Every time I hear the likes of Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, or Sen. Lieberman go on about war with Iraq, it reminds me of a history lesson.
Congress should keep in mind when it begins its debate over Iraq: Wars are waged with the bodies of the young, and they always come home.
The 1991 Gulf War is a case in point. As wars go, it was a slam-dunk for the United States side. While Iraqi casualties were somewhere between 85,000 to 100,000, the United States lost 148 soldiers in combat, the majority of those the victims of so-called “friendly fire.”
Gulf War II is likely to be a repeat. The U.S. is better armed than it was 11 years ago, while a decade of sanctions and bombings — more tonnage has been dropped on Iraq since the end of Gulf War I than was dropped on Yugoslavia during the war over Kosovo — has reduced the Iraqi military to a shadow of its former self. I suspect we will take Baghdad in less than a week. But that’s when the real trouble starts.
Out of 700,000 U.S. soldiers who served in Gulf War I, 118,000 are suffering from chronic fatigue, headaches, muscle spasms, joint pains, anxiety, memory loss and balance problems. Gulf vets are twice as likely to develop Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and two to three times more likely to have children with birth defects.
War has always been a toxic business, but it is much more so today than it was 50 years ago. Modern battlefields are saturated with Depleted Uranium Ammunition (DUA), and other chemicals, and soldiers are pumped full of untested vaccines and antidotes.
In the last Gulf go-around, the United States fired 860,590 DUA munitions. While the military keeps claiming DUAs are harmless, tank crews protected by DUA armor get the equivalent of a chest x-ray every 20 to 30 hours.
Ask your doctor if that is a good idea. The Army’s own Chemical Command concluded back in 1991 that troops exposed to DUA should wear protective masks, respirators and clothes, “at a minimum.” Fighting in such gear is almost impossible, which means it is unlikely to be used much, and probably only if chemical or biological weapons are used.
[Editor’s note: Medical research reports released in late 2000 link exposure to depleted uranium with cancer in animals.]
One major suspect in Gulf War Syndrome is the experimental anthrax vaccine required for all military personal. That requirement has caused an exodus from the Air Force. According to the Associated Press, the vaccine is a leading reason for aircrews and pilots resigning from the National Guard and Air Force Reserve units, and 86 percent of those who take the vaccine report local or system-wide reactions.
The effect of another war on Iraqis, of course, will be horrendous. The Pentagon projects a minimum of 10,000 Iraqi civilian deaths for Gulf II.
If Congress and the American pubic don’t bring a halt to all this, we are going to kill and maim tens of thousands of innocent people, goad angry young Muslims to commit more terrorism against American civilians, and create yet another round of deadly Gulf War Syndrome for our troops.
Young men pressed into the service of empire have always paid for it with their lives. Rudyard Kipling’s epitaph for them still resonates today:
“If any question why we died, Tell them because our fathers lied.”
Conn Hallinan is provost at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a foreign policy analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus.