Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Credibility Gulf: The Military's Battle over Whether to Protect Its Image or Its Troops

Magazine article The Washington Monthly

Credibility Gulf: The Military's Battle over Whether to Protect Its Image or Its Troops

Article excerpt

IN SEPTEMBER, BILL CLINTON ENDED A WAR the U.S. military had been fighting for more than two decades--against its own soldiers. He I signed legislation agreeing to compensate veterans for the health problems and birth defects believed to have been caused by the military's use of dioxin-containing Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In one fell signature, Clinton ended an acrid standoff between veterans and the Pentagon, which had first denied the use of dioxin, then resisted releasing its spraying patterns, then insisted that no one could prove that Agent Orange caused spine bifida.

Technically, the Pentagon was right: Even today, the mechanism by which dioxin does its damage in the human body isn't known. Of course, until just a few months ago no one knew how cigarette smoking caused lung cancer either--knowing how isn't the same as knowing if. Regardless, the Pentagon's stonewalling had long ago pushed the issue from the logic of the lab into the emotion of the political arena. Definitive scientific proof or not, Clinton was calling a truce.

So when the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses recently released a draft report concluding that there is no Gulf War "syndrome," no single disease traceable to the Persian Gulf War causing the variety of symptoms that veterans have experienced--but also stating that DOD's investigation has "lacked vigor, fallen short on investigative grounds, and stretched credibility"--you could see the handwriting on the wall. Once again, wartime experience had spawned thousands of sick veterans, who came home not with bullet wounds or shrapnel in their flesh, but with initially invisible symptoms that could stem from physiological or psychological causes. And once again, the Pentagon had attributed it all to stress, resisted investigation, and withheld crucial information. Now the issue is gathering political momentum (with the Agent Orange debacle fresh in politicians' minds), and you can be sure that eventually Congress will pass, and the president will sign, legislation to compensate sick veterans, even if no one can prove that their Gulf experience caused the illnesses. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (DW.Va.), who has butted heads with the Pentagon repeatedly on Gulf War syndrome, says that regardless of whether the ailments are attributable to stress or, as he believes is more likely, physiological causes, "We can't just walk away. We have a hell of an obligation"

The time frame for resolution will likely be much more compressed than for Agent Orange, because now policymakers and the public are wont to suspect the worst. "The Department of Defense is engaged in probably one of the most serious cover-ups in the history of military affairs," says Paul Sullivan, a Gulf veteran and founder of the National Gulf War Research Center. "The cover-up continues," Rep. Christopher Shays huffed in a September House hearing The allegations by two former CIA analysts that the CIA has withheld evidence of numerous exposures during the Gulf War have only added to the suspicions.

But the focus on sinister conspiracies obscures what may be a more persuasive explanation for DOD's response, first to Agent Orange, and now to Gulf War syndrome: If there is such a thing as institutional stubbornness, the Pentagon has it. All bureaucracies react to something that could cost them face much the way a sea anemone touched by a finger does--they close up and seal off. But DOD is particularly prone to such reactions, which makes the science worth studying in the story of Gulf War syndrome behavioral as much as biological.

More than most bureaucracies, the military faces very public tests of its effectiveness. Since it failed one of those tests in Vietnam, exposing itself to years of abuse, humiliation, and low public esteem, the Pentagon has been especially defensive, and eager for redemption--which the Persian Gulf War provided. It dispatched the military's Vietnam complex, sending institutional pride to new heights. …

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