Every time I hear the likes of Vice-President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, or Senator Lieberman go on about war with Iraq, it takes me back to a tiny church in the lovely Devon countryside.
A sudden rainstorm had driven my family inside, and as we waited it out, we wandered through the chapels reading the names of those buried in the walls and floors. I soon began jotting things on the back of a guidebook: Sgt. Brown, killed in the explosion of the arsenal at Dum Dum during the Indian Sepoy Rebellion of 1857; a corporal who died in Iraq; a young lieutenant shipped home in a box from the Boar War; an entire of wall given over to Flanders and the Somme.
It was a history lesson Congress should keep in mind when it begins its debate over Iraq: wars are built on the bones 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 our side. While Iraqi casualties were somewhere between 85,000 to 100,000 (not counting several thousand civilians), the U.S lost 148 soldiers in combat, the vast majority of those the victims of so-called “friendly fire.” In fact more U.S. soldiers were killed in non-combat related accidents than on the battlefield.
Gulf War II is likely to be a repeat (although war is filled with nasty surprises). 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. Like Gulf I, however, that’s when the real trouble starts.
Out of 700,000 U.S. soldiers who served in the Gulf 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 amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig Disease), and two to three times more likely to have children with birth defects.
A recent article in the British Medical Journal indicates that up to 24 percent of British Gulf war vets were disabled, a rate twice that of soldiers who served in other theaters.
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 exotic chemicals, and soldiers are pumped full of untested vaccines and antidotes. All this cooks up a witch’s brew that plays havoc with the immune system of anyone exposed to it.
In the last Gulf go around, the U.S. 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.
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% of those who take the vaccine report local or system-wide reactions.
There may even be worse things out there. The Army is presently investigating a rash of suicides and at least four murders among Special Operations Forces Afghan vets vaccinated with the antimalarial drug, Lariam.
The effect of another war on Iraqis, of course, will be horrendous. Gulf I was a disaster. According to the United Nations, at least 500,000 Iraqi children have died as a direct result of the sanctions, and 5,000 continue to die each month. Cancer rates, according to Iraqi health authorities have increased ten fold in Southern Iraq. Last year, 1600 Iraqis and Kuwaitis were killed by unexploded cluster bombs from the last Gulf War, and another 2500 were wounded.
The Pentagon projects a minimum of 10,000 Iraqi civilian deaths for Gulf II
Gulf I cost $61.1 billion, of which $48.4 billion was paid by our allies. Since this time around we don’t have allies, the entire cost will fall on U.S. taxpayers. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimates the war will cost from $80 to $100 billion, and a further $21 billion for the first six years of occupation. According to Samuel Berger, former Clinton Administration foreign policy advisor, it will take anywhere from $50 billion to $150 billion to rebuild the Iraqi economy. The Bush Administration spends $33 billion on K-12 education.
If Congress doesn’t bring a halt to all this, we are going to kill and maim tens of thousands of its people, alienate our allies, spend between $30 and $40 billion, and create yet another round of Gulf War Syndrome for our young troops.
Sgt. Brown, the corporal and the lieutenant were blinded by the myth of empire, and they 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”