Glowing in the Gulf
Radiation, Genetically Engineered Drugs, and the Gulf War Syndrome

by Mitchel Cohen


The U.S. escaped the 1991 Gulf war with few direct casualties. While 250,000 Iraqis were killed outright by the U.S. and another 750,000 died as a result of the U.N.'s international embargo spearheaded by the U.S., "only" 376 U.S. soldiers died in the Gulf; almost all of them were killed by so-called "friendly fire," shot accidentally by their fellow soldiers.(1) The fourteen U.S. MlA1 Abrams tanks and fifteen U.S. Bradley Fighting vehicles destroyed in the Gulf war were knocked out by "friendly fire" as well.
All twenty-nine vehicles were hit by a new kind of ammunition: shells encased in "depleted uranium" (DU), which makes them super hard and able to penetrate all existing armor-plating. DU was used exclusively by U.S. and British forces in the Gulf not only as armor-penetrating ammunition by MlA1 Abrams tanks and A-10 attack planes, but as tank armor. DU, which is 1.6 times denser than lead, proved so effective that not a single U.S. tank was destroyed by Iraqi fire.
Over the course of the two month war, 3,700 Iraqi tanks were obliterated- 1,400 of them by shells encased in depleted uranium. Thousands of artillery pieces, armored personnel carriers and other equipment were destroyed by DU rounds. 940,000 30mm shells encased in depleted uranium were fired from U.S. planes, and 14,000 larger DU shells from tanks, along with an untold number of Tomahawk missiles tipped with depleted uranium. By war's end, roughly 300 tons of uranium from spent rounds lay scattered in various sizes and states of decay across the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait.(2) Welcome to the wave of the future: '`low intensity" nuclear war, inaugurated in the Gulf War by the United States.(3)
Depleted uranium1 is a highly toxic and radioactive by-product of the uranium enrichment process used in nuclear reactors and the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Natural uranium, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years, is comprised of three isotopes: 99.27 percent U238, 0.72 percent U235, and .0057 percent U234. DU is uranium with the U235 isotope-the fissionable material-reduced from 0.7 percent to 0.2 percent-thus, "depleted." The Pentagon says DU is relatively harmless, emitting "only" 60 percent the radiation of non-depleted uranium. But Dr. Ernest Sternglass, Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman have shown that even low-level radiation emitted during the "normal" functioning of nuclear power plants creates havoc with people's immune system as well as the surrounding environment.(4) And, according to independent scientists, "a DU antitank round outside its metal casing can emit as much radiation in one hour as fifty chest X-rays."(5) A tank driver receives a radiation dose of 0.13 mrem/hr to his or her head from overhead DU armor,(6) which may seem like a very low dose. However, after 32 continuous days, or 64 12-hour days, the amount of radiation a tank driver receives to his head will exceed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's standard for public whole-body annual exposure to man-made sources of radiation.(7) Unfortunately, U.S. tank crews were not monitored for radiation exposure during the Gulf war.(8)
When properly encased, the Pentagon says DU gives off very little radiation. But DU becomes much more radioactive when it burns. When fired it combusts on impact. "As much as 70 percent of the material is released as a radioactive and highly toxic dust that can be inhaled or ingested and then trapped in the lungs or kidneys."(9) One researcher found that a single molecular particle of depleted uranium will subject an individual to radiation at a level 800 times what is permitted by federal regulations for external exposure.(10) Twenty-two vets still have uranium shrapnel imbedded in their bodies. As DU-artillery shells heat up, the uranium becomes aerosolized, releasing high amounts of radioactivity -not the low amounts the military claims for "normal" depleted uranium. Clouds of deadly uranium dioxide dust particles swept over large areas of Iraq and Kuwait, devastating agriculture, soil and water.(11)
One army reserve engineer said he was relieved when he found out that a deafening explosion near his unit's camp just inside the Kuwaiti border was not an Iraqi chemical or nuclear attack, but the accidental explosion of a 40ton U.S. Hemmt transport vehicle carrying DU antitank rounds. "It was about 1,000 meters from our camp and the wind was blowing our way," he said. "A big black cloud blew right over us."(12) In a survey of 10,051 Gulf War vets, it has been found that 82 percent had entered captured Iraqi vehicles, many of which were disabled by DU rounds. With more than 600,000 pounds of depleted uranium left scattered throughout the region, by war's end the U.S. had turned the Gulf area into a deadly radioactive grid, affecting not only U.S. soldiers but hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people who live in the Gulf. Is it any wonder that many symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome are so similar to radiation sickness?
