Letters Exchange in The New Republic over Yet Another Gulf Lore Syndrome Article

By Michael Fumento

Copyright 2003 The New Republic

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It’s sad that in the icon-busting TNR, Alex Stone took the media party line, perpetuating the myth of Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) ("Ill Treated," April 21 & 28). Stone writes, "After 224 studies and more than $200 million in research, the causes (of GWS) remain uncertain," foregoing the obvious possibility that this incredible amount of research hasn’t led to a cause because there isn’t one. He lists six symptoms attributed to GWS, without noting that GWS activists themselves have listed more than 120, including hair loss, graying hair, weight gain, weight loss, athlete’s foot, and even genital herpes. What’s called GWS is merely any symptom any Gulf vet has or thinks he has.

Stone claims "experts generally agree that these symptoms arose from exposure to any of 33 toxic agents." What he really means is 33 suspect causes have been tested, but nobody has been able to pin anything down. Positive studies inherently involve a handful of vets, are rarely published, and are routinely irreproducible. Or they use amounts of agents that kill lab animals outright. Stone emphasizes that "roughly 30 percent (of Gulf vets) went on to file disability claims for a host of ailments," as if this were a surrogate for illness. Unconsidered is the possibility that so many have applied for benefits because activists and the media have convinced them that any illness they’ll ever get is compensatory GWS.

Published scientific epidemiological studies have shown that, on the whole, Gulf vets are at least as healthy as nondeployed, matched control vets. The largest and most comprehensive appeared in the January 1, 2000, issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, which matched the medical records of 650,000 Gulf vets to those of 650,000 non-deployed vets. Researchers looked at illnesses ranging from cancer to heart disease to mental disorders to skin problems for a total of 14 diseases. They further divided these by the three hospital systems involved, for a total of 42 data "slices." Statistically significant increased problems were found in five of the 42 slices. But the researchers also found significantly decreased levels of illness in eleven slices.

The media/activist game is to emphasize those few elevations while ignoring the disease deficits, as did Stone when he referenced the study finding higher rates of Gulf vets with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). He didn’t note that this study found merely 40 vets with ALS (with 33 cases expected) nor that studies both before and after found no statistically significant increase in the disease. Department of Veterans Affairs data also show death rates among Gulf vets are lower than should be expected, though the difference is statistically insignificant precisely because the numbers are so low. But, with the myth reinforced, how long before we’re reading about GWS II?

Michael Fumento
Senior Fellow
Hudson Institute

Alex Stone replies:

Michael Fumento misses the point of my article, which was not to enter a plea on either side of the medical debate surrounding GWS. Rather, I argued that the lack of comprehensive pre- and post-deployment medical records frustrates attempts to pin down the etiology of postwar ailments. Many studies have shown higher rates of certain symptoms among veterans of Desert Storm, but these results, including the ones Fumento cites, are only as good as the porous medical records on which they are based.

We do know, however, that these soldiers were exposed to chemical agents, such as sarin gas, oil smoke, and pyridostigmine bromide, which can harm humans. One in four Gulf vets is on disability – far more, percentage-wise, than any recent U.S. war. Does Fumento honestly believe these numbers reflect a conspiracy to float bogus disability claims or a national, media-induced hallucination?

On a more upbeat note, two weeks after my article was published, the Pentagon – under pressure from the Department of Veterans Affairs and The National Gulf War Resource Center – upgraded its post-deployment medical exams, an action that deserves commendation.

And since this is my website, I get the final word. Stone’s article had only two points, which were hard to miss. First, GWS has caused tremendous suffering; second, that the military was doing a poor job in preventing it from happening again. If point one falls, then so must point two. The only illness linked to oil smoke in the Gulf has been asthma, and it’s been a slight association at that. There were no sarin gas attacks during the war and there is no evidence that any allied troops were exposed to sarin in any medically meaningful sense of the word. That is, we’re all exposed to trace elements of such poisons as cyanide and arsenic every day, but the amounts are far below the threshold for causing harm. Pyridostigmine bromide has been taken by sufferers of Myasthenia Gravis for decades at levels massively higher than anything any Gulf vet took, yet its safety record is excellent. I addressed Stone’s point about the high levels of disability claims, only to have him ignore it. Finally, The New Republic in its editing of my letter spared Mr. Stone the answering of a question that would have put him in the Jayson Blair category. Responding to his claim that "experts generally agree that these symptoms arose from exposure to any of 33 toxic agents," I asked: "What’s the source for the ’generally agree’ assertion?" He has none; he made it up.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional writing on Gulf War Syndrome.