THE BLOG
12/20/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Hidden Cost of the Gulf War

The ugly truth about "Gulf War Illness" is finally out, and it makes shocking reading.

A Congressional report just released this week has concluded that one out of four U.S. soldiers who served in the 1991 war against Iraq suffered serious, long-lasting, or even permanent neurotoxic damage from exposure to drugs and chemicals.

That means 175,000 American GI's out of the 697,000 deployed to the Gulf in 1990-91 were permanently injured in the so-called `bloodless' war that was hailed as a great military triumph.

Until the 20th century, sickness caused by diseases like typhoid and small pox, filthy conditions, cold, and stress usually killed far more soldiers in wartime than combat operations. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the ratio was often five or eight to one. The advent of antibiotics in the 20th century and proper sanitation ended this heavy toll on soldiers in the field.

The U.S. government strongly denied for the past 17 years that there was any such thing as "Gulf War Illness' in spite of mounting medical evidence and angry claims by ailing veterans. Now, Washington has finally admitted "Gulf War Illness" is indeed a specific condition that includes memory loss, lack of concentration, severe headaches, fatigue, and pains in different parts of the body, digestive and respiratory problems and skin eruptions.

The government study also concludes that 'Gulf War Illness' was primarily caused by an anti-nerve gas medication, pyridostigmine bromide, give to all troops in the Gulf Theater, and use of powerful pesticides and insect-repellents like highly concentrated DEET.

Other long-suspect agents, like anthrax vaccines, and exposure of 100,000 U.S. troops to Iraqi poison gas dumps blown up by the U.S. Army, may also have played a role. The study found no link to another suspected culprit, depleted uranium. That is another scandal waiting to be revealed.

A quarter of a million permanently disabled or semi-disabled American veterans from what was supposed to have been a jolly little war in the Gulf is a horrifying figure, both in terms of human suffering and the costs of veteran's care. But this shocking report should also make us reflect on the true costs of supposedly 'low-cost' foreign military adventures.

President George H.W. Bush ordered an unnecessary war against Saddam's occupation of Kuwait. The Iraqi leader, hitherto a close U.S. ally in the joint war against Iran, had rashly invaded Kuwait in a rage after being insulted by the Kuwaiti Crown Prince. As a U.S.-led coalition massed against him in Saudi Arabia, Saddam desperately sought a face-saving way out of the trap.

Shortly before the U.S. attack began, Saddam agreed to a French-Russian deal to withdraw his troops. But President Bush was determined to cut Saddam down to size by destroying most of his armed forces. 'Our' SOB had become too big for his britches.

So Bush Sr. ignored pleas from Paris and Moscow and launched his devastating attack on the doomed, totally outgunned Iraqi Army. Just enough Iraqi Republican Guard troops were allowed to escape from the Kuwait pocket to ensure that a gelded Saddam stayed in power and Iraq's pro-Iranian Shias did not take over.

The U.S. lost a paltry 358 dead and 776 wounded. Over 20,000 Iraqis died. Not since British troops had mowed down some 22,000 sword-wielding Dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898 had a Western army so dramatically shown its lethal technological might over the armed mobs that passed for Third World armies.

But what seemed like a bloodless triumph produced a long chain of unintended consequences. Iraq was placed under Draconian U.S. sanctions that, according to the UN, caused the death of 500,000 civilians, mostly children. The leading cause of death was water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid that spread after Iraq's water purification stations and sewage treatment facilities were targeted and destroyed by the U.S. bombing. After the war, Washington turned down Iraq's pleas for chlorine to purify contaminated water.

No one knows how many Iraqi civilians have died as a result of the 2003 invasion ordered by President George W. Bush. Estimates run from 100,000 to one million. But it is likely that some, or even many, of the 160,000 US troops garrisoned in Iraq have contracted other serious illness in that nation's exceptionally unhealthy environment. Iraq's swamps, rivers, filthy cities, searing heat and clouds of dust are an ideal breeding ground for insects, rats, and all sorts of gastric, eye, and skin disorders.

Once again, while US casualties in Iraq appear relatively low -- around 4,100 dead and 35,000 wounded -- the real health costs of garrisoning Iraq will, as in the case of the First Gulf War, not be known for years. Many wounded US troops have suffered grave head wounds from roadside bombs. The splendid victory of the First Gulf War does not look so cheery when the true number of American casualties is computed: 358 dead and 175,776 wounded. Injuries from toxic agents are often worse and more persistent than those from shells and bullets. A 25% casualty rate in any battle is considered extremely high.

These casualties could have been avoided had President George H.W. Bush chosen diplomacy over vaunting his machismo as a war leader. He did the same thing in tiny Panama after pipsqueak dictator Manuel Noriega mocked the U.S. president. An equally swaggering Bush Jr. chose to plunge the U.S. into the growing morass in Afghanistan and a $1 trillion war in Iraq that is one of the great disasters of American history.

So far, we do not even have a grasp on the sicknesses and mental problems that U.S. troops in Afghanistan are encountering. But if the Soviet occupation is any historic guide, the Red Army's troops suffered widespread physical and mental ailments during their ten-year occupation that many continue to experience to this day. The Afghan occupation also infected Soviet troops with addiction to heroin, a scourge they brought home with them after the war's end.

These are things president-elect Barack Obama should ponder as he considers expanding what he called a "good war" in Afghanistan.