Issue 204 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Sharon Smith

Six years ago the US and its allies swept to victory against Iraq in the Gulf War. For weeks on end US and allied warplanes carpet-bombed Iraq, dropping a total of 88,500 tons of bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including countless civilians. But six years later the casualties of the Gulf War are still mounting. More than half a million Iraqi children have been killed since the war ended from hunger and disease caused by UN sanctions against Iraq put in place at the end of the war. It has been estimated that 4,500 children under the age of five die each month because of the sanctions. When the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright (who has since been appointed as Clinton's new secretary of defence), was asked whether the lives of half a million Iraqi children were too high a price, she replied, `I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, is worth it.'

The price has also been paid by US and allied soldiers who fought in the Gulf War. Many were exposed to chemical and radioactive weapons and are now suffering severe health problems which have collectively come to be known as `Gulf War Syndrome'. Of the nearly 700,000 US troops who served in the Gulf about 80,000 have reported that they are ill with similar symptoms including rashes, chronic diarrhoea, memory loss, dizziness and joint pain. One Gulf War veteran, Matthew Conaway, who is now 27 years old and works on a loading dock, suffers from typical symptoms. He has a rash consisting of small lumps all over his body and gets headaches that last a week at a time `like somebody tapping you on the head every hour of the day.' He also described how `I've often been curled up in a ball with stomach pain.'

A study by the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) showed that Gulf War veterans were suffering from joint pain at more than three times the rate for troops who had not served in the war; for memory loss the rate was more than four times higher; for rashes nearly five times higher; and for chronic diarrhoea nearly six times higher. Overall the CDC has found that Gulf War troops are 13 times more likely to be ill as other US troops. And a growing number are having children with severe birth defects.

For years the Pentagon issued blanket denials of any possibility that US and allied soldiers had been exposed to chemical weapons in the war an assessment shared by the British Ministry of Defence. The symptoms, it claimed, were a result of `battlefield stress' (from a ground war that lasted less than a week!). In 1994, despite Czech claims that its troops had detected chemical weapons during the war, Secretary of Defence William Perry stated in no uncertain terms, `there is no information, classified or unclassified, that indicates that chemical or biological weapons were used in the Persian Gulf.'

But the Pentagon has now been forced to admit that it has known for years that US troops were exposed to chemical weapons during the war and that in many, if not most cases soldiers were exposed not by the actions of Iraqis, but by the `friendly fire' of American troops. In June Pentagon officials finally admitted that thousands of US troops were exposed to nerve gas and mustard gas when they blew up Iraq's Kamisiyah ammunition depot on 4 March and 10 March 1991.

The depot was sprawled over nearly 20 miles and the explosions produced a massive black cloud that covered hundreds of miles of the Iraqi desert which probably exposed not only US troops but part of the British First Infantry, not to mention any Iraqis in the area. Then last month the Pentagon disclosed that the pages covering the same eight day period in March when US troops blew up the Kamisiyah depot were `lost or missing' from its military logs. `This was the historical record of what was supposedly the brightest moment in the last 50 years of American military history, and now they've misplaced part of the historical record?' asked James Tuite, an investigator for Gulf War veterans. `That's very hard to believe,' he said.

Meanwhile, two former CIA analysts, Patrick and Robin Eddington, recently claimed that the CIA have evidence of 60 incidents which may have exposed more than 100,000 troops including soldiers not only from the US, but also from France, Britain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to chemical weapons during the Gulf War.

Patrick Eddington said that top Pentagon officials `have lied, and are continuing to lie, are continuing to withhold information' from the public. General Colin Powell, who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staff during the war, conceded that chemical detection alarms had sounded repeatedly during the Gulf War. But commanders ignored them because, he said, `they saw nothing that substantiated the alarm evidence. The alarms went off, and it wasn't clear that the alarms going off was necessarily' evidence of `the presence of chemical weapons.'

In reality soldiers were exposed to such a wide variety of chemical and radioactive weapons that Tuite described the Gulf War as `the most toxic battlefield in the history of modern warfare'. Yet the Pentagon continues to insist that there is no such thing as Gulf War Syndrome. The government has a financial incentive for denying the existence of Gulf War Syndrome. As the New York Times argued recently, it `may find itself liable for medical care and disability payments for tens of thousands of the 700,000 American military personnel who served in the war.'

The Pentagon managed to deny disability payments for decades to Vietnam veterans who became sick from Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the Vietnam War which gave them cancer and caused severe birth defects in their children. By the time Congress finally authorised payments for illnesses caused by Agent Orange in 1993, many Vietnam vets had already died, or had watched their children die. A recent issue of The Gulf Vet, a newsletter for Gulf War veterans in New England, argued, `According to the Veterans Administration, 300 Massachusetts Gulf War Veterans are already dead. We don't have time to wait 20 years for the US government to get around to researching this in a systematic way we need answers now.'

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