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Monday, April 28, 2003


America is the greatest abuser of WMD

NEW YORK -- One duplicitous aspect of the United States' war on Iraq has been the use of the term "weapons of mass destruction" (WMD). No, I am not talking about the kinds of weapons that are assumed in the question raised by the conservative Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak on April 7 -- "Where are the WMD?" -- although that certainly is an important issue.

Even though most people seem to agree that the real purpose of America's war was not Iraq's possession of WMD, the U.S. government touted it as such. In his column, Novak concluded that a consequence of failing to "come up with substantiation of the avowed reason . . . to remove Saddam Hussein from power . . . may be the ruptured international relations of the United States."

The WMD that I have in mind are something else. In his WorldNetDaily column on April 14, Pat Buchanan wrote: "(The war) was a triumph of technology and air power. Perhaps 1,000 cruise missiles and 20,000 precision-guided bombs smashed Iraqi command-and-control and army formations even before they could engage us." Buchanan, who is as conservative as Novak, was, like Novak, steadfastly opposed to the war while the Bush administration was engaged in a massive buildup for it.

Yes, by WMD, I mean cruise missiles, precision-guided bombs, and other "conventional" weapons. Given American pre-eminence in military technology, most weapons in the American arsenals must be assumed to be highly destructive.

Here, for example, is the Tomahawk Cruise Missile as described in the U.S. Navy Fact File: "The first operational use was in Operation Desert Storm, 1991, with immense success. . . . Tomahawk has two warhead configurations: a 1,000-pound (450 kg) blast/fragmentary unitary warhead and a general-purpose submunition dispenser with combined effect bomblets. Because of its long range, lethality and extreme accuracy, Tomahawk has become the weapon of choice for the U.S. Department of Defense."

Neither the Navy Fact File nor other sites I've checked say how destructive the $600,000-a-piece cruise missile can be, probably because the effect will depend on the target and other factors. But what it can do may be imagined from a description of one of the "precision-guided bombs": the Mark-84 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). David Wood, calling it "the new workhorse of the U.S. military," has described it for Newhouse News Service.

As the 2,000-pound bomb strikes the ground, "its fuse ignites a priming charge that detonates 945 pounds of Tritonal, a silvery solid of TNT mixed with a dollop of aluminum for stability," explains Wood, a 20-year veteran reporter on national security in global settings. "Instantaneously, a fireball lashes out at 8,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and the explosion gouges a 20-foot (6.5 meter) crater and hurls off 10,000 pounds of rock and dirt debris at supersonic speed."

Wood, who wrote the article by consulting Dr. Harry Severance, an emergency physician at the Duke University Trauma Center, is clinical on the effect of the erupting bomb on the human body. It will "release a crushing shock wave and shower jagged, white-hot metal fragments," he says, "shredding flesh, crushing cells, rupturing lungs, bursting sinus cavities and ripping away limbs in a maelstrom of destruction."

There are many other bombs developed and deployed, such as the new Massive Ordnance Air Burst (MOAB) bomb and 2,000-pound "bunker busters." Two of the latter that were dropped on a house where Hussein was thought to be having a meeting on April 7 "destroyed both the targeted house and three adjacent houses," USA Today reported. The air strike, which created "a 60-foot-deep crater (20 meter)" left no visible trace of human beings, but "knocked down power and telephone lines on two streets and blew out windows on nearly every home in a four-block radius."

To include "conventional" weapons in WMD changes the nature of the debate, some might argue. But as BBC News reminds us in a brief history of the term WMD that it posted on the Internet on Feb. 12, the present use of the term is "political." The definitions offered are: "1. any weapon which could potentially inflict fatalities and physical damage on a massive scale. 2. polit. the nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) arsenals of states identified as belonging to the axis of evil. also abbrv. as WMD." "Axis of evil" is put in bold face type.

The term, according to the BBC, came into being in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War. British newspapers called Nazi Luftwaffe bombers leveling towns and villages like Guernica "weapons of mass destruction." As is fresh in our collective memory, during the Cold War the term simply meant thermonuclear bombs. That was also the period that prompted war strategists to devise the term "mutually assured destruction" or MAD.

The latest version of that is the "shock and awe" strategy.

The British news agency goes on to note that the U.S. "formalized" WMD in a 1998 law as designating the NBC weapons. However, it is the FBI that came up with a definition of the term that is uncannily apt to the true state of affairs. It asserted, BBC News says: "A weapon crosses the WMD threshold when the consequences of its release overwhelm local responders."

Local responders indeed. By that or any other standard, the truth is that the U.S. possesses firepower unprecedented in human history and it has been the greatest wielder of WMD for some time now. One result is U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's doctrine of "overwhelming force." During the Persian Gulf War, which saw the first application of that doctrine, the U.S. dropped bombs whose kilotonnage equivalency was seven times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, or so U.S. Defense Department figures tell us.

When it comes to the latest war, there were Buchanan's "1,000 cruise missiles and 20,000 precision-guided bombs." These were launched or dropped in a space of a mere three weeks, when Iraq had little or no means of responding in kind.

What in the end boggles the mind is that such a transparently political term as WMD could be manipulated to launch a war.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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