Gulf War Syndrome: The `Agent Orange' of the Nineties

By Milano, Fred | International Social Science Review, Spring-Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Gulf War Syndrome: The `Agent Orange' of the Nineties


Milano, Fred, International Social Science Review


Introduction

In the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War, over 100,000 U.S. troops among the 700,000 who served in the region reported a mysterious cluster of severe health problems. Initially, the Pentagon dismissed the complaints and ruled out any kind of systematic investigation. However, due to the sheer number of cases, and because of pressure from veterans and their families who refused to be ignored, the government agreed to conduct preliminary studies. It concluded that most of the symptoms could be attributed to "stress," a finding that was quickly challenged. Allegations of a cover-up then ensued, with analogies drawn to the infamous Agent Orange debacle of the Vietnam War. This research paper compares and contrasts the two. It also traces the controversy surrounding "Gulf War Syndrome" from its inception to the present, examining the competing arguments and theories as to the causes of the "syndrome." The issue is significant too because of its cross-cultural and international implications. Civilian and military personnel from several allied countries were affected as well as Americans. A final tragic turn has been the growing number of birth defects occurring among children of Gulf War veterans.

The Past Problem: Agent Orange

The Vietnam War was a tragedy of epic proportions. But after the conflict had ended, one of its worst legacies continued to haunt us. From 1962 to 1971, the U.S. sprayed 19 million gallons of herbicides over 5 million acres of South Vietnam, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. The justification for its use (a rationalization which C. Wright Mills would classify as "crackpot realism") was staunchly defended by military strategists: stripping the countryside bare and destroying the jungle foliage that helped conceal the enemy would save American lives. The results were devastating in both human and environmental terms. An estimated 300,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were exposed to significant levels of this hazardous chemical. They inhaled it from the air, drank and bathed in water tainted with it, and ate food contaminated with it. As the veterans (whose average age was 19) returned home, so did a strange array of physical disorders: cancer, liver and kidney malfunctions, skin problems, vision and hearing impairments and degenerative nerve diseases. Many veterans were dying prematurely, often before reaching the age of 40. Nor had their families been spared the ravages of this distant war, as represented by the high incidence of miscarriages among their wives and genetic defects among their newborn infants (spina bifida, missing or deformed limbs, partial brains, cleft palates). For the Vietnamese people, equipped with the limited resources of a Third World country, these same calamities completely overwhelmed their medical system.

Dioxin, the primary ingredient in Agent Orange, is one of the most powerful carcinogens made by humans (170,000 times more deadly than cyanide). Dioxin poisoning would re-emerge at places like Love Canal, New York, in 1979 and Times Beach, Missouri, in 1982 - areas that, like Vietnam, became "dead zones." Despite its confirmed dangers, U.S. companies still exported it abroad. Note in the following account the response by private industry, even though the incident took place three years after the Vietnam War:

      The world's first civilian dioxin disaster occurred not in the United
   States but in Italy in 1976 in the town of Seveso, when an explosion in
   a factory owned by Hoffman-LaRoche spread a white dust over the area. Soon,
   birds tell dead from the sky. Nine days later, the people of Seveso finally
   learned what company officials already knew -- the dust contained dioxin, a
   chemical 1000 times more toxic than strychnine. More than 700 people were
   evacuated, but it was too late. Pustules formed on the skin of children,
   while adults complained of liver and kidney ailments. … 

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