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Last Night Biden Admitted the U.S. Environmentally Poisoned Iraq and Afghanistan, But Ignored the Impact on Iraqis and Afghans
A new policy to help U.S. veterans with the harmful consequences of burn pits ignores the Iraqis and Afghans poisoned by America's wars.
In his State of the Union address last night, President Biden vowed to increase support for U.S. military veterans who face dire health problems, including cancer, as a result of exposure to the U.S. military’s burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the president did not mention Iraqi and Afghan people, whose exposure is far more prolonged, and whose resultant widespread health problems, including increased rates of birth defects, are well-documented (at least in Iraq). The omission reflects the chauvinism of U.S. discourse about the wars, in which the lives of those who suffer U.S. occupation and environmental poisoning simply do not register.
“Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have faced many dangers,” the president proclaimed in his address. “One being stationed at bases, breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits. Many of you have been there. I’ve been in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan over 40 times. These burn pits that incinerate waste, the waste of war—medical and hazardous material, jet fuel and so much more.”
He went on to highlight the terrible consequences of such exposure. “And they came home, many of the world’s fittest and best trained warriors in the world, never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin. I know. One of those soldiers was my son, Maj. Beau Biden.”
The president vowed to take action for those service members. “I’m announcing we’re expanding eligibility to veterans suffering from nine respiratory cancers,” he said. “I’m also calling on Congress to pass a law to make sure veterans devastated by toxic exposures in Iraq and Afghanistan finally get the benefits and the comprehensive health care that they deserve.”
But in this speech, the Iraqi and Afghan people who live near these bun pits—who raise children, go to work, and give birth within breathing distance of their air pollution—were nowhere to be seen. Their fates were left out even as the president admitted to the U.S. military’s widespread environmental poisoning. Of course, all who are harmed by these wars and occupations deserve restitution, but the fact that Afghans and Iraqis weren’t deemed worthy of mention underscores the profound dehumanization that underpins U.S. foreign policy.
The omission infuriated Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a toxicologist who won the 2015 Rachel Carson award, which "honors American women whose work has greatly advanced conservation locally and globally.” She studies the negative health consequences for infants and children in Iraq.
“They sometimes talk about U.S. military personnel being exposed to burn pits, but they never talk about people in Iraq who live near these polluted sites,” she told The Column. “The truth is that the Iraqi population is being exposed to more pollution for much longer periods of time. They are exposed while they are infants or in utero, or while growing up at a young age, which makes them more susceptible to contaminants.”
The topic gained momentum last fall when Jon Stewart explored burn pits for the first episode of his new HBO show, The Problem, with Jon Stewart. Though he did mention the Iraqi and Afghan victims briefly on the show, the exclusive focus of his attendant lobbying campaign before and since has been was on helping U.S. veterans.
Dr. Savabieasfahani, who is running for Ann Arbor city council, was the co-author of an article published in the journal Environmental Pollution in 2019, which determined that Iraqis living near the U.S.-led coalition’s Tallil Air Base, located near Nasiriyah, were at greater risk of having children with birth defects. Researchers found elevated levels of uranium and of thorium in nearby children. (Thorium is a radioactive compound that is a product of depleted uranium decay.) In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United States used depleted uranium weapons in civilian areas, and more recently, used the weapons in Syria in 2015. According to the study, those elevated levels are associated with increased birth defects, from heart disease to missing limbs to neurological problems, as the Intercept has previously noted.
The study links these problems to burn pits. “In Iraq, war contamination is the result of dispensed bombs, bullets, detonation of chemical and conventional weapons, and burn-pit emissions by U.S. bases,” it states.
Dr. Savabieasfahani underscored this point. “One major source of exposure to uranium contaminants are these burn pits,” she told The Column. “They've burned anywhere from dead bodies to computers and weapons they weren't going to bring back—they’ve burned just about everything. When you burn them, you release uranium, lead, and mercury into the air, and then into the water.”
Another 2016 study, published in the journal Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, had similarly troubling findings. The researchers “created elemental bio-imaging of trace elements in deciduous teeth of children with birth defects from Iraq.” They then compared those samples with teeth from Lebanon and Iran. They found that lead “was highest in teeth from children with birth defects who donated their teeth from Basra, Iraq.”
“Our hypothesis that increased war activity coincides with increased metal levels in deciduous teeth is confirmed by this research,” the authors concluded.
Of course, U.S. military veterans have also been neglected by the U.S. government and left to die of this environmental poisoning. Yet, whatever negligence they’ve faced, their plight has received more attention than that of people in Iraq and Afghanistan—an erasure that has driven international organizing. In 2013, anti-war U.S. military veterans joined with Iraqi civil society organizers to demand healing reparations for the profound psychological, physical, and environmental harms unleashed by the U.S. occupation.
“The war in Iraq is not over yet,” Yanar Mohammed, president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, told Democracy Now in 2014. “We are living it over and over again. And on top of that, there’s a generation of babies who are born with birth defects, whose parents are living the agonies of not knowing what to do with their children.”
This generation may have been erased from U.S. political discourse, but this doesn’t make their lives any less important, nor the reparations owed them any less urgent.