Radioactivity inflicts severe damage on the total environment while weakening immune systems, destroying the kidneys, lungs, bones and liver, and rendering the human body susceptible to all sorts of diseases a healthy individual is able to ward off. Iraqi children continue to find uranium-coated shells; they have been coming down with all sorts of deadly illnesses associated with radiation poisoning. A secret report by the British government estimated that the use of depleted uranium weapons in the Gulf could alone account for 500,000 deaths in the region.(13) That report was based on estimates that 25 tons of depleted uranium munitions had been used; in actuality, the Department of Defense now estimates that the U.S. fired more than 12 times that amount.
As the only country to have ever dropped atomic bombs on a populated area, the U.S. government has long attempted to circumvent international treaties and develop ever-newer weapons of mass destruction. In 1953, Gen. Douglas McArthur issued a plan to dump radioactive cobalt across Korea to create a permanent radioactive barrier between the North and South. That plan was considered but never implemented (as far as we know). President Jimmy Carter tried to obtain funding for a "neutron bomb" that would annihilate people and all living beings but leave buildings and capital intact. That project was beaten back by public outcry and mass protests. The U.S. government has threatened to use nuclear weapons on dozens of occasions, including against Vietnam in 1953 and again in 1969-the latter squelched at the last minute by President Richard Nixon due to the huge anti-war protests taking place at the time in the U.S.(14) In fact, so adamently has the world's population-including the vast majority in the U.S.-opposed atomic weapons of every sort that it took the enormous propaganda effort of the Gulf War for the U.S. government, for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to get away with using radioactive weapons against living people.
The U.S. Department of Defense has more than 1.1 billion pounds of nuclear waste in storage from fifty years of nuclear weapons production and nuclear power plants. The government, hemmed in by public opposition, health and environmental movements, is always trying to find new "acceptable" ways to dispose of it. It has apparently found one. Billions of dollars allotted to the Environmental Restoration branch of the Department of Energy for cleaning up nuclear waste sites is now being used instead to ship nuclear waste free of charge to munitions manufacturers all over the world to be "recycled" into weapons.
Dr. Helen Caldicott reports that these radiological weapons have already been exported to Taiwan, Thailand, Korea, Bahrain, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Greece, Turkey, Kuwait and others. Where is the cry at the United Nations to end the manufacture, distribution and use of such weapons before it's too late? In introducing the use of depleted uranium weapons the U.S. government used its own soldiers as guinea pigs,permanently destroyed the ecology of the region, and left an ongoing legacy of childhood leukemia, birth defects and poisoned water for civilians living in the Gulf. And the U.S.-as it did in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki-has made tile horror of low intensity nuclear weapons the necessary norm for future conflicts.
For years, the U.S. government has denied that Gulf War Syndrome exists, let alone admit to the severity of illnesses suffered by tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans.(15) New studies, however, show that the soldiers' illnesses are indeed real, and that troops deployed to the Gulf were more than three times as likely as U.S. soldiers elsewhere to suffer chronic diarrhea, joint pain, skin rashes, fatigue, depression, and memory loss.(16)
Many veterans also suffer shooting pains during sexual intercourse, severe nausea, chest pains, general weakness, wasting disease, burning semen (reported by male veterans and their sexual partners), blistering, swelling, chronic fatigue, and serious birth defects and illnesses (leukemia, cancers) in their children.(17) Unfortunately, many vets are buying the U.S. government's new line: that these illnesses-Gulf War Syndrome- were caused by exposure to Iraqi nerve gas.
As it turned out, however, Iraq never actually used nerve gas during the war. So, it's time for the U.S. government's fall back position: Perhaps the U.S. military accidentally blew up Iraqi nerve gas canisters when it bombed various sites. By accident? With our fabled "smart bombs," originally reported to hit 93 percent of their targets with pinpoint accuracy? Those dastardly Iraqis, placing deadly nerve gas canisters beneath "our" missiles! As the poet Diane DiPrima remarked: "Get your cut throat off my knife!"
