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Gulf War Syndrome – the sequel

Every major conflict is now followed by its own syndrome, threats of legal action and claims of everlasting stress.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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Alex Izett, a former British soldier, has won what everyone is calling a ‘landmark ruling’. The UK War Pensions Appeal Tribunal has ruled that there is a link between the vaccinations that Izett received in the run-up to the Gulf War of 1991 and his current osteoporosis. According to one report, the ruling shows that ‘Gulf War syndrome really does exist’.

Does it? Izett’s case seems to have raised as many questions as answers. According to Simon Wessely of the Gulf War Illnesses Research Unit at King’s College London, the case highlights ‘the ambiguities and difficulties that result from claims for ill health arising out of military service’. Wessely says that, while there are certainly side effects from the vaccines administered to protect troops from chemical and biological weapons, they do not prove the existence of a specific syndrome.

‘Medical science has been unable to verify the existence of a unique Gulf War syndrome’, says Wessely. ‘Doctors who have no contact with the military are all familiar with sufferers from illnesses that are remarkably similar to so-called Gulf War syndrome, but which go under different labels such as chronic fatigue syndrome or multiple chemical sensitivity. It seems that you don’t need to go to the Gulf, or even be in the military, in order to get Gulf War syndrome.’

While there is still much medical doubt about the existence of GWS, the broader debate about it fits a very modern pattern for post-conflict squabbling. Every conflict now seems to be followed by its own syndrome. No war appears complete without troops threatening to sue their commanders for making them do risky things. And soldiers often claim that the experience of war has caused them everlasting stress. What’s going on?

That every military battle is now followed by internal military battles suggests far deeper problems for today’s military machines than dodgy vaccines. Modern armies – whether the American, British, French or Israeli – seem to find it increasingly difficult to generate wartime solidarity among their troops, and to justify individual sacrifice in the name of a collective aim. In our fearful, risk-averse times, it appears that even armies are losing the fighting spirit.

Following the first Gulf War, claims of a post-conflict syndrome were not seriously discussed until 1994, three years after the war ended. In the Gulf War just gone, it was a matter of days before British lawyers started investigating the possibility of ‘Gulf War II syndrome’ and whether troops could sue the army. On 3 May, days after UK prime minister Tony Blair uttered the v-word in relation to Iraq, the Guardian ran a story headlined ‘After the war, a fight for justice’, reporting that British law firms are ‘anticipating a large number of claims from servicemen returning from the Gulf…over Gulf War syndrome and friendly fire’ (1).

It isn’t surprising that ambulance-chasing lawyers are out in force so soon, considering that the British military itself has made a big issue out of a potential second coming of some kind of Gulf War sickness. On 4 May 2003, UK defence officials announced that all British troops returning from the Gulf will be tested for ‘signs of mental or physical illness’ (2). The tests will monitor soldiers’ health for months after their return, as they settle back into civilian life, to ensure that outbreaks of post-traumatic stress disorder are kept in check (3). It’s a long way from the flag-waving welcome home that troops got in the past.

British military officials describe the mass screening of returning troops as a ‘pre-emptive strike’ (what else?) against accusations that officials are ‘are underplaying the health consequences of war’ (4). Yet rather than reassuring returning troops, the all-out focus on their mental and physical health is likely only to heighten their post-conflict anxieties. Making troops’ wellbeing into the subject of a pre-emptive study into serious health problems that will last for months is unlikely to boost their morale for future fighting.

It isn’t only wars in the Gulf, with their ‘cocktail of vaccines’, that have given rise to claims of post-conflict syndromes. Around the world, every major conflict seems to be followed by some sickness or other. There is ‘Balkans syndrome’, where some claim that British and American troops who served in Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, were exposed to dangerous levels of depleted uranium. There’s ‘Mogadishu syndrome’, used to describe US military officials’ crisis of confidence in the wake of their disastrous intervention in Somalia in 1993.

Even in what some refer to as ‘dirty conflicts’ – those that are seen as being immune to the impact of international trends – syndromes are lurking. Many in Russia talk of ‘Chechen syndrome’, where Russian troops who served in Chechnya apparently suffer from deep depression. And there’s even ‘Intifada Syndrome’, or as it’s known in Israel, ‘What Have I Done!’ syndrome, where Israeli troops claim to be suffering flashbacks and mental stress as a result of their actions in the occupied Palestinian territories (5).

You might imagine that that the hardened Israeli army, not known for treating either its own soldiers or Palestinians with kid gloves, would scoff at any notion of Intifada Syndrome. But in fact, the army has given its backing to a specially built ‘rehabilitation village’, which treats Israeli troops suffering from Intifada syndrome, and which is staffed by reserve Israeli officers and supported by Orit Mofaz, the wife of Israel’s defence minister.

