Various scientists have told us in past days that they have found no evidence of depleted uranium causing disease. We should detain them no longer with our questions; they clearly have a lot of work to do. In the meantime, let us have a serious think about this.
Perhaps we have been looking at this the wrong way. Perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves what are the chances that depleted uranium is good for us. Would we, for example, think it wise to sprinkle a little onto our breakfast cereal? Would we expect to see it next to depleted lavender in Boots aromatherapy range? Would we give it to our kids to play with?
When I was a child, the Ministry of Defence owned the woods near our home. The Ash ranges were ideally situated between Aldershot and Sandhurst and the whole area was effectively under military occupation. Needless to say, violent crime was rife but officially sanctioned as horseplay. In any event, the first word I was able to read was "Danger". It was remiss of the MoD not to display it outside pubs frequented by paratroopers, but efforts were made to warn us about the military hardware littering what served as our common land. Regrettably, a red flag meant not that soldiers had shot their officers and proclaimed a soviet but that the firing ranges were in use. And we were expressly and gravely warned in safety lectures about what happened to boys who collected shells and bullets for fun.
We all had fine collections of spent rounds but the real prize was a bullet in its cartridge, which could apparently be fired if you held it in your dad's vice and hit the back of it with a hammer. Unexploded mortar shells were more rare but no one tried to hide from us the fact that they could take someone's eye out. No one said that there was no proven risk that leaving unexploded bombs lying around meant kids would find them. No one said the risk from bullets was present but not significant. No one said mortar shells occur naturally in pencils or Salisbury Plain, or that we would have to hold one right next to the head to be exposed to more than a limited risk.
I'm not even sure our teachers knew the exact scientific explanation as to why being blown up or shot is dangerous; they relied largely on anecdotal evidence. And arms manufacturers have the decency not to contest the fact that their products are basically harmful. They brag, indeed. Conversely, most things that are lethally dangerous seem to be introduced to us by our betters as a tremendously good idea. Then, after a bit, rare side-effects are acknowledged in weaklings, infants and women. Then scientists do some more work and are divided. Then ministers get jumpy and disparities appear in their public and private utterances. Then retired ministers are hired to shore up the product's image, and money is given to Children in Need as a gesture of goodwill. Then, finally, the game is up, and we all wait to see whether our offspring will live to furnish us with healthy grandchildren.
Those of us fortunate enough to have been born with eyes can see what appear to be the results of depleted uranium in Iraq. It is for this reason that the government is leaving the Gulf war out of its investigations. So much depleted uranium was used then that it might confuse the issue by proving a link. But perhaps the dreadful birth defects and mutated plants are not evidence at all, but signs and wonders portending some great event. I'm not an expert and I can't say for sure, but I think the UN weapons inspectors took a partial view of biological warfare.
Doubtless by raising the issue I risk being accused of championing Saddam, fancying Milosevic and imperilling jobs in the armour-piercing shell industry. Even to draw attention to the fact that nuclear power has more to do with armaments than providing energy and a fun day out for the whole family is to risk accusations of being ideologically opposed to employment. And I suppose I am scare-mongering. Rumours spread like toxic dust on a light breeze. And doubtless the Home Office will have a harder task in rescinding its welcome to Kosovan Albanians and returning them to their bombed out homes if they know it's not even safe to breathe there.
But perhaps I'm worrying unnecessarily. Perhaps they'll find out vCJD is nothing to do with beef but a direct result of the Iraqis stockpiling healthy brains. Perhaps tobacco companies have been right all along and fags are as good for children as cocaine and thalidomide are. Perhaps Aids is god's curse, like menstruation. Perhaps soldiers aren't as tough as they were in my young day when the propensity to mystery illnesses was knocked out of them during basic training. Perhaps civilians have unusually thin skins. What do I know?
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001