I have been a reader of the British newspaper The Guardian for the last 40 years or more. I have learnt to admire its virtues, and to pardon its defects. But, just occasionally, it goes, frankly, just a bit weird.
A good example of this weirdness is on display in today’s number. The headline reads “How the World Health Organisation Covered up Iraq’s Nuclear Nightmare”. This headline illustrates at least two rules of lazy journalism. First, the word “cover-up” is used to mean that organisation concerned refuses to accept the journalist’s own interpretation of events. Second, if a heavy duty word like “nuclear” is used in a headline, the God of Alliteration decrees that another word beginning with the same letter has to follow it. In this case, the linkage with the word “nightmare” was happily available from other sources.
If you actually read the story, it says something quite different, and indeed rather tentative. What it suggests is that illnesses and congenital birth defects in certain parts of Iraqi are much higher than they are in the Western world. It’s not clear whether they have always been higher, or whether this has only started recently, but in any case the suggestion is that they are in places that saw fighting between invading American and British troops, and defending Iraqis, in 2003.
This may well be true, though it is mostly conjecture. But what does it have to do with the nuclear industry or nuclear weapons? The actual answer is nothing. The article speculates, possibly rightly, that American and British forces in those areas may have used Depleted Uranium anti-tank shells in combat against Iraqi tanks. Now Depleted Uranium is exactly what it says: it’s the waste product left over when nuclear weapons have been made. It is very hard and very dense, but it is not nuclear (let alone radioactive) in any sensible meaning of that term. Indeed, it’s usually less radioactive than the surrounding area.
Nonetheless, DU, as it is affectionately known, as had a bad press for a very long time. Journalists of all sorts have taken to deliberate confusion of what is a piece of inert metal with a nuclear weapon. Now it should be said that DU is not a nice product. It disintegrates after impact, and is about as good for you to eat or breathe in as any other heavy metal: it is certainly poisonous. But it is nothing to do with nuclear weapons and this kind of irresponsible reporting, which clearly is intended to suggest, without actually saying so, that Western troops contaminated Iraq with radioactivity, actually gets in the way of the real point.
There are legitimate concerns about the use of Depleted Uranium shells in modern warfare. They were originally developed to penetrate the heavy armour of 1980s Soviet tanks, and were quite unnecessarily powerful for use against the antiquated Iraqi arsenal. They are more polluting than conventional tank shells, and there may well be some truth in the Guardian story that their use is connected with birth defects. But the attempt to somehow link the story with nuclear weapons reminds me of why, occasionally, I used to put the Guardian away before I finished reading it. Come on, guys, you can do better than that.