It was not until late 1996 that the Pentagon acknowledged "that more than 20,000 American troops may have been exposed to low doses of the nerve gas sarin after the demolition of an Iraqi ammunition depot in March 1991,(18) after the official end of the war. At the same time, a special White House panel condemned the Pentagon for its shoddy investigation into the more than fifteen incidents in which nerve gas and other chemical agents were detected by American troops, and, according to a New York Times report, for "conducting a superficial investigation ... of American soldiers' [claims] that they were exposed to clouds of Iraqi chemical or biological weapons in the war."(19)
Earlier this year, a group of scientists at the University of Texas reported that "exposure to combinations of chemicals, including pesticides and low levels of nerve gas, were probably responsible for the health problems of gulf war veterans,"(20) an assertion immediately questioned by the Pentagon and by other researchers.
The British government, on the other hand, now clearly states that "OPs"-derived from a class of compounds known as organophosphates, the chief ingredients in many pesticides and herbicides, in addition to nerve gas-were the cause of Gulf War Syndrome among its soldiers. Still, the numbers don't add up; "only" 20,000 troops, hardly enough to account for the huge numbers of complaints from Gulf veterans-no U.S./U.N. officials or media even bother to assess the effects on Iraq's population-were exposed to the sole acknowledged U.S. destruction of an Iraqi weapons storage facility, the one at Kamisiyah, on March 4 and 10, 1991 (with possibly another explosion on March 12).
Not only are there "several mysterious gaps" in the military's "otherwise meticulous combat logs" for the dates on which the Army's 37th Engineer Battalion blew up the depot,(21) but the U.S. military command, including Generals Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, refused to order the use of protective gear for soldiers in the area, claiming such an order would spread panic through the ranks.(22) Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Gulf War forces, denies U.S. troops were exposed to biological or chemical weapons.(23)
With the White House panel dismissing claims of the 24th Naval Mobile Construction Battalion and other units concerning their positive readings for mustard gas,(24) stating that "the evidence does not show that chemicals wafted over most of the soldiers who are now reporting ailments" and that "theater-wide contamination is highly unlikely,"(25) this fall back position as well is beginning to unravel.
There appears to be a long history of using U.S. servicemen as guinea pigs. In 1969 President Nixon issued an Executive Order banning biological weapons, saying: "Biological weapons have massive, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable consequences. They may produce global epidemics and impair the health of future generations"?(31)
Despite the ban, in January 1977 UPI reported a soldier had been accidentally exposed to the hallucinogenic agent BZ at the Dugway Proving Grounds, and hospitalized with hallucinations and rapid heartbeat. He became exposed while he and another soldier were opening cluster bombs containing the BZ.(32) The press concerned itself only with the danger of the gas leaking out.
Who authorized the production of cluster bombs containing hallucinogenic agents, against the provisions of the Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a signatory? That such weapons still are being manufactured and sold despite presidential edicts and international treaties seems to have eluded the guardians of official morality and never apparently became fit to print.
In 1981, I interviewed soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve who told of being "volunteered" for special duty. "Dozens of soldiers from my Long Island unit," one soldier told me, "were exposed to various hallucinogens in a gas form. We tried on and tested different types of gas masks. Lots of people got sick."(33) This soldier went on to serve in the Gulf. He now suffers from Gulf War Syndrome himself, and is a leading critic of U.S. government duplicity on this matter.
Those interviews took place 16 years ago. Have things improved? According to one news report, in November 1991 a "tiny amount" of deadly VX nerve agent leaked from a storage tank at an army ammunition plant outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. One-fiftieth of a standard drop of the agent-approximately the volume of the tip of a sharpened pencil-leaked from a faulty valve. A single drop could kill a person in three to ten minutes.(34) The question lingers: Why are neurotoxins continuing to be manufactured? And why were they sold to Iraq?
To understand Gulf War Syndrome and to make sense of the missing military logs, lies within lies, we have to turn elsewhere-to the chemicals and drugs used by the U.S. itself. U.S. soldiers during the Gulf War, as they have been throughout history, were involuntary victims of a massive government big-chemical warfare experiment, even as they, in turn, were carrying out U.S. policy and slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Weapons Specialist Patricia Axelrod, who served in the Gulf, testified: "The U.S. had a perfect proving ground, a perfect enemy and a perfect living laboratory for testing new vaccines that we need for our own biological weapons industry. It's part of the Department of Defense's scheme to relinquish responsibility."(35) Indeed, more than onehundred thousand Gulf War veterans have reported horrible symptoms stemming from their stint in the Gulf.
