Gulf War Syndrome: Is It Psycholiogial Or Physiological

What is Gulf War Syndrome (GWS)? Is it a debilitating physical condition because of a secret use of chemical and biological warfare from the Iraqis? Is it post-traumatic stress disorder that resulted from the Gulf War? Nobody really knows the truth behind GWS, but many people have given their expertise and opinions on what, if anything caused GWS. In Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, written by Elaine Showalter, she gives her account of GWS as “an epidemic of suspicion, a plague of paranoia that threatens a greater malaise than even Vietnam.” (143) It is true that GWS could be a case of paranoia or suspicion, but the physical symptoms and the transferring of symptoms from one person to the next just does not add up. It can be derived from evidence that GWS seems to be linked to chemical exposure.

This illness can be thought of as being caused two different ways, physiological and psychological. The physiological explanation makes no sense to me. It might be hard to believe that roughly 60,000 war veterans have this mysterious illness that causes many pains and defects to the body and it has not been identified by doctors or scientists. Doctors cannot seem to find anything wrong with these patients, except that some of the symptoms resemble post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder places a tremendous amount of stress on the body, and it can cause physical ailments such as a rash, loss of sleep, or headaches. These symptoms resemble the symptoms of GWS.

In her discussion about GWS, Showalter really did not give any proof to back up her claim that it is a psychological ailment. She more or less made a joke out of the physiological aspect of the claim. It is hard to believe or take sides with a certain issue when the author offers no proof and mocks the opposing argument. Obviously, she cannot see the other side of the argument because she is a one-tracked mind type of person. She wrote a book about what she thinks is a series of hysterical illnesses that was caused by an affliction of the mind and is expressed through a disturbance of the body. I am not discounting all of her arguments, and I do believe the mind plays some role in this, and other types of illnesses, but the evidence is stacked against her in her discussion about Gulf War Syndrome.

There are two main scenarios on how GWS originated. Both of these scenarios are a direct and indirect result of chemical and biological weapons. The first is the plain and simple fact that there were chemical and biological weapons in Iraq during the war. Iraq has a long history of using these weapons. They admitted to using mass amount of chemical weapons against their neighboring country of Iran in 1983 all the way until the Gulf War. Even though Saddam Hussein gave his word that chemical and biological weapons were not used, who is going to trust the word of a dictatorial leader like Hussein? According to the New York Times, soldiers who manned the most sophisticated mobile chemical-detection equipment reported that chemical weapons were found in Kuwait during the war and their reports were largely ignored or dismissed by their superiors. Our own government even admitted that some of the Iraqi weapons bunkers that were blown up by U.S. soldiers contained chemical weapons unbeknownst to them at the time.(2)

The second scenario is an indirect result of the chemical and biological weapons. I am speaking of the drugs that were given to the soldiers to protect against nerve gas attacks, and to ward off bugs. Showalter mentions in her argument that the insect repellent that was used can cause the same symptoms as that in GWS when mixed with one or two of the other drugs that were used to protect against nerve gas. A study called the Abou-Donia study tested chickens with the three chemicals that made up the insect repellent and the nerve gas repellent. In the chickens, any single one of these chemicals did not do any harm. But any two of them combined did cause neurotoxicity, and all three produced the most toxicity of all.(26) The authors of the study wrote that concentrations of these chemicals in the nervous system caused neuropathologic effects. This leaves them to believe that a well-meaning effort to protect the U.S. troops against insect-borne diseases and nerve gas might have backfired and contributed to the Gulf War Syndrome.

This theory would certainly explain the psychological effects that resemble PTSD. These effects and their resemblance to PTSD are one of the angles to Showalter’s argument. She thinks of the syndrome merely as stress that was suffered by the soldiers because they as had the thought of chemical and biological weapons on their mind. If it is only stress how does she explain the soldier’s semen burning the skin of his partner when it comes in contact? How does she explain people in contact with the soldiers contracting the syndrome? Is it possible to transfer a syndrome when it is merely a figment of the soldier’s imagination? Showalter, in her one-tracked mind, would answer yes, but I just don’t see it possible. Does one contract the flu just by thinking about it? No it has to be physically transferred. This is the case for GWS.

This isn’t just one or two cases. This is many of the cases. Also, how do you explain the fact that many of the soldier’s babies were born with cancers, missing limbs, and debilitating diseases? Showalter would argue that the percentage of babies born with birth defects would be at about 3 percent, or the normal average.(140) It is true that maybe three percent may be born with defects, but mothers are reporting that their babies are sick all the time, with the same symptoms of GWS.

Esquire reported that in 1994, of fifty five children born to four guard units in Mississippi thirty seven are not normal.(139) Obviously this is a far greater percentage than the normal three percent. Many young soldiers in good shape, have come back from the war and been diagnosed with cancer. Medical professionals such as doctors and nurses have become sick with the symptoms after they saw patients who were afflicted with GWS. One scientist for the Institute of Molecular Medicine had four teeth and part of his jaw removed. Many people at the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston were also becoming sick as a result of contact with the affected soldiers. Coincidence? I don’t think so.

It is true, GWS has not been identified as a physical ailment by tests and research. The results that have come back have shown this is a type of PTSD. But who is doing these tests and research? The answer is the government. Just because our government tells us something, it doesn’t mean that it is true. Our government has lied and hid stuff from the American public before, so who’s to say that they aren’t doing it again. The government performed the majority of the Gulf War Syndrome studies. The few done by privately funded firms have revealed that GWS is linked to either chemical and biological weapons or the mixture of the repellent chemicals. The government disregards these studies. If it were to surface that the government were at fault and GWS was caused by chemical alteration, the government would be liable and have some hefty compensation and medical bills to pay. This is reason enough for the government to declare GWS a psychological illness.

The main basis to Showalter’s argument is that tests or research that GWS is a physical illness linked to chemicals has not proved it. The American Medical Association has come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as GWS.(26) On the other hand, the British Medical Journal has said that GWS is linked to chemical weapons. Also, the British Medical Journal criticizes the research done by the White House and the Pentagon, which says that chemical exposure played no part in the symptoms.(126) Elaine Showalter doesn’t mention any of this is her argument.

It is obvious that Gulf War Syndrome is for real. The government and Elaine Showalter claim that nothing is really known about GWS. They both classify it as PTSD, and Elaine Showalter writes about it as a hysterical ailment. It just doesn’t seem right to me that Showalter thinks that 60,000 of our finest troops and countless numbers of their wives and doctors are just a bunch of hysterical people.