Toxic War in the Middle East

By Toby C. Jones
Submitted to Session P3646 (Economies and Politics of War in the Middle East, 2014 Annual Meeting
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Thousands of tons of nuclear waste, in the form of weaponized depleted uranium, were dropped on Iraq between 1991 and 2011. The consequences for Iraqis, who have and will continue to confront a variety of environmental and public health dangers from DU’s use, have been catastrophic. Environmental suffering, particularly the kinds of slow violence that result from toxic exposure, often remain unseen alongside the more spectacular horrors of war. The effects of depleted uranium are not unknown in Iraq, but the ontologies that its use has fashioned, and how to think about toxic materiality and environmental suffering, are uncertain and deeply contested.

In the last third of the 20th century, depleted uranium was turned from nuclear waste into a valuable military commodity in the United States and other nuclear-power countries. Manufactured into a cutting edge technology of war because of its particular “heavy” and armor penetrating qualities, DU has circulated widely. The effects of depleted uranium’s use were particularly terrible in places like Iraq, but not only there. From the 1970s through the 1990s depleted uranium was manufactured in weapons factories throughout the United States, in places like Concord, Massachussetts and Colonie, New York. There too the toxic and environmental effects of depleted uranium were deeply felt, threatening land, bodies, water, and public health.

While deplete uranium’s environmental and ecological effects have often been severe, experts, policymakers, and various observers often contest how dangerous DU has been, is, and will remain in the future. In may paper I will examine depleted uranium’s global material and political economic histories, with particular attention to the varieties of suffering its manufacturing and use have engendered with the hope of encouraging new kinds of geographic and temporal thinking. I also want to draw attention to the political contests and especially the techno-scientific mobilizations that depleted uranium’s use and impact has produced in the West while being interrupted in places like Iraq. Americans affected in New York and Massachusetts were able to shut down toxic factories by mobilizing experts and state power. These things have often been denied to Iraqis. The science of toxicity, in spite of empirical evidence that shows DU’s pernicious effects, is uneven and should be understood as rooted in global politics and political economy, serving the interests of power rather than the sick.