New revelations that U.S. troops might have been exposed to Iraqi chemicals in 1991 serve to remind us why we study history. Facts become clearer as they get separated from the passions and prejudices of the moment. Nowhere is this more true than in military history. Even under the eye of modern television cameras, wars are never exactly what they seem to be at the time they are fought. We learned this over and over about the Vietnam War, and we are learning it again about the war against Iraq in 1991 known as Operation Desert Storm.
Patriot missile, Arabian Desert
Last week the Pentagon admitted that American troops destroyed an Iraqi bunker that may have contained rockets tipped with the deadly nerve gas Sarin and a mustard blistering agent. (Sarin is the toxin that was used in March 1995 by Japanese terrorists to poison commuters in a Tokyo subway station.) An army demolition team detonated the bunker by remote control, apparently unaware that chemical weapons were present. Several hundred men from a U.S. battalion were in the area at the time.
The news has sparked renewed interest in the illness known as Gulf War Syndrome. According to some sources, mysterious symptoms ranging from chronic fatigue to hair loss to memory loss have been reported by as many as 30,000 to 45,000 Gulf War veterans. More than 9,000 of these veterans have filed disability claims for such ailments.
Facts, memories, and analyses of the Gulf War were presented on Frontline, a regular program of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), in January 1996. You can see an excellent online version of the report at The Gulf War.