Planet Earth: the Latest Weapon of War by Rosalie Bertell

review by Muriel Wood

This is a remarkable book and highly recommended. Rosalie Bertell draws on evidence from military, environmental and social scientists to show how vulnerable we all are to unforeseen and uncontrollable consequences of human interference with the natural scheme of things. She attempts to set a direction of discourse and scholarship which is different from that of mainstream linear thinking, claiming that it is the narrow focus of most research that encourages a collective blindness to what we are doing to the long-term future of the planet. The book is in three parts.

Part 1 deals with Kosovo and Iraq, the two major conflicts of the last ten years that give us a snapshot of the extensive environmental impact of modern high-tech weapons, and questions the motivation and results of what has been called ‘humanitarian’ intervention. It also looks at the other side of the military coin; the experimentation and research that exploits natural resources and destabilises a balanced ecology.

In Part 2 the book looks at the consequences of past research and the culture of ‘experiment first and ask questions later’ that characterises the search for ever more sophisticated weaponry. The author focuses on attempts, atomic, biological and chemical, to exploit the Earth’s environment itself as a weapon.

Part 3 seeks to redefine the notion of security. At the moment the greatest threat to security is the destruction of the world’s natural resources. I want to deal with Part 2 of the book in this article, as the wars both in Iraq and Kosovo have been fairly extensively dealt with in previous newsletters, and to look at Part 3 in next month’s newsletter.

Over the last half-century our exploration of the Earth’s atmosphere has moved from pure observation to experimentation. Atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons started in 1946 and continued for the next twelve years. The purpose of the last atmospheric tests appears to have been to assess the impact of high-altitude nuclear explosions on radio transmissions and radar operations. They already knew that nuclear explosions create an electromagnetic pulse that wipes out radio communication. These nuclear explosions created new magnetic radiation belts that were still in existence five years after the explosions, and injected sufficient electrons and other energetic particles into the ionosphere to cause worldwide effects. The electrons travelled back and forth along the newly-created magnetic force lines creating artificial auroras when striking the atmosphere near the North Pole.

The Inuit people rely on the caribou for food, shelter and clothing. In winter 1957, for an unknown reason, the caribou failed to migrate and many people starved to death. Levels of caesium both in the caribou and in the lichen on which they feed were also much higher than normal. By 1975 rates of cancer within the Arctic Circle had risen from 78·4 to 169·3 per hundred thousand, too great a rise to be accounted for by increased longevity.

In 1962, after a brief respite, atmospheric testing began again, seriously disturbing the ionosphere and changing the electron fluxes, which have never returned to their former state. It was also established that nuclear explosions had depleted the ozone layer by about 4%. All these experiments clearly show the danger of human intervention before we have the necessary knowledge to understand the consequences.

Details of a secret Pentagon project known as Timberwind have been leaked to the press and indicate that it involves a nuclear-fuelled rocket, which heats a propellant such as hydrogen in a Radioisotope Thermal Generator (RTG) and then expels it at a high velocity to provide the forward thrust. RTGs are fuelled with 10·9kg of plutonium dioxide and have to be operational from the moment of launch. The first major space accident seriously to affect Earth took place in April 1964, when a US rocket launch was aborted dispersing 17,000 curies of plutonium over a wide area.

In 1968 the US government proposed a system of solar power satellites to capture energy from the Sun, and transmit it to the Earth for domestic use in the form of a microwave beam aimed at receiving antennæ on the aurface, occupying up to 145 km² of land which would be rendered uninhabitable to animals and plants. The system was planned to produce 10% of US energy needs by 2025 and was hugely expensive, whereas ground-based solar panels could have provided up to 70% of heating and air-conditioning needs. It was clear the possibility of developing a satellite-based beam had significant military implications.

In 1990 the US launched a satellite containing canisters of barium and lithium which were released just above the ozone layer. This was repeated on a larger scale and at different heights in 1991. The sun’s rays ionised the chemicals, producing luminous clouds. At the end of that year an aurora borealis was visible as far south as Texas, an occurrence unknown in recorded history. Scientists suggested that the ionosphere had been weakened, and charged particles normally captured in the upper layers of the Earth’s atmosphere were making it through to lower altitudes.

Changes in the ionosphere bring about changes in weather and climate. Military activity endangers our environment, and human and financial resources which are already in short supply. Unless we begin to change our thinking, how are we going to manage the resources we have? If the life support systems on which animals and plants depend are affected, life as we know it may become unsustainable.

“Son of Star Wars?”

The public meeting on “US plans for Ballistic Missile Defence and Space Warfare” on February 5th unfortunately coincided with the Tube strike, which greatly reduced the size of the audience, but for those of us who made it on foot from Waterloo it was a stimulating and thought-provoking occasion.

The main speaker was Rear-Admiral Eugene J. Carroll (USN, Ret.) whose active service with the US Navy included both Korea and Vietnam before he was posted first to Europe, as a Commander in the US Sixth Fleet and then as staff officer under General Alexander Haig, and finally to the Pentagon to take part in US naval planning for both conventional and nuclear war.

