Gulf Lore Syndrome

By Fumento, Michael | Reason, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Gulf Lore Syndrome


Fumento, Michael, Reason


"For Some, a Day of Betrayal," ran a headline in Denver's Rocky Mountain News the day before Veterans Day. A Persian Gulf vet said to be suffering the effects of the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) was profiled, and the story by reporter Dick Foster contained a startling figure: "Cancers have developed in Gulf veterans at three to six times the rate among the general population." That news must have shot around Colorado faster than a Scud missile. Many vets probably spent their Veterans Day searching for lumps, bumps, sores, or anything else that might be a sign of cancer.

Three days later, a study appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine. Using the latest data available, it reported the cancer rate of Persian Gulf vets was slightly below that of comparable vets who didn't deploy to the Gulf, and far lower than that of the comparable civilian population.

Welcome to the world of Gulf Lore Syndrome. It is a world in which science is replaced by rumor, in which vets are presented as medical experts while real medical experts are ignored. It is a dimension in which authoritative review studies by eminent scientists are scorned and disdainfully labeled "Pentagon studies" because they reach the "wrong" conclusions - even if done by civilian organizations. Yet incredible accounts of such symptoms as skin-blistering semen and glowing vomit are taken as gospel. It is a "reality" constructed by crusading reporters, activists, demagogic congressmen, and, sadly, by Persian Gulf vets who have become convinced they are the victims of a conspiracy deeper and broader than anything on The X-Files. The sick vets live in this world of Gulf Lore Syndrome. Until reality is allowed to reach them, they will remain trapped in it.

I have been writing on GWS since 1993, and to the best of my knowledge I was the first writer to say that there is no Gulf War Syndrome in the accepted sense of the term. Since then, studies by some of the most prestigious scientists in the country have backed up that position. The early studies included two by the Department of Defense, one by the National Institutes of Health, and a preliminary report by the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences. All said that the term Gulf War Syndrome was a misnomer. All said that the various theories of what might be making Persian Gulf vets sick lacked any scientific basis. And every one of these studies' conclusions bounced off the reporters, the activists, and the sick vets like bullets off an M1 tank.

Some things have changed: When I began writing on the topic there were perhaps a hundred news reports about GWS; there are now over 4,000. Back then there were a few thousand Persian Gulf vets who claimed to have the illness; now, depending on who's counting, there are anywhere from 40,000 to more than 100,000. GWS studies continue to appear. The most recent include:

* The final report from the Institute of Medicine, which said in October that there is no "scientific evidence to date demonstrating adverse health consequences linked with [Gulf War] service other than [about 30] documented incidents of leishmaniasis [a parasitical disease caused, in this case, by sand fly bites], combat-related or injury-related mortality or morbidity, and increased risk of psychiatric [problems from] deployment."

* A draft copy of the final report of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses (commonly called the PAC), leaked in November to The New York Times and The Washington Post, which found "no support for the myriad theories proposed as causes of illnesses among Persian Gulf war veterans, or even evidence there is a 'Gulf War Syndrome,'" according to the Post.

* The article in the November 14 New England Journal of Medicine, which found that Persian Gulf vets had the same death rate from disease as non-Persian Gulf vets, and a much lower rate than the comparable civilian population. …

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