The Time of Dry Wood
by Philip Berrigan
“If they do these things in the Green Wood, what will they do in
the Dry?” (Luke 23:31)
(Recall that Jesus spoke these words to the “daughters of
Jerusalem” as he carried the cross. Then, he went on to his
It’s December 31st, 1999 as I write from my jail cell in Towson,
Maryland. One looks to tomorrow, the new century and the new
millennium with gratitude and hope. But what prepares us for
this new time? Who will remake tomorrow’s world, and with what?
Have we learned from the crimes of the past, pledging not to
The twentieth century has been dubbed “the bloodiest of
centuries,” with over 200 million dead from war. How many more
are crippled physically psychological, spiritually by war? 400
million? How many more victimized and destroyed by the spirit of
war--genocides, tortures, disappearances, gulags, pogroms,
economic sanctions? Incalculable! How many are alive today who
have not been scarred in some way by war? The harvest of death
and destruction from war is appalling, stupefying.
“If we executed the Lord of Life in the Green Wood, what will we
do in the Dry Wood?” The twentieth century’s wars reveal a
dramatic shift from the number of soldiers killed in war to a
huge increase in the number of civilians killed in war; as well
as the introduction of nuclear weapons, more efficient weaponry,
and the development of entire economies, like the US, based on
war. Unless these trends are checked and reversed, the bloody
twentieth century will become a template for the twenty-first.
What does the general silence over war from pulpits, Congress,
the media, campuses and business communities indicate except a
sullen insistence of the right to kill one another?
As I have asked these questions during this past year, I watched
as the US used “depleted uranium” with its special bombers, the
“A-10 Warthog” not only in Iraq but on Yugoslavia.
As my friends brought back reports of fatalities from the
scourge of economic sanctions on Iraq, they also spoke of
witnessing hideously deformed “jellyfish babies,” Iraqi children
reminiscent of children born out of our nuclear testing in the
South Pacific. These cruelly deformed children are the children
of fathers who were exposed to depleted uranium during the Gulf
War and recent bombings.
Just before the war ended in Yugoslavia, NATO admitted firing
depleted uranium again, using the A-10 Warthog on the Balkans.
“My God,” I thought, “the nuclear alchemists have succeeded in
doing something that they’ve tried to do for decade, compress
the gap between nuclear and conventional weapons.” It hit me
with crushing force that our warriors were fighting with nuclear
weapons again. Whatever faint illusion I had about American
goodwill toward disarmament fled abruptly.
I found my anti-war friends, staunchly Biblical and committed to
nonviolence, slow to comprehend the ominous nature of depleted
uranium. This mystified me. Was this another instance of the
Bomb covering its tracks, creating a demonic aura around itself
that befuddled and obscured sensitive consciences? Whatever the
case, it helped to explain the virtual absence of resistance to
our nuclear warring in Iraq and Yugoslavia.
The New Testament sums up “the law and the prophets” with the
simple commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If that’s
how we are to worship God, if that’s how we build justice and
peace in the world, then how do we regard depleted uranium
except with horror?
A depleted uranium shell, fired from an A-10, strikes a tank or
personnel carrier, quickly penetrates the armor and burns the
crew alive. Meanwhile, its impact aerosolizes radioactive
heavy-metal particles, scattering them up to 25 miles, to be
breathed or ingested. These dust like particles are not only
carcinogenic, they are genetically destructive. Hence, the
chronically ill or deformed children of Desert Storm veterans.
Susan Crane, Liz Walz, Steve Kelly and I decided to engage in a
Plowshares action aimed at depleted uranium. We chose December
19th, the last Sunday of Advent, an appropriate time to enact
the conversion and atonement needed to welcome Jesus into this
deranged world. We saw our act as public worship and reparation
for our sins and those of our country.
At 4 a.m., we cut the chain locking an antiquated gate (the
“security” around our nation’s weaponry is often a joke) at the
Warfield Air National Guard Base in Essex, Maryland, and
discovered two rows of A-10 Warthogs parked on the tarmac, some
100 yards from the gate.
We picked two Warthogs and hammered on them to remind Americans
that these perverted aircraft fired 95% of all depleted uranium
munitions during the Iraqi and Yugoslavian wars, and that they
must be disarmed. The World Court maintains that use of the A-10
and its depleted uranium are illegal. We maintain that they have
no right to exist.
Liz Walz and I hammered first on the Gatling gun protruding like
a shark’s snout from the nose of the A-10. Then, we struck the
bomb and missile pylons beneath the wings, and then the
undercarriage. Finally, we poured our blood on to the fuselage.
Susan and Steve did similar disarmament on the other Warthog. In
fact, Steve discovered a ladder, climbed on a wing, removed the
vinyl cover from an engine and poured his blood directly into
Our disarmament of the A-10 and depleted uranium munitions was
certainly symbolic, but no less real. We kept our action
symbolic by refusing to do the maximum damage possible, to show
the universal need and possibility of disarmament. We
represented everyone in disarming these deadly planes. In turn,
everyone has a responsibility to disarm nuclear weapons and all
weapons of war.
Depleted uranium has a half-life of over 4 billion years. It is
only slightly less radioactive than raw uranium. It joins other
nuclear efforts of the past 55 years, most of them led by the
US, to put the world’s people on a virtual death row--mining and
processing uranium, exposed uranium tailings, nuclear weapons
testing, nuclear weapons fabrication and nuclear power
generation. Dr. Rosalie Bertell claims that over one billion
people have died, have been poisoned or are dying from nuclear
power generation alone.
Nuclear war or global irradiation: which is our fate? As one
unusual judge recently put it during a plowshares trial, “As
long as one nuclear weapon exists, war is imminent!” The
Russians and ourselves have thousands on hair-trigger alert.
Nuclear war could start from a mad official decision. It could
also begin from a nuclear accident or from technical failure.
But the US has chosen a softer approach to nuclear war, with its
depleted uranium weapons. The US gives depleted uranium free of
charge to weapons manufacturers, and ships it to dozens of
“friendly” nations, openly inviting them to make their own
nuclear weapons, fight their own nuclear wars, and irradiate the
In order to get rid of its vast stockpile of depleted uranium
(the U-238 residue of its nuclear weapons program), the US has
shipped secret cargoes of depleted uranium on air freighters.
Their airframes contain depleted uranium as ballast. Several
horrendous crashes have resulted, like the Israeli El Al 747
that went down outside Amsterdam in 1992. When such aircraft
crash and burn, ballast and cargo burn also, spraying the
radiated particles over a considerable area.
“If they do these things in the Green Wood, what will they do in
Long before the development of depleted uranium, Thomas Merton
speculated that nuclear weapons prepared Christ for a second
crucifixion, this time in the human family. Polls indicate that
over 70% of Americans desire serious nuclear disarmament. Are
depleted uranium weapons a devil’s brew that sidesteps the
majority’s desire for nuclear disarmament?
The power-mongers from corporate, military and political life,
have imposed this lunatic burden of nuclearism on everyone, and
put us all on a kind of nuclear death row.
Where does one look for hope, as the world sinks deeper into
social psychosis? To the people alone, particularly to people of
faith. In the past, the people alone checked the mad ambitions
of the pharaohs.
Today, those who try to follow Jesus throughout their lives and
through their actions can do the same.
If we wake up, and live out the nonviolent resistance
exemplified by Jesus, we can discard the biblical metaphors of
the green and dry wood. Jesus Christ will live, now and forever.
And so will we.