Thus far officials have ignored the probability that the illnesses were caused by forced inoculations with experimental and genetically-engineered drugs interacting with radiation emitted from "depleted" uranium coated artillery shells and tank armor-itself a serious violation of the Geneva Conventions. The government refuses to test Gulf veterans for radiation exposure, claiming that "without forethought and data, the financial implications of long-term disability payments and health-care costs would be excessive. "(36)
The Food and Drug Administration had given the Pentagon permission to administer experimental drugs to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia without first obtaining their consent. "This is the first time since World War II that any government in the world has said that it would give experimental drugs to competent adults without consent," said George Annas, director of the Health, Law and Ethics program at the Boston University Schools of Law and Public Health.(37) Well, not quite. While making a valid point, Annas unfortunately fails to mention the many instances of government experimentation on unsuspecting people-the smallpox-ridden blankets given to American Indians; the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on southern Black male prisoners; sensory deprivation units for political prisoners at Florence, Colorado, Marion, Illinois and Lexington, Kentucky; the testing of Hepatitis vaccines on American Indians; the Edmonston-Zagreb, or E-Z measles vaccine, tested in Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Guinea, and more than a dozen other Third World countries as well as West and East Los Angeles and Inglewood; the testing of birth control pills on Puerto Rican and Haitian women by the G.D. Searle pharmaceutical company in 1956; and the forcible injections of Haitian women imprisoned by the U.S. at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay with Depo Provera, an experimental drug with dangerous side effects. At the time, Depo Provera had not been approved for use in the U.S. Tracking studies show Haitian women living in the U.S. have a much higher rate of cervical cancer than other women in the general population; some speculate that Depo Provera might be part of the cause. These are just a few examples Annas, like most Americans, leaves out.
One of the drugs administered to U.S. soldiers in the Gulf was atropine sulfate. The GIs were told that the drug would save them from Iraqi nerve gas. Not true. Although it may help ease some symptoms, atropine certainly doesn't prevent nerve damage and is not a 'cure'. Nor were they told that exposure to atropine in a hot environment significantly increases a person's risk of heat stroke and could lead to serious illness. One wonders how that impacts people wearing chemical suits in the desert, and what the long-term side-effects will be.(38)
Other drugs were administered to the soldiers without their consent. A number of soldiers report being "held down" while being injected against their will. The government has thus far refused to release all the details, claiming that wartime stress, and, as a fall back position, inadvertent exposure to chemical weapons, _not_ inoculations or radiation, was the major factor in most of the ailments. But Dr. Katherine Murray Leisure, an infectious disease specialist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, counters that position.
"There was an outpouring in late 1991 and 1992 of Gulf war veterans with the exact same constellation of complaints-intestinal, bone and joint, skin lesions-without having spoken to each other,', she said. Dr. Leisure said it was clear to her that battlefield stress had little to do with the vets' ailments. Stress, she said, "is an easy diagnosis that puts the onus on the patient." She said that if her patients were now suffering from stress, it was the stress brought on from "having doctors say that there's nothing wrong with you when there obviously is something wrong."(39)
The soldiers themselves have been able to fill in some of the gaps. They speak of being forced to take "alternative malaria pills," and an anti-nerve gas medication called pyridostigmine bromide, sometimes against their will and almost always without their consent.
In a path breaking story in "The Nation", investigative journalist Laura Flanders reported that according to Dr. Barry Wilson, a pharmaceutical scientist at Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Washington, pyridostigmine bromide "initially stimulates muscular strength and activity but eventually decreases nerve action, possibly resulting in paralysis. Side effects are known to include watering of the eyes, diarrhea and the urge to urinate, as well as allergic reactions from skin rashes to loss of hair and muscle control."(40) The Department of Defense decided to use this drug even though research with mice indicated that the drug does not protect but rather works with the nerve agent Sarin to cause greater damage.(41)
Under FDA regulations, pyridostigmine must be administered with careful monitoring, but the agency gave the Pentagon a waiver to use the drug randomly in the Gulf. As a result, the 697,000 U.S. troops who served in the Gulf from August 1990 to March 1991 were ordered not to give blood when they returned to the U.S., although the government claimed the ban was solely to prevent the spread of leishmaniasis, a potentially deadly blood disease caused by parasites and spread by desert sand-flies. For more than a year blood banks refused to accept blood from Gulf war veterans, despite severe blood shortages.
Take the case of Sgt. Carol Picou, who was an active-duty Army nurse for fifteen years before going to the Gulf with the 41st Combat Hospital. As Flanders reports, Picou was part of a group that came upon an area pummeled by U.S. artillery. Scrap metal and the still-smoldering bodies of animals and humans covered the ground. "I've seen burnt bodies," said Picou. "And they were nothing like that. These were charred black. It wasn't normal." They were victims of the U.S.'s new depleted uranium weapons. Picou and her group set up camp just two miles down the road from the contaminated battlefield, near the populous Iraqi town of Basra.
