THE GULF WAR: OPERATIONS DESERT SHIELD ANDDESERT STORM
During the Gulf War, data were gathered on the stress, psychological status, andself-reported symptoms of a reasonable population of troops during deploy-ment, prior to combat, and at several points following combat. Since I was re-sponsible for organizing and carrying out this particular data gathering effortamong U.S. Army personnel, I am able to present primary and historical sourcedata. For the first time, we can systematically look at soldiers appraisals and re-sponses to the perceived stressors of the deployment. We can then comparethese responses and their patterning to the general consequences of combatand deployment.
Even more so than for the Vietnam War, the Gulf War presents us with a graveconundrum. The actual level of combat and combat exposure was minimalcompared to past wars. The proportion of the force that required any form ofmedical attention in the precombat, combat, and prereturn periods was farlower than it would have been in garrison. For most, the stresses of the deploy-ment outweighed the stresses of the combat period. In general, those who per-ceived themselves as most stressed and symptomatic in the precombat periodwere those who were most symptomatic following combat and also saw them-selves as most stressed by those events following return.
Well after returning, a subset of the population attributed their medical prob-lems to happenings in or during their time in the Gulf. A segment of the forceexperienced an array of physical and psychological symptoms that began to beattributed not to the erosive nature of the deployment, but to an unknown butprobably unique toxin or pathogen. The similarities of these troops to troops re-turning from Vietnam who claimed exposure to Agent Orange is striking, as isthe constant theme of trying to find the singular cause of Gulf War illness.This quest and belief has, for many, led to a dismissal or denial of the roles pre-combat, combat, and postcombat stresses, beliefs, expectations, and fears mayhave played in the amplification of and anguish caused by symptoms that mayhave less mysterious origins. These illnesses appear to share the same array of
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causal factors that have been noted throughout recent history and that many,particularly a number of veterans, appear to have rejected since Vietnam, in fa-vor of the quest for a singular cause and thus the hoped-for cure.
THE STRESSES OF THE GULF DEPLOYMENT
Because of the perceived ease of the Desert Storm victory, which combined ashort period of combat with an exceptionally low level of casualties, a mistakenimpression is sometimes held that the operation could not have been a signifi-cant source of stress, save for those who were directly involved in traumaticepisodes during its course. I believe such perceptions are far from true.
When examining the consequences for its participants, we must see OperationsDesert Shield and Desert Storm as a whole and not simply as a reflection of ahundred hours of the ground war. The operations were for many a source ofcontinuing and chronic stresses and apprehensive expectations for months onend. The stressors that affected soldiers ranged from the daily, proximate, andtactile to the distant, symbolic, and perhaps notional. Still, morale was good tohigh in most cases, and soldiers performed effectively and with humor. But un-ease and anxiety lurked continuously at the edges, frustration levels were ap-parently high, and the soldiers universe was persistently seen and felt as threat-ening.
Drawing from soldiers statements in our interviews in the Gulf, we find thatmany of the usual mediating structures that buffered previous deploymentswere absent, particularly those provided by interaction with the host societyand the opportunities for ease, recreation, diversion, and relief from militaryroutine that such interactions provide. The deployment of U.S. troops to SaudiArabia in the initial phases of the operation was, in some ways, analogous todeploying a force to the other side of the moon. While Saudi Arabia is awealthy country with urban areas that rival any in the Middle East in terms ofmodern facilities, these areas were off limits to the overwhelming majority ofAmerican military personnel. While a number of support personnel operated insuch ports of entry as Daharan and Dammam, most Americans were rapidlymoved into a desolate hinterland. The agreements made with the Saudi gov-ernments that represented the frame of reference of the deployment were de-signed to keep American impact upon and interaction with the Saudi popula-tion to a minimum.1
______________ 1As the guardians of the sacred heartland of Islam and as the heirs and proponents of Wahabbism,the most austere and orthodox form of Sunni Islam, the Saudis have walked a fine line between for-eign ties and xenophobia, both within the nation and in the Muslim world at large since the found-ing of the kingdom in the 1920s. Political and diplomatic considerations in regard to these sensibili-ties undoubtedly exacerbated the stresses of deployment.