Even wars gone by that don’t have an official syndrome often seem to have one in all but name. The Irish ‘Troubles’ effectively have their own syndrome in the shape of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, where British soldiers express their shame and regret at the events that took place in Derry in 1972. The Falklands War may not have its own syndrome, but it’s now best remembered as the conflict that turned a generation of British men into wife beaters – as personified in the character of Grant in the BBC soap EastEnders, who was always beating up his poor wife Tiffany because of what the British government made him do in the Falklands.

There’s no doubt that wars have a huge impact on the individuals who fight in them. It would be a hardened man or woman who killed others or destroyed towns and villages without feeling stressed or depressed. What is new today, however, is that such post-conflict emotions and anxieties are stuck together and labelled a syndrome – turned into a medical condition for which soldiers can potentially sue and for which armies must take responsibility. War has been pathologised; it is now seen as something that necessarily turns soldiers into ‘damaged goods’

Where troops in the past would have most likely kept feelings of depression to themselves, perhaps believing that the mission they fought justified the pain they endured, today soldiers’ concerns make the front page of the papers, are medicalised, and are actively anticipated by commanders and military officials at home. When everything around us suggests that war makes soldiers sick – sometimes beyond repair – it isn’t surprising that claims among troops of post-conflict illness and depression are on the rise.

Alongside the outbreak of syndromes, some soldiers now threaten legal action for what they perceive to have been overly risky action on the battlefield. Already, British lawyers are preparing legal claims against the US military for friendly fire incidents that resulted in the death or injury of British troops in the war in Iraq (6). While no doubt tragic, ‘friendly fire’ has existed for as long as there have been wars, and was usually seen as one of the deadly dangers of launching a military conflict. Now it is seen as something that someone, somewhere must take responsibility for (7).

In an attempt to avoid legal action from its own troops, the US military has taken to sending ‘operational lawyers’ to war zones around the world, to advise commanders on whether or not to send troops on certain unpredictable operations. As the Los Angeles Times reported last year: ‘In today’s war, every bombing run, every missile firing, every raid by US soldiers is vetted by teams of lawyers who are experts on international rules of war….’ (8)

Some military commanders, usually the retired old-school types, worry that the US military’s reliance on lawyers could potentially hamper military operations and cause wars to become even more dragged-out. According to US Rear Admiral John Hutson, who was judge advocate general for the US Navy until 2000: ‘The risk is [that] in a society or a situation where people are often being second-guessed, it is awfully easy for the line commander to simply rely on the advice of the lawyer, particularly if the advice is to not shoot. It is the path of least resistance….It’s safe.’ (9)

Safe? That might not be a word you would normally associate with military conflict, but US military officials are increasingly keen to avoid risky and unpredictable action, and view the operational lawyers who tag along with all military units as important judges of military ventures.

According to one report, this approach may have hampered America’s war in Afghanistan in 2001/2002. In December 2002, US special forces revealed that some military operations in Afghanistan over the previous year had been cancelled after being deemed ‘too risky’. ‘Fear of casualties hampers hunt for Taliban’, said a headline on 9 December 2002, quoting one US soldier as saying: ‘If you put in [an operation] that said “raid”, “ambush”, “kill”, “sniper”, anything like that, it would be disapproved based on the vocabulary used.’ (10)

Even troops who don’t claim to be suffering from some kind of post-conflict syndrome and who don’t rush to sue their commanders for making them kill people seem to experience war at a much more individuated and fearful level today. Witness British troops’ complaints about their kits and guns even before the war in Iraq had started. In the weeks and days before the war, British newspapers were awash with soldiers’ horror stories about lack of decent food, lack of decent clothing and lack of decent weaponry. Far from gearing themselves up (no pun intended) for the coming conflict, squaddies expressed concern about whether they were equipped for taking on Saddam.

Today’s troops have a much more individuated experience of war. They often appear more as isolated individuals at risk from syndromes and sickness, than as a collective force with a war to win. In such isolated experiences of conflict, perceptions of risk and sickness loom large in the military mind. So even as doubt is cast by some on the latest case of Gulf War syndrome, the notion that war is some kind of pathology is likely to persist.

Brendan O’Neill is speaking at the session ‘War fevers‘ at the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) After the war, a fight for justice, Richard Colbey, Guardian, 3 May 2003

(2) After the war, a fight for justice, Richard Colbey, Guardian, 3 May 2003

(3) After the war, a fight for justice, Richard Colbey, Guardian, 3 May 2003

(4) Troops to get mass screening for early signs of war illness, Jo Revill, Observer, 4 May 2003

(5) See Israeli Defensive Force, by Brendan O’Neill

(6) After the war, a fight for justice, Richard Colbey, Guardian, 3 May 2003

(7) See Friendly ire, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) War, on advice of counsel, Esther Schrader, LA Times, 15 February 2002

(9) War, on advice of counsel, Esther Schrader, LA Times, 15 February 2002

(10) Fear of casualties hampers hunt for Taliban, Rowan Scarborough, Rowan Scarborough, Washington Times, 9 December 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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