A Sixth Opinion

A panel of political appointees will give Gulf War Syndrome the presidential seal.


This whole nasty Gulf War Syndrome thing just won't go away. But President Clinton is about to solve the problem.

The problem is that medical and scientific authorities refuse to ratify popular beliefs about GWS. Five expert panels–Clinton's own Presidential Advisory Committee, a panel set up by the National Institutes of Health, another by the Institute of Medicine, and two by the Department of Defense (one of them chaired by Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg)–have studied volumes of medical evidence and found no evidence that GWS is real. The solution, so quintessentially Clintonesque, is to replace these authorities with political appointees. In November the president announced that he would appoint yet another GWS panel.

Clinton wants a political rather than a scientific evaluation of GWS because studies published in major medical journals have repeatedly shown that Gulf War vets have no more deaths, cancers, birth defects, miscarriages, or hospitalizations than vets who didn't deploy to the Persian Gulf. This isn't to say that they never have health problems. One researcher who claims GWS is real said he had identified no fewer than 123 symptoms. These range from the utterly mundane, such as hair loss, graying hair, and weight gain, to the utterly preposterous, such as semen that burns flesh like napalm, vomit that glows in the dark, and claims by two vets that they are literally shrinking.

In short, this "syndrome" consists of the same illnesses occurring at the same rate we would expect for any group of 700,000 Americans, their spouses, and their children. Throw in an element of hysteria and it's easy to account for both the outlandish complaints and psychosomatic symptoms such as labored breathing, aching joints, and stomach pains. (See "Gulf Lore Syndrome," March 1997.)

The list of alleged causes for GWS is almost as long as the list of symptoms. Among them: nerve gas, anthrax, pills, vaccinations, depleted uranium in shells and tank armor, burning oil, burning kerosene from lamps, fresh lead paint applied to vehicles, a bacterium that is normally harmless, insecticides, and even Scud missile fuel. New theories keep popping up because the old ones never pan out. No one can find a cause for GWS or a conspiracy to cover it up any more than they can find a cause for George Bush's assassination and its subsequent cover-up, the reason being that Bush is alive and well.

For politicians, this science stuff just won't do, because the news media and activist groups have convinced the American public that GWS is real. Every congressional committee that has considered the issue has stuck its finger in the wind and concluded either that GWS exists or that, at the very least, the Pentagon has failed to investigate it properly.

The latter was the conclusion of the most recent inquisition, that of the House Subcommittee on Government Oversight, which held GWS hearings on eight occasions over the past two years. The committee is headed by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who has gone out of his way to sensationalize the GWS issue. It was Shays's committee that invited Pfc. Brian Martin, who has claimed that he emitted glowing vomit and burning semen, to testify not once but twice. When Martin talked about the vomit, which he said happened every day for 10 months during training after he returned from the war, no one on Shays's committee thought to question it. Shays also invited Navy Seabee Nick Roberts to testify, even though his staff knew Roberts would relate his medically impossible story about contracting cancer of the lymph glands within three weeks of chemical exposure in the Gulf and even though Roberts had falsely reported that 11 of 33 men in his unit had developed such lymphomas.

Instead of refuting this sort of GWS nonsense, the Pentagon, apparently in an effort at appeasement, has foolishly abetted it. For example, it has said that as many as 100,000 troops may have been exposed to sarin nerve gas emitted from a demolished Iraqi bunker. Any expert on sarin could (and many did) tell the Pentagon that this gas begins to dissipate within seconds. The closest soldiers to the bunker blast were at least three miles away, and there were just a few hundred of them. The rest of the 100,000 were hundreds of miles away, giving the sarin days to dissipate into nothingness. To say these troops were "exposed" to nerve gas is like saying that anyone who has ever eaten a peach was "exposed" to cyanide, a tiny component of peach pits.

And now it has come to light that the Pentagon bypassed its normal bidding procedure by awarding a hefty $3 million research grant to Dr. Robert Haley of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Haley has long been a proponent of GWS, and when he finally published a study on it, in the January 15, 1997 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, he said the results supported his position.

Actually, all the study showed was that troops who had the most complaints also claimed to have had the greatest exposure to pesticides, vaccinations, and what-have-you. This is exactly what we would expect for psychosomatic ailments. Haley's study found no excess of illnesses that are not commonly related to psychological causes.

Numerous letters to JAMA blasted the study, including one saying Haley had "advanced from unmerited speculation to fantasy." Yet the Pentagon has now bent its bidding rules to fund further research by Haley–to the predictable cheers of GWS activists. Does this sound like a Pentagon conspiracy to cover up GWS? Or do we instead have a Pentagon desperately trying to placate its critics?

For all this, GWS advocates keep insisting that the Pentagon (and the Department of Veterans Affairs) be removed from GWS investigations. But what they really want to remove is scientific methodology. Enter Clinton's plan to appoint a sixth panel, one he can be certain will reach the "proper" conclusion.

Apparently there will be only five members. Heading the panel will be former Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.), who has said repeatedly he intends to meet with veterans' groups, but has signaled no intention to meet with doctors and scientists. Nor has Rudman expressed any objections to the only other suggested panelist as of this writing, retired Navy Adm. Elmo Zumwalt III, the best-known propagator of the junk science behind the previous incarnation of GWS, the Agent Orange scare.

Like Gulf War vets who claim to be suffering from GWS, Vietnam vets blamed a bewildering array of symptoms on exposure to the herbicide known as Agent Orange. But to this day, scientists continue to monitor the Vietnam vets with the highest Agent Orange exposures and find that they have no more medical problems than people with no exposure.

No doubt Zumwalt will claim to have an open mind on GWS. That's what he said about Agent Orange when Congress charged him with reviewing the evidence in 1990. Yet four years before that appointment, Zumwalt had co-authored a book in which he said he was "convinced" that "Agent Orange can cause cancer and birth defects, and in the case of many Vietnam veterans, has done precisely that."

Actually, no speculation as to Zumwalt's GWS bias is needed. In 1995 he told Life magazine that Gulf vets "need to keep the pressure on, because in the case of Agent Orange–and I'm sure it'll occur with Desert Storm syndrome–the companies who stand to be found liable for any harmful effects will be in there lobbying." As to how far Zumwalt will push his position, consider that he had the chutzpah to claim that the report he gave Congress in 1990 linked Agent Orange to cancers that weren't even mentioned in the report.

With Rudman and Zumwalt as two-fifths of the panel, all Clinton has to do is appoint the obligatory Gulf vet who claims to be suffering from GWS. There's your majority; case closed.

GWS will never be a scientific or medical reality, but it will become–indeed, has already become–a political and popular reality. As with Agent Orange, hundreds of thousands of veterans who bravely served their nation in its hour of need will be tossed some scraps in the form of benefits. The only trade-off is that they will live the rest of their lives in terror of contracting–and perhaps even spreading to their families–a horrible illness that doesn't exist.

Michael Fumento (mfumento@compuserve.com), who served in the U.S. Army from 1978 to 1982, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves (Viking).