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To fully comprehend the stresses in the Gulf, we must examine the multiplecontexts that affected the service members who were sent there. The rebuildingof the American military (and particularly of the active Army), following the se-vere erosion of morale, competence, and internal confidence wrought by thelater years of Vietnam and the initial years of the All-Volunteer Force, appearsto have passed unnoticed by most Americans. In Panama, where a small, highlyskilled, and technologically adept force destroyed the capacity of the Panama-nian Armed Forces to operate as an organized entity in a matter of hours, themessage of operation Just Cause was misread. Far too many simply viewedPanama as the application of an overwhelming weight of fire and personnelagainst a trivial and ill-prepared enemy. Little attention appears to have beenpaid to the rapidity of the Panamanian collapse despite the small number of ca-sualties inflicted on their forces, the very small number of civilian casualties,and the lack of use of indirect fire weaponsbarred by the rules of engagement.The revolutions in training wrought by the National Training Center, the JointTraining Center, MILES (laser combat simulation) gear, and the use of simula-tors were also little appreciated.
Prior to the Gulf War, public doubt about our weapons systems was a matter ofcommon discussion.2 The Apache helicopter gun ship, the Abrams main battletank, and the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle were all routinely assaulted aspotentially ineffective weapons that represented a waste of the taxpayersmoney. In some cases they were derided as little more than rolling coffins or asvehicles too delicate and complex to be sustainable on the battlefield. Thesmart weapons developed for use by all services were untried, and the mediahad tended to focus more on test failures than successes. American forces werealso untried; it had been a full generation since Americans had been involved ina major conflict. Minor conflicts had primarily been the province of elite andspecial operations troops, so our ordinary soldiers, sailors, Marines, and air-men were considered militarily naive. This was particularly emphasized if theywere to go into combat against the battle hardened and ruthless Iraqi Army.The drum rolls of fear creation, which began before the first troops had arrivedto draw the line in the sand, continued throughout much of the Desert Shieldphase of the deployment.
Complementing the vision of a vulnerable and victimizable American forcewas that of an almost invincible Iraqi military, which had been made combat-wise and highly effective by years of conflict with Iran. It was said to be dedi-cated, cohesive, and well led, and it was assumed to possess high-technologicalcapacity acquired from the former Soviet Union. Iraq was known to possess
______________ 2Indeed such doubts have, once again, become common in the media and other venues despite thesystems overwhelming, if imperfect, success.
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nerve agents and other gas weapons, and both the capacity to deliver them andthe will to use them.3 Major doubts were circulated in the media and in bothmilitary and civilian rumor systems about the quality and effectiveness of theU.S. militarys gas warfare protective gear and gas detection systems. The pro-tective capacities of this gear and its potential utility under the climatic condi-tions of Saudi Arabia were often dismissed as probably ineffectual and poten-tially dangerous. The armed forces were perceived by a number of commenta-tors as basically unprepared to meet a foe with nerve agent potential, despitethe fact that they had spent decades preparing to fight the former Soviet Union,whose doctrine had been keyed to the massive use of both short-term and per-sistent nerve agent in its maneuver scenarios for a possible war with NATO.
Such perceptions of potential defects in our equipment and of enemy strengthswere present at the beginning of the deployment, and our interviews showedthat they remained part of the soldiers mental baggage throughout DesertShield and Desert Storm. These concerns were a continuous aspect of the con-text of the lives of the deployed troops, reinforced by radio newscasts, CNN, andEnglish-language newspapers and magazines.
ASSESSING STRESS AND ADAPTATION
I led a team from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research that was sent tothe Gulf.4 Among the questions we were seeking answers to were: How long canwe keep people there? How are U.S. soldiers adapting to the Saudi en