06/25/2010 04:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gulf Oil Disaster: Not War but Cancer

Ten years ago when I flew out to a BP deepwater platform in the Gulf of Mexico aboard an oil-industry service helicopter I was amazed there were production rigs as far as I could see out to the horizon. A week ago I flew out over the Gulf with conservation pilot Tom Hutchings and Waterkeeper John Wathen to the Source -- "The Source" is what they call the ongoing oil eruption where BP's Deepwater Horizon platform sank in April and is now spewing tens of thousands of barrels of oil every day.

Flying in a small Cessna at 2,000 feet I can see oil slicks and patches as far as the horizon. There are also thick columns of black smoke and orange flames on the water where they're burning off the surface oil. We also spot and count 75-100 dolphins and a sperm whale moving slowly through heavy rainbow fields of oil some 30 miles from the nearest clear water.

The source itself reminds me of the offshore oil terminals I've visited in Iraq guarded by U.S. Navy ships and Coast Guard Cutters. Only here in U.S. waters the flare offs and "Enterprise" oil collector ship and work boats and petro-haze (and odor) and torrents of water aimed at the columns of jetting flame is even more crazy-dramatic than that iron belt of warships we maintain around Iraq's floating oil. It makes it easy to understand why our leaders have chosen the wrong metaphor for the so far unsuccessful efforts to contain, never mind control, this disaster.

With his talk of a battle plan to fight the oil, President Obama has begun to adopt the rhetoric of war. But I'd choose a more appropriate metaphor.

From my own experiences under fire and in ICUs I've learned that war gives one the illusion of having control over life and death. Cancer strips that illusion away.

The metastasizing spill in the Gulf is like cancer and the activity 90 miles offshore at the source like a messy surgery. The millions of gallons of toxic dispersants are like chemo, the burn offs, radiation.

No metaphor is perfect but when I hear Louisiana's Treasurer repeat a common claim among locals that they are in a two front war against BP's oil in the marshes and the president's moratorium on new deepwater drilling (just overturned by a Louisiana Judge) I think about my mother when she discovered she had lung cancer. First she went around the house tearing up her cigarette packs and cursing Chesterfields. Later she shrugged, went to the store and bought a new pack.

It's unclear if America is really prepared to kick its addiction to the 16th and 19th century combustibles of coal and oil. They're clearly much more addictive than nicotine.

All I can say for certain is that those dolphins and that whale I saw last Monday are probably dead by now and that's no metaphor, that's just what's happening in this ongoing mess BP and the oil industry created that could prove terminal for up to a third of the Gulf of Mexico and its fringing shores.

40 years ago after the Santa Barbara oil spill the cry was, 'Get Oil Out!' I think with a new citizen movement, that could be the beginning of a cure.