"After several weeks," Flanders says, "Picou's urinary control had gone. She couldn't keep food down and she was passing black, tarry stools that Army doctors attributed to `'drinking too much water" and the change in diet." Picou had been taking the pyridostigmine bromide pills the military demanded she consume. She had also been injected with two special vaccinations: pentavalent botulinum-toxoid, an unproven drug used to combat botulism, and an anti-anthrax vaccine that can come in various forms, one of which involves a live, recombinant DNA process that is highly experimental and unlicensed.
"Soon after taking the bromide, I couldn't control my eyes, nose and facial muscles. I was overtaken with chronic sneezing, a running nose and deltoid twitching." She tried skipping the pills to regain control over her sight, but her local health officer demanded that she resume taking them: 90 milligrams a day for fifteen days. "Now Carol Pichou is on 70 percent disability retirement from the Army. Her doctor has diagnosed depleted blood supplies reaching her left thalamus gland and neurological damage to the left side of her brain affecting her memory, vision and speech. She's racked with respiratory problems, abdominal distention, a rash on her face and neck, and regular fevers. Unable to control either bowel or bladder movements, she is forced to catheterize herself to urinate and to wear diapers. She also wears a permanent sanitary pad-her period comes in semimonthly cycles, one week black and tarry, the next week clotted and profuse."(42)
Gen. Schwarzkopf himself said that when he first heard that the veterans were falling ill, he believed it was a reaction to the drugs.(43) But he apparently was persuaded by government and pharmaceutical company officials who shuttled the blame (when they admitted Gulf War Syndrome existed at all) onto "stress" and leishmaniasis.
But the government story is damned by its own documents. A Pentagon flyer circulated to Gulf veterans, "Briefing for Soldiers Returned from S.W.A. [Southwest Asia]-Leishmaniasis," claimed that the disease is "not dangerous to your health and a normal healthy body will control the infection without medical attention."(44) So then why worry about blood donations? Clearly, more than leishmaniasis-dangerous though it may be, for some-was prompting concern. What could weaken the immune system enough to make deadly a disease that "a normal healthy body will control"? Clearly, the widespread administration of experimental, genetically engineered drugs, the "frequent and massive aerial 'bombings' (sprayings)" of OP-based pesticides and insect repellents on troop areas, saturating clothing and tents, and the proximity to radiation emitted from depleted uranium all combined to attack the immune system.(45) Of the countries involved in the Gulf War, only France, whose military officials refused to order their troops to take pyridostigmine bromide or the other vaccines, has seen little or no evidence of veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.(46)
The role of the pharmaceutical companies is as odious as that of the government and military. One only has to look at Monsanto's testing, manufacturing and marketing of Agent Orange, to reveal the web of lies and collaboration between industry and government. Back in the 1960s, Monsanto, working closely with the Pentagon and the Veterans' Administration, intentionally falsified key data on the effects of Agent Orange on human health in order to sell the deadly defoliant to the government for "use" in Vietnam.(47) Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged that the government's exoneration of Agent Orange was "politically motivated ... to cover up the true effects of dioxin, and manipulate public perception [and] coincide with similar, economically motivated, efforts of chemical companies that produce dioxin."(48) Today, Monsanto, Hoffman-LaRoche and other manufacturers of the vaccines given to GIs, are working "behind the scenes to contain the government investigation of Gulf veterans' health problems."(49) They are engaging in an enormous cover-up of genetically-engineered drugs, herbicides and pesticides, and uranium weaponry-a cover-up essential in insuring mega-profits, business as usual.
The U.S. used its own soldiers-who, for the first time, included far more Blacks and Latinos than ever before, which is not an incidental circumstance [see Sidebar: Racially-Targeted Bio Warfare]-as guinea pigs. It is likely that depleted uranium weapons and military-administered inoculants, some genetically-engineered, combined to cause what we now call Gulf War Syndrome. Clearly the horrors the U.S. military inflicted on the people of Iraq are returning as avenging specters. The slaughter that imperial militaries inflict on other people always, one way or another, comes back to haunt the perpetrator. The human cost to the U.S. of its venture in the Gulf increases daily, as new U.S. casualties are discovered-cancers, birth defects, tumors, broken lives.
notes and author bio
other resources:
National Gulf War Resource Center