Nuclear War, courtesy of NATO

4 May 1999

Kosovo, like Vietnam, has liberal support. But what of our weapons?

The 'just and noble liberal war', in which Nato bombs have now incinerated people on a bus, having already killed passengers on a train, refugees on tractors, the elderly in a hostel, workers in factories and children in their homes, is not the first. Vietnam was a liberals' war, described as a 'righteous crusade' by Bill Clinton's hero, John Kennedy, and a 'noble cause' by Ronald Reagan, a conservative. The labels are important only as illusion, now that Clinton is Reagan and Blair is Thatcher.

Nato's 'new vision' is to seek justification for American-led attacks all over the world. When communism retired from the cold war game, the 'war on drugs' was used to justify renewed American military intervention in Latin America. After that, the pursuit of demons took over. Demons are dictators of no further use to Washington. There was General Noriega in Panama, where the US invasion cost 2,000 lives, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq (200,000 lives) and various warlords in Somalia (7,000 lives). Now it is the turn of Milosevic, with whom Clinton and Blair share responsibility for emptying most of Kosovo.

Demons as a justification for attacking countries have since been reinforced by Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMD. These are chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the possession of which, says Nato literature, 'may require pre-emptive retaliation'. The ferocity of the continuing military and economic assault on Iraq is justified in this way - when the real reason has to do with the policing of an expanded American protectorate from the Gulf to the Caspian Sea.

The hypocrisy is on a grand scale. Only one nation on earth has used all three WMDs: the United States. Smallpox was used to ethnically cleanse Native Americans and to spread plague in Cuba. Chemicals were used in Vietnam: between 1961 and 1971, American planes dropped on South Vietnam a defoliant, Agent Orange, which contained dioxin, a poison that causes foetal death, congenital defects and cancer (this was code-named Operation Hades).

When a Congressional inquiry revealed that the equivalent of six pounds of dioxin had been dumped on every man, woman and child in South Vietnam, Operation Hades was changed to the friendlier Operation Ranch Hand, and the spraying continued. A pattern of deformities began to emerge: babies born without eyes, with deformed hearts and small brains and stumps instead of legs. I glimpsed these children in contaminated villages in the Mekong Delta; and whenever I asked about them, people pointed to the sky; one man scratched in the dust a good likeness of a bulbous C-130 aircraft, spraying. In the towns and cities, it was not unusual to see deformed children begging. They were known as 'Agent Orange babies'.

Recently, at the Tu Do hospital in Saigon, I was shown a group of newborn babies, all of whom had Agent Orange deformities. The war that officially ended in 1975 goes on; contaminated soil and water are poisoning a third generation. Unlike American and Australian veterans of the war, who have been finally compensated by the manufacturers of dioxin, the Vietnamese have received nothing. Now a five-year Canadian study has discovered that dioxin runs right through Vietnam's food chain and has called for international help in decontaminating agricultural land, forests and waterways. The cost of one F-16 bomber would pay for this.

'Can you imagine pilots from a democratic country doing such a thing deliberately?' said Jamie, the Nato spin doctor, following the craven killing of refugees by an F-16 pilot. Today, the same pilots are spreading over Serbia and Kosovo a poison potentially as cataclysmic as Agent Orange. It is carried in depleted uranium, which makes missiles and shells more destructive. This is how Rosalie Bertell, a Canadian specialist, describes the effects on humans: 'Depleted uranium comes from radioactive waste produced for nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry. It can pierce tanks and release a deadly radioactive aerosol of uranium, unlike anything seen before. This lies in the dust or is suspended in the air, or carried in the wind. It penetrates the lung tissue and enters the blood stream, storing in the liver, kidney and bone and irradiating all the delicate tissues. It can initiate cancer or promote cancer.'

The truth is that the US and Britain are engaged in a form of nuclear warfare in the Balkans. In 1996, the United Nations Human Rights Tribunal called depleted uranium a WMD. Like the Agent Orange babies of Vietnam, the deformed and cancer-stricken children of southern Iraq, where depleted uranium was tested by British and American forces during the 1991 Gulf war, bear witness to the true nature of righteous Western crusades. Civilised people should speak out urgently before the latest noble cause claims more expendable victims and beckons a world war. No amount of specious moralising will conceal the scale of the crime.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library