  Or an intervention in Arabia if the discredited Saudi dynasty gets overthrown.

The current Iraq war would probably not have been possible if Britain had held back, in the same way the MacMillan kept Britain out of the Vietnam War.  The notion that Blair is somehow restraining Bush is absurd.  Support from allies matters to the USA, and a refusal of support by Britain would count for plenty.  Even British Intelligence are privately saying that Iraq has nothing to do with Global Terrorism, so why does Blair support Bush’s false linkage?  He’s making it happen.  New Labour, New Imperialism?

Blair cannot back down after the strong stand he chose to take.  But the pressure may have led him to suddenly get radical on a secondary matter.  A sudden commitment to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and not push nuclear power.

Demonstrations work.  You probably won’t get what you asked for, but a big enough protest will be responded to.

War – a cost / benefit analysis

The USA has been a net beneficiary in almost all of its wars, with Vietnam the notable exception.  In Vietnam, as earlier in Korea, the USA had several chances for a tolerable negotiated solution.  During the Korean war, the US was warned by China not to get too close to the Chinese border: they could have stopped with North Korea reduced to a small remnant, but chose not to.  The Chinese then drove them all the way back down the Korean peninsula, where they rallied and fought their way back to the present line of division, almost exactly where Korea had been split before the war.

Korea and Vietnam are not exactly happy memories, but Americans are claiming credit for their ‘help’ to Europe before that.  The USA joining in the European Civil War in 1917 was irresponsible, based on a naive belief that diverse and culturally alien populations in Eastern Europe would automatically fit to the US pattern given the chance.  Immigrants from those countries had been assimilated to the American way of life, indeed, but immigrants are by definition people who have abandoned the way of life they came from.  The host society forms a template that allows radical transformations among the children of the newcomers, and generally enforces it.

As for World War Two, the USA did not chose to join the anti-Fascist war in 1941. Roosevelt was anti-fascist and keen to save Britain, but a lot of American politicians were neutral or pro-fascist—notably Joe Kennedy, father of President Kennedy.  It was Roosevelt’s good fortune that first the Japanese attacked and then Hitler chose to declare war on the USA.

So what does Europe owe these characters?  Nothing.  They rose from middling status at the start of the 20th century to global boss at the end of it.  And there was always a clear understanding that foreign wars were part of the price for the US reshaping the world in its own image.

Bury the truth at My Lai [Vietnam War]

Talking of Vietnam, why hasn’t their been more mention of Colin Powell’s involvement with almost all of the US military’s dirt over the last 40 years?  It’s not just the Iran-Contra affair.  His role in the US army’s unsuccessful cover-up of the My Lai massacre is hardly creditable.

Colin Powell was an up-and-coming staff officer, assigned to the Americal headquarters at Chu Lai, Vietnam. He was put in charge of handling a young soldier, Tom Glen, who had written a letter accusing the Americal division of routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians; the letter was detailed, its allegations horrifying, and its contents echoed complaints received from other soldiers. Rather than speaking to Glen about the letter, however, Powell’s response was to conduct a cursory investigation followed by a report faulting Glen…  Soon after, news surfaced about the Americal division’s criminal brutality at My Lai, in which 347 unarmed civilians were massacred; Powell’s memoirs fail to mention the Glen incident.”   (The Powell Doctrine,, by Heather Wokusch)

“On March 16, 1968, US soldiers from the Americal Division slaughtered 347 civilians—primarily old men, women, children, and babies–in the Vietnamese village of My Lai (pronounced, very appropriately, as ‘me lie’). The grunts also engaged in torture and rape of the villagers.

“Around six months later, a soldier in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade—known among the men as “the Butcher’s Brigade”—wrote a letter telling of widespread killing and torturing of Vietnamese civilians by entire units of the US military (he did not specifically refer to My Lai). The letter was sent to the general in charge of ‘Nam and trickled down the chain of command to Major Colin Powell, a deputy assistant chief of staff at the Americal Division, who was charged with investigating the matter and formulating a response.

“After a desultory check—which consisted mainly of investigating the soldier who wrote the letter, rather than his allegations—Powell reported that everything was hunkey-dory. There may be some ‘isolated incidents’ by individual bad seeds, but there were no widespread atrocities. He wrote: ‘In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.’ The matter was closed.

“To this day, we might not know about the carnage at My Lai if it hadn’t been for another solider who later wisely sent a letter to his Congressman.”  (Colin Powell: Don’t ask about My Lai, don’t tell about Iran-contra, by Russ Kick.)

If Colin Powell is fit to control the whole of the USA’s armed forces, how come he could miss the clues?  It was a case of units of the US army behaving so badly that fellow-soldiers were ready to report them.  And it’s notable that he was later treated as ‘safe pair of hands’ when it came to Iran-Contra

Colin Powell was expected to be a moderating influence on the Bush administration.  As far as I can see, he has only been a moderating influence on the opposition.  Amazingly, Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN changed US public opinion.

Why did no one then remind the public about his Vietnam role?  If he was honest, then he wasn’t very competent, and was far too ready to repeat official lies.  If he actually knew what he was doing—which is what I’d suppose—then he sold out to the system years before most people ever heard of him.

Why be surprised?  The 19th century USA was able to make good use of ‘buffalo soldiers’—black Americans used against the Native Americans.  In the modern world, they need to be given more rank, but still serve as defenders of a mostly-white ruling elite.

Consider this.  The man’s political career would be sunk by just one veteran coming out and saying that Major Colin Powell knew all about the rumours of My Lai.  That means he’d be under the effective control of anyone who’s got a few such veterans in reserve, doing cushy jobs on the understanding that they speak or keep silent as it suits their masters.

Blackmail is a standard technique among the new elite, and one wonders who else may be constrained to follow a foolish line.

[These comments were later expanded into an article, available on this website.]

Licit Death [Tobacco]

“Tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs prematurely kill about 7 million people worldwide each year and the number is rising, according to a study released in Australia on Tuesday.”  (Yahoo, Tue Feb 25)

What’s even more remarkable is the numbers:  “Tobacco was the number one killer addiction in 2000, responsible for 4.9 million deaths or 71 percent of the total drug-related deaths—a jump of more than one million since 1990…

“About 1.8 million deaths were attributable to the use of alcohol, about 26 percent of all drug-related deaths, with the proportion greatest in the Americas and Europe. Russia’s alcohol problem was particularly pronounced.

“Illicit drugs caused about 223,000 deaths, or three percent of all drug-related deaths.”

Which doesn’t mean that illicit drugs are safe, just that far fewer people use them.  Criminalisation does work, legality is a big barrier for most people.  In fact Prohibition was working in the USA, despite the hypocrisy of punishing just the suppliers.  What really counted was a cultural shift, the reduced power of hard-line Protestants who demonised alcohol despite the repeated statements of Jesus in favour of it.

Tobacco continues to be pushed vigorously by the media, even though all tobacco users are addicted, whereas only heavy users of alcohol become physically hooked.

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