Admiral Carroll shared the platform with the retired British General Sir Hugh Beach, who made it plain that it is fairly easy to make a short-term military case for NMD, especially in the context of Theatre Missile Defence (TMD), and advised against arguing with the military on their own terms — saying “NMD won’t work” is simply a challenge, and saying it is too expensive ignores the fact that it is their money. [“So, if it’s cheap and it works, you have no objection in principle?”]

If we complain in the UK about being a target, President Bush will offer to protect us with TMD. We need to shift the argument from detailed criticism of a particular weapons system to active promotion of threat elimination i.e. the global elimination of nuclear weapons as an ultimate goal, rather than yet more reliance on technology and the inevitable new arms race.

The immediate argument against NMD is that it is profoundly destabilising and threatens all the political progress made last year. The NPT Review in New York last May and the New Agenda Coalition vote in the UN in November contained unambiguous commitments to nuclear disarmament, and a preliminary acknowledgement of the need for a nuclear weapons convention.

Admiral Carroll made it clear that his concerns over NMD go even further than this. He painted a frightening picture of NMD as the “tip of the iceberg in a major rethinking of space as a battleground”. The US is looking towards “full spectrum military dominance”. The ‘Cold War Hawks’ recalled by the new President all see the military power of the US [“forward presence” to influence/control events] as the primary instrument of US foreign policy. NMD is presented as a necessary part of keeping the peace, but in fact its function is to insulate the US against the consequences of its military-driven approach to the world.

There is already an active research programme in the US to develop space-based lasers with offensive capabilities [“systems with a truly global reach”] which would pose an intolerable ‘no-warning’ threat to the satellite communications of other nations. Testing of this system is envisaged within 6 years and deployment within a further 6 years [“and 12 years pass rapidly when you are having fun”]. Once serious money starts to flow into any project it generates a huge constituency with immense clout (rather like our own nuclear power industry). We need to campaign against the whole concept of the militarisation of space.

Fête of the Earth May 12th

We are already beginning the planning for this year’s Fête of the Earth, and within the next few weeks you can expect the usual telephone appeals for goods and helpers. We do have a most urgent need for extra offers of transport this year as two of our regular drivers have moved away from the area. Please volunteer yourself and your car for an hour or so, either early in the morning when we are setting up, or in mid-afternoon when we close down. Even if you are only able to spare one hour in the whole year to work for nuclear disarmament, make it 8–9am or 4–5pm on May 12th !

Campaign Against Depleted Uranium

CADU was founded in Manchester by CND Vice Chair Rae Street in January 1999 and WDC/CND has been affiliated for most of this period. It has always seemed important to our anti-nuclear campaign that we should remember that radioactive weapons are still being tested and have been used both in Iraq and Kosovo. The levels of radioactivity in depleted uranium are extremely low, but it has been clearly demonstrated that the dust which forms when it disintegrates at high temperatures are exceedingly toxic, liable to contaminate troops serving in a war zone as well as the environment, and innocent civilian inhabitants of the region.

Recent media publicity has focused on the health of soldiers, but readers of this Newsletter will be aware that we heard a harrowing account from Felicity Arbuthnot of children’s cancers in Iraq long before depleted uranium hit the headlines this winter. It does at last seem as if the Government is being forced to take the issue seriously.

CADU hosted an International Conference at the end of last year, supported by Manchester City Council, and report that the beginning of this year has seen an upsurge in demand on their resources as European governments increasingly begin to question the safety of their own troops. Extra funds are desperately needed and donations should be sent to

CADU, c/o Bridge 5 Mill, 22a Beswick Street, Ancoats, Manchester M4 7HS. Extra information can be found on their website at

Mir’s bomb test mystery

Jim Lindsay supplied us with the following snippet from New Scientist [3·2·2001]

“The Mir space station is determined to go out with a bang. Just a month before it is due to crash into the Pacific Ocean, it has thrown up one last puzzle. How did tiny radioactive specks of decay products of uranium end up on one of its instrument covers? The American scientists who discovered the radioactivity say it is the first evidence that space around the Earth is contaminated with uranium.”

Rival explanations are that the radioactive uranium might have come from nuclear weapons tested in space in the 1960s, from uranium-powered satellites that have burnt up on re-entry into the atmosphere or (less plausibly) from an exploding supernova that might have blasted the uranium into our Solar System many thousands of years ago.

The Californian scientists who made the discovery point the finger at ‘Starfish Prime’, a US nuclear bomb test carried out on 9 July 1962 at an altitude of 399 kilometres, the highest known nuclear test, and higher than Mir’s average orbit of 320 kilometres. There is of course no possibility of proof, but thus is just one more indication that we are only gradually coming to realise the cosmic implications of some of our scientific cleverness.

What you can do: letter writing

“...methods and means of warfare which would preclude any distinction between civilian and military targets, or which would result in unnecessary suffering to combatants are prohibited.... the threat and use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law...”

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