By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Nearly 700,000 Americans served in Desert Storm. Only 148 of them died in combat, a quarter by "friendly fire." But postwar casualties tell a much more troubling story: Since 1991, more than 160,000 Gulf War vets have fallen ill — many of them now permanently disabled. Eleven thousand have died — a much higher death rate than soldiers who didn't serve in the Gulf — many believe from the aftereffects of serving on a toxic battlefield. "Gulf War syndrome," a collection of 57 symptoms with no known causes, is still so mysterious some scientists deny it exists. Those who do believe have identified some 40 possible chemical agents which soldiers were exposed to in Desert Storm, including sarin, antiÂchem-bio medication, vaccinations, pesticides, environmental pollutants and radiation as well as diseases endemic to the Gulf — a potent environmental cocktail.
Twelve years later, American soldiers and Iraqi civilians face an even more toxic barrage. Iraqi defectors who worked for Hussein's chemical-biological weapons program say he had been prepared to use those weapons during the Gulf War as he had against the Iranians and the Kurds in the 1980s. Why he didn't remains unclear, but possibilities range from the disruption of the Iraqi command network by the overwhelming American air campaign, bad weather and winds that would have blown the weapons back on Iraqi forces, and the clear public threat by the first President Bush to retaliate with nuclear weapons — just as George W. Bush threatened recently.
The Pentagon has had well over a decade to prepare for the Iraqi use of chemical and biological warfare. In fact, since the Russians (and our own military) were known to have chemical and biological weapons, such contingency plans go back as far as the Cold War. Layers of bureaucracy have accumulated on the rings of offices at the Pentagon and service bases around the country. Acres of planning documents have been produced and hundreds of military conferences and hearings before Congress have been held. The Defense Department's annual spending for chemical and biological warfare (CBW) has more than tripled since 1994.
In September, the Pentagon mounted "Millennium Challenge 2002," the largest war game in American history and, at a cost of $250 million, the most expensive. For three weeks outside of Death Valley, 13,500 soldiers, sailors and airmen divided into two teams — "the Americans" and "the enemy" — and battled for supremacy. War games are serious business in the military; they're the only chance to practice maneuvering large numbers of men, women and machinery before the shit really hits the fan. As "the Americans" saw the game, they had control of the battlefield — overwhelming force, superior numbers and advanced interception techniques. But "the enemy," led by retired Marine Corps General Paul Van Riper, played to its strengths, namely intelligence, creativity and a desire to actually win. Using messengers on motorcycles instead of radio and electronic messages that could be intercepted, Van Riper's troops launched a surprise attack and sank almost the entire American fleet. "Oops," wrote New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof, who broke the story.
But the game wasn't over yet, and the edge swung back toward the Americans. So enemy commander Van Riper decided to use chemical weapons to even the odds. But Pentagon planners running the game ordered Van Riper to disclose his troop locations so the Americans could find them and destroy their weapons. Frustrated over how the game was fixed and the Pentagon's refusal to realistically play out a chemical-biological warfare scenario, Van Riper quit the field. He later told Army Timesthat instead of testing new joint war-fighting concepts, Millennium Challenge was rigged to make sure the Americans won. Van Riper wasn't the only one frustrated. Representative John Tierney (D-Mass.), one of a number of critics worried that the Pentagon isn't preparing soldiers for chemical and biological warfare, was so appalled he called for congressional hearings. And these men weren't alone.
For more than a decade, a guerrilla force of perhaps several hundred dedicated and determined folks at various governmental agencies have been imploring the Pentagon to stop talking about chemical and biological warfare and take the threat seriously enough to actually do something about it. It has been a kind of trench warfare, hearing by hearing, report by report. Yet it has somehow never reached critical mass, perhaps because for so long there was no one at the wheel: From 1998 to 2001, the office of assistant secretary of defense for CBW was vacant.
The Army's own auditors, in bureaucratic understatement, present a damning picture of unpreparedness: "The level of emphasis Army leaders placed on the readiness of . . . chemical and biological defensive equipment wasn't consistent with the level of threat posed by chemical and biological weapons."
The Duct Tape Defense
Three months ago, in one of his subcommittee's hearings, Representative Shays charged: "[The Defense Department] does not always know how many [chemical-biological] defense items are available, where they are, or when they will get to the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who need them."
What's more, the protective suits issued to troops may actually be defective; they may be from a batch of nearly 800,000 manufactured some years ago by a Pentagon contractor who later served time for fraud. Not only that but even after the Defense Department took legal action against the contractors and recalled the bad suits, inventory records were so poor that some 250,000 of the suits are still unaccounted for.