A Conversation with Seymour Hersh
Q: Why did you choose "Against All Enemies" as the title of this book?
A: All U.S. military personnel recite an oath that they will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies. Veterans suffering from Gulf War syndrome learned that the enemy may have been those who sent them into combat.
Q: There have been other books, as well as countless articles and news stories, about Gulf War syndrome and the troubles faced by ailing veterans looking for help from the government they served. What's different about this book?
A: This book explores Gulf War syndrome in political, not medical or epidemiological, terms. Everyone acknowledges that these servicepeople are sick. Although we might never know exactly what Gulf War vets are suffering from, they certainly are suffering from something. My goal is to look at Gulf War syndrome from the policy side and ask why the system failed these men and women. Twenty years after Agent Orange, AGAINST ALL ENEMIES asks why we're repeating the same mistakes.
Q: Why couldn't the system absorb the notion that people came out of the Gulf War with some illness?
A: The basic answer is that military and political leaders did not want anything to mar the notion of a clean and virtuous victory in the Gulf. And they certainly didn't want to raise the possibility that there might be tens of thousands of "friendly fire" casualties who were wounded not by the enemy but by our own actions. It is clear that the military's first reaction to Gulf War syndrome was to treat the sick as malingerers and weaklings. This colored the entire debate for two years. In that time Gulf War syndrome simply didn't exist. If you said you were sick you were either a coward or you were trying to hustle the government for medical care or a pension.
Q: How did you first become involved in this project?
A: I started getting faxes and letters from the father of a Gulf War veteran during a publicity tour for my recent book about President Kennedy. His son, an Air Force Major, is now suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease. He told me, in essence, "You think you're such a tough guy for taking on Kennedy! Why don't you go after something that's really tough?" I read the material he sent me and realized there's a story here that needs to be told. The story is not that Gulf War syndrome exists but rather why we couldn't deal with it more effectively. What is it about us a country, and our dreams of easy glory, that has brought us to where we are today? We want our wars to be cost-free and painless. You see it all the time in politics. The President of the United States talks about taking greater action in Bosnia, but he always talks in terms of low American casualties. There's no such animal. The lesson of this book is: If you don't get it one way you're going to get it another--war is not cost free!
Q: Colin Powell characterized the gulf war as a "clear win at low casualties." Why do you characterize it as our "Teflon war?"
A: We clearly didn't understand the high cost of the war. It's ironic that people today feel cheated because we failed to eliminate Saddam Hussein. Doing so was never the goal of the Bush administration in early 1991. We should feel cheated by the Gulf War--not because we failed to do something we never set out to do in the first place but because the cost of the war, in terms of human suffering, was much greater than we have acknowledged. The ongoing debate over which diseases are truly linked to Gulf War syndrome is irrelevant. Veterans could be suffering from some form of bacterial or viral disease. It could even be that some of what they're suffering is, in fact, psychosomatic. It doesn't matter because nobody wanted to deal with any of it.
Q: Why was the military so slow to respond to Gulf War syndrome?
A: One irony of this whole story, and one reason the military was slow to respond, was that regular army personnel and marines were slow to report their illnesses because they were afraid of being perceived as weak. The army was downsizing after the war. Soldiers and officers knew anybody who was ill would be kicked out. As a result, initial Gulf War syndrome complaints were most often made by reservists and members of the National Guard. When the Pentagon first looked at the statistics they saw Gulf War syndrome as a reserve phenomenon, and the regular army has always looked on the reserves as "the Christmas help"--second class soldiers. It wasn't until much later that the top brass realized regular army units were suffering in parallel to reserve and Guard units.
Q: The experiences of Gulf War veterans seeking treatment for service-related illnesses closely echoes what happened to Vietnam vets seeking treatment for illnesses spawned by the defoliant Agent Orange. Are we ever going to learn from history?
A: The thing that totally astonishes me is the close parallel between the two groups of vets. Unfortunately it wasn't until the early 90's that we finally, and fully, resolved the Agent Orange debate. We're now giving death benefits to the families of those who died of cancer twenty years after the Vietnam War, and we're doing so without establishing a direct connection between their service and exposure to Agent Orange. The same thing has to happen with Gulf War vets.
Q: Did any part of the system work in favor of veterans?
A: I see this as an amazing model in which Congress actually worked. Despite some effort by Hillary Clinton on behalf of veterans, the White House was frozen because Bill Clinton was afraid to take on the Pentagon. It was up to Congress to do what the president would not. In many respects this is their victory. The Pentagon went to Capitol Hill and said there's no evidence linking Gulf War syndrome to anything other than stress. Congress said "we don't care, these kids are sick, take care of them." Congress was truly doing the job envisioned for it by the founding fathers: representing the aspirations of the people against the aspirations of government. For them it was not a question of epidemiology, it was a question of getting these kids healthy.
Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
A: I think readers will be stunned to hear that, at the highest levels of the Pentagon, American troops were considered malingerers when they began reporting sick. I don't think people expect that of our military leaders. I don't think people expect the military to be indifferent to the suffering of its own troops, but that's what happened. The mothers and fathers of American kids who are now serving in the military, or who will serve in the future, need to ask: "Is the military, despite all its noble words, really committed to taking care of our children?"
I think readers will also be surprised at the extent to which we're still playing politics with the lives of our servicemen and women. During recent confrontations with Iraq over arms inspections, when it looked like we'd have to go back to war in the Persian Gulf, the Clinton administration announced with great pride that all troops had been inoculated against anthrax. That was a purely political statement. One official involved with the program said "the good news is that we're vaccinating. The bad news is that we've just told Saddam Hussein what biological weapon not to use."
Q: What would you say to someone contemplating a career in the military, or a stint in the National Guard or reserves?
A: There's no doubt that most officers love their men and want to take care of them on the battlefield. There's also no doubt that that battlefield feeling may not have much to do with what happens when the battle is done. Once the Gulf War was over GI's were made to feel as if they were expendable. In testimony before a congressional committee, one veteran, Kimo S. Hollingsworth, said it best: "As an American who volunteered to serve my country, I can accept bad medical news. What I cannot accept and will not tolerate are professional bureaucrats that first deny a problem exists, then minimize problems once they surface, and lastly make the problems seem more complex so endless studies can be conducted--The Department of Defense must learn that the young men and women of this country are a valuable resource. I am a combat veteran, not an expendable item."
Q: In what way were the men running the war more frightened by the specter of biological warfare than has been made public?
A: What I discovered was that the military had conducted an intelligence operation before the war and literally kidnapped some Iraqi soldiers. They took blood samples from them and found they had antibodies for anthrax--the most dreaded, efficient, and easily deployed biological disease. The question was, were those antibodies naturally occurring? Was anthrax in the area, and had the Iraqi's simply built up a natural immunity, or had they been given vaccines? It was a real problem and the military was forced to assume the worst. You have to remember, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August and then did nothing for five months other than wait for us to attack. The Pentagon and the Department of Defense had to assume he had something up his sleeve--namely biological weapons. These fears colored a lot of pre-war thinking. The Senate vote to authorize the war, at 52 to 47, was very close. It might have gone the other way if Senators had known the Pentagon was projecting the deaths of 200,000 people because of biological and chemical weapons. The U.S. military had, and continues to have, an obligation to share those fears with Congress. During the Gulf War they failed to do so.
Q: We all remember news-video of gas masks and protection suits being put on by soldiers. How prepared was the military to truly deal with chemical and biological attack?
A: One Defense Department study I cite, which has not yet been released, shows that among some units forty-seven percent of the gas masks didn't work or couldn't be fitted. And it was unclear how effective any of the masks would be against biological agents. The charcoal activated protection suits were also somewhat ineffective. They had a shelf-life of only thirty-days, from the time they were activated, and suffered from significant production quality problems. Things have changed little since then. We still lack an effective alarm system, and quality equipment, to combat biological and chemical weapons. The only way soldiers know to put on their protective gear is when someone around them drops dead.
Q: You recount the stories of individual servicepeople suffering from Gulf War syndrome and their mistreatment by the government. Which of these stories stands out most in your mind?
A: The one that stands out most is the story that got this whole ball rolling--that of Air force Major Donnelly who now suffers from Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS). He was exposed to pesticides while jogging years after the war but received categorical assurances that there was no possible connection between the onset of his disease and the Gulf War. And yet, according to the VA, there have been as many as sixteen cases of ALS among Gulf veterans. Statistically that's amazing. It is quite possible that veterans, exposed to something in the Persian Gulf, could suffer from illnesses that won't strike them for another ten years. It seems to me the government needs to be more aggressive and pro-active in dealing with the situation. We need to devise some packet of instructions that will tell these veterans what they need to avoid for the rest of their lives. Doing so may be far-fetched and silly but, on the other hand, it could save untold suffering. When it comes to our service personnel, we should be erring on the side of caution.
Q: Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell were known for taking care of their troops. Did they have an obligation to speak out on behalf of vets and demand that America's military hospitals stop turning them away?
A: The veterans certainly think so. I've had a lot of contact with Schwarzkopf over the years. He's nothing but a truth teller. Powell, too, has always been a straight shooter. Nevertheless it's not difficult to understand their inability to acknowledge the Gulf War as anything other than the victory they thought it was. Greater support of veterans would have diminished their own victories. In an interview for AGAINST ALL ENEMIES, Powell said "Look, I retired, and once I retired I don't have any direct responsibility." That might be true but a lot of people think he, and Schwarzkopf, had some higher obligation considering their high public positions and the esteem in which they have been held by the American people. Their argument is that they did all that they could. I'm not sure who's right.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
A: I just want us to understand that there's no such thing as a war without casualties. I'm not a pacifist. I would be among those urging us to do more in the former Yugoslavia. But we need to understand the consequences of war, and not minimize the danger, so that we can be more careful about sending our troops into combat.