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Ill-Suited for War 

If the Bush administration is right about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, why is it sending American troops into battle so unprepared?

Thursday, Feb 20 2003
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Illustration by Dana Collins

ALL WAR IS HELL. BUT HELL MAY PALE AGAINST the horror of fighting on a toxic battlefield if Saddam Hussein uses the full force of the chemical and biological weapons the Bush administration insists Iraq still has. Let's say you're an American G.I. in the desert south of Basra. Not only do you face the terror of traditional weaponry, the din and confusion of conventional battle, but you have to do it fully encased in a gas mask, gloves, protective boots, hood and charcoal-lined suit. If, that is, you manage to get into the gear before being zapped with the toxins. Detectors beep constantly, but you have to know which chemical or biological weapons have been released so you can pop pills or shoot yourself up with the appropriate drugs — while still encased in the mask and the suit. To figure that out, you have to find the NBC, the guy trained in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons who's supposed to be testing for toxic agents and which way the wind is blowing. But you're in a firefight, and where the hell is he?

In the Gulf War there were so many false positives from the detectors — as many as 12,000, congressional investigators later discovered — that most soldiers came to pay them as much attention as they would a car alarm in East Hollywood. The mask and the suit are supposed to protect you from chemical and biological agents that can be inhaled or burn through your skin — blister agents like mustard gas and Lewisite, the nerve agents sarin, tabun, cyclosarin and VX, and biological agents like anthrax, ricin and aflatoxin. But the mask's seal must be carefully maintained and its filter changed often; and its lenses tend to cloud up or fall out. All this while you're in that firefight. (And by the way, even the latest high-tech suit can't protect you from some biological agents or the powdered form of VX.)

To stop the toxins, the suits can't breathe, so your body temperature soars —1991 Gulf War vets describe the feeling as floating in an air-locked freezer bag, sloshing around in your own sweat. But that same sweat degrades the charcoal filter lining the suits, which lose their protectiveness in less than 24 hours when under concentrated chem-bio attack. Even if the chemicals don't get through, body heat from wearing the suit multiplies the possibility of heat stroke in the desert by 10. Soviet studies have found that at 86 degrees, the maximum time a soldier could physically still perform was just 20 minutes. But some Desert Storm soldiers had to spend hours in their suits in temperatures over 100 degrees — and if you faced a serious chem-bio attack in Iraq, you would likely need to spend days in your suit.

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In November, the Pentagon inadvertently gave a graphic demonstration of the effects of that heat when it threw a dog-and-pony show to prove to journalists how ready American forces were to fight chemical and biological weapons. A half-dozen members of the Army's Tactical Escort Unit were demonstrating how they would disable a suspected chemical bomb or respond to an anthrax letter when one of the group, wearing the deluxe "decontamination" suit, fainted from the heat of the TV lights and pitched into the gallery of reporters.

If all that isn't enough, this assumes your protective gear works and that you know how to use it. Don't be so sure: The Army's own investigators found last year that 62 percent of its gas masks and 90 percent of its chem-bio detectors didn't work. And if many of the masks, the detectors and the suits turn out to be faulty, there won't be much backup. Congressional investigators have also charged that the Pentagon hasn't really managed to train enough combat medics and hospital staff to cope with chem-bio casualties. As for vaccine protection, the anthrax vaccine may not work, scientists have found, and may cause serious, sometimes irreversible long-term side effects.

Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), whose subcommittee on national security has been raising the alarm for close to a decade about the Pentagon's failure to prepare its soldiers to fight a chemical and biological war, said last week, "If our troops are attacked with chemical and biological weapons in Iraq and turn out to be still as badly equipped and trained as they have been in the very recent past, the command structure will be held accountable for endangering our troops."

Until this week, the Pentagon did have one creative plan for coping with war on a toxic battlefield. In case of massive casualties in a chemical-biological attack, all of the bodies —presumably infectious or contaminated — were to be bulldozed into mass pits to be burned and buried. Outrage from veterans' groups forced the Pentagon to abandon the idea.

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