Fallujah Fallout: Who Pays the Price?
November of this year will mark the ten-year anniversary of the Second Battle of Fallujah. Fallujah, a city west of Baghdad with a population of over 300,000, is known to have observed some of the most intense fighting during the war in Iraq.
After nearly a decade, the situation in Fallujah is still dire. Militants recaptured the region in early 2014 and the city has once again observed heavy conflict as the Iraqi military and militants fight for control of the city.
As the U.S. reenters Iraq, this region continues to experience the fallout from the previous U.S. occupation. Those most impacted are not members of Fallujah’s supposed “terrorist hotbed,” but those who had not even been born during the time of siege.
It has been suggested that modern weapons make conflict “more humane,” that compared to weapons of the past, the current military arsenal allows for a “civilized” form of warfare. But what is happening in Fallujah illustrates this idea is monstrously fallacious. While past weapons were undoubtedly destructive, modern weapons are not inherently more civilized. In fact, the weapons used in Fallujah and other parts of Iraq may wreak havoc on the citizens of these areas for generations to come.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq saw the introduction of a variety of weapons, including the popular SMAW NE (that’s Shoulder-Launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon. The NE stands for “Novel Explosive”). The SMAW NE is a “thermobaric” weapon. In essence, these weapons use high explosives, reactive metals, and the oxygen within the blast area to generate intense, long-lasting, high-heat explosions. The idea is to completely annihilate the target and the surrounding area, inflicting “maximum damage.” (you can see a video of these weapons here).
To create these blasts, the SMAWs use a variety of fuels, ones that may include, among other metals, radioactive uranium. The DOD has declined to release information about the particular content of these weapons. Through the Freedom on Information Act, however, the International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons reported that:
[U.S. Central Command’s] response claimed that depleted uranium munitions had not been used in [the Second Battle of Fallujah]. However their response also pointed out that no records of depleted uranium use in the city were kept prior to July 2004. This means that, if uranium weapons had been used in [the First Battle of Fallujah] in April 2004, no records of their use would be available.
When SMAWs are fired, the particulate matter from the reactive metals and fuels used to power the weapons (uranium or other) are released into the air, water, and soil. The presence of these metals can cause serious health problems, including a myriad of birth defects.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of birth defects, infant mortality rate, and instances of cancer have skyrocketed. In Fallujah, studies found that half of all they children surveyed, born between 2007 and 2010, had some significant birth defect. Before the invasion, approximately 2% of children in Fallujah were born with serious birth defects.
Before the siege of the city, approximately one in ten pregnancies in Fallujah ended in miscarriage. Between 2007 and 2010, this number increased to one in six. Similar increases were found in other Iraqi cities where the weapons were used.
Infant mortality rates in Fallujah are now four times higher than rates in the neighboring country of Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait (80 of 1,000 births in Iraq end in the child’s death compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan, and 9.7 in Kuwait).
As the U.S. starts new operations in Iraq and Syria, it is important to remember that these actions have very real consequences—both anticipated and unanticipated. The “necessary collateral damage” mantra, so often employed by proponents of such actions, fails to understand the gravity of these activities. In many cases, the consequences of current military operations may not be fully realized for decades.
Military intervention is often couched as a means to preserve freedom and release innocents from the evils of terrorism. If our aim is truly to provide others with the best possible quality of life, we must consider whether U.S. actions abroad may impose higher costs on foreign populations than those imposed by ISIS, the Taliban, or some other terrorist group. In this case, the argument for military action becomes far less clear. As the case of Fallujah illustrates, those who pay the highest price for U.S. foreign interventions may be those who are undeniably innocent of any crime, other than they were born in area with those who “threaten U.S. interests.”