Time to tell truth about gulf war

March 22, 2002|By Raffi Khatchadourian

NEW YORK -- With U.S. military action in Iraq emerging as a possible next phase in the war on terrorism, the Pentagon should work quickly toward solving some of the nagging questions that cloud over the Persian Gulf war and its legacy.

In particular, it should clear up uncertainty surrounding so-called Gulf War Syndrome. If the public is to have an informed debate about returning troops to Iraq, it must have better information about why so many soldiers who fought there became ill.

Unfortunately, recently released data about U.S. military maneuvers conducted near an Iraqi storage facility during Operation Desert Storm suggest that opacity rather than openness continues to define the official account of that conflict.

As the gulf war came to a close, members of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps carried out two large-scale operations to destroy munitions at the Khamisiyah storage facility, situated about 100 miles northwest of the gulf.

Afterward, U.N. inspectors determined that the facility was awash with chemical weapons. The Defense Department further concluded that by destroying a number of those weapons, "some U.S. ground forces were likely exposed to very low levels of nerve agent."

In 1997, based on a computer simulation of the Khamisiyah demolitions, the government drew up a list of about 100,000 service members who were potentially exposed to the plume of chemical warfare agents that drifted across the Iraqi desert.

For many gulf war veterans, this was a watershed. It was not only the first of such admissions, but also the largest. It was information that had far-reaching implications in the debate over Gulf War Syndrome.

But then in 2000, a strange thing happened. The Pentagon conducted a second test and determined that its 1997 figures were not accurate. Pentagon analysts said that about 34,000 soldiers among the initial 100,000 could not have been exposed to the plume. So their names were deleted from the list. Meanwhile, the Defense Department said, it had mistakenly overlooked about 34,000 other soldiers who were potentially affected. Their names were added to the list.

On the surface, this switch might not seem odd. But buried in a heap of government statistics released in February, the Defense Department revealed that the death rate among the 34,000 soldiers whose names were taken off the list was 10 times higher than that of the 34,000 added to the list -- and five times higher than that of the remaining 66,000.

Why was the group with the highest fatality rate suddenly excluded from the pool of those deemed "potentially" affected by the cloud of chemical agents?

Veterans groups have been calling it a shell game. Members of Congress have expressed serious concern about the results. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, called the new statistics "sad and shocking." Rep. Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat, has characterized the data as "extremely puzzling."

A Defense Department spokesman said it is too soon to read any significance into the "raw data." But it is not clear why the data were released without any explanation and whether any future clarification will be provided without congressional pressure.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released this information only to a small group of veterans and representatives from veterans associations but would not issue it to journalists. (Soon after, veterans posted it on the Internet.) That the VA buried the figures on pages of spreadsheets only further suggests that it is not especially interested in transparency.

In the scant text accompanying the data, there is the following notification: "In 2000, based on a new computer model, [the Department of Defense] changed the location of the Khamisiyah plume `footprint.'" It does not say why or how this was done. But it could have. Presumably the new footprint was designed for a reason, and that reason should have been provided in the report.

Clearly, those who are prepared to defend the United States recognize that all forms of combat come with risks. However, as the war on terrorism progresses, and the United States finds that it is putting more and more soldiers on the ground, it must ask whether it is better for the country and its military servicemen and women to obscure such information or to be more open.

Both at home and abroad, there is great hesitation about re-engaging Saddam Hussein militarily, as some argue America must do.

The kind of obfuscation evidenced in the data on the Khamisiyah operation will not make easier the difficult debate over how to deal with Iraq. It could even hinder support for future military operations, were they deemed worthwhile.

Many gulf war veterans are openly beginning to wonder whether George W. Bush's campaign promises to improve morale within the military were anything more than a mirage. Once the euphoria of recent successes in Afghanistan subsides, that concern just might become infectious.

Raffi Khatchadourian writes about military affairs from New York.

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