Rumors of Gulf War Syndrome

Informal communication among British veterans of the first Iraq war may have shaped the vets' characterization of Gulf War Syndrome.

After the bullets stopped flying, the rumors took off among British veterans of the 1991 Gulf War. Early accounts of physical and emotional reactions to wartime experiences spread from one person to another through networks of veterans. Within a few years, these former soldiers had decided among themselves that many of them suffered from the controversial illness known as Gulf War Syndrome, a new study concludes.

Simon Wessely of King’s College London and his colleagues analyzed extensive written accounts provided in 1996, five years after the Gulf War, by 1,100 British Gulf War vets participating in a larger survey of veterans’ health. Vets described their wartime experiences and related what had happened in the conflict to their later health and illness.

The research team doesn’t regard rumor as necessarily untrue or misleading. Rumor proved to be critical among the British Gulf War vets because it counteracted a lack of communication from military and government authorities regarding possible wartime health risks, Wessely says.

Scared and confused vets turned to their own social grapevine for answers, Wessely’s group reports in an upcoming Social Science & Medicine. Out of their shared stories and explanations grew a collective conviction that Gulf War Syndrome existed as a unitary illness with elusive causes.

“The nature of Gulf War Syndrome in the years after the conflict was keenly shaped by these early rumors, which entangled specific ideas about the illness with feelings of betrayal, distrust and ambiguity,” Wessely says.

Symptoms attributed to Gulf War Syndrome include joint and muscle pain, bouts of depression or violent behavior and cancers of various types. Some researchers regard the condition as a psychological disorder related to the stress of combat. Others, as well as many vets, contend that it’s a physical disorder caused by exposure to toxic substances shortly before or during the war.

By 2001, an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of those who served in the Gulf War believed that they suffered from Gulf War Syndrome.

Current medical consensus holds that Gulf War veterans indeed display unusually high rates of various health problems, but that these conditions don’t constitute a discrete illness or syndrome, Wessely says.

Research on this issue remains contentious. In a commentary slated to be published with the new study, Thomas Shriver of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and Sherry Cable of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville say that Wessely’s team appears to regard veterans’ symptoms as purely psychological and perhaps partly invented out of rumor. “The authors come perilously close to blaming the victims,” the two sociologists contend.

U.S. Gulf War vets used rumors early after their return to define collective grievances and develop a plan to press authorities for medical treatment and compensation, Shriver and Cable say.

But, Wessely responds, “Far from blaming vets, we are shifting the spotlight to the role of governments in allowing an information vacuum to develop regarding potential health risks, which allowed rumors to spread and gain currency after the war.”

Military authorities in the United States and England have learned a hard lesson from that experience, he says.

Consider that the anthrax vaccine was administered to U.S. and British soldiers entering the Gulf War, but that the vaccine was given under a code name. Rumors about the vaccine spread quickly, including one that soldiers were being injected with an experimental AIDS vaccine. Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S and British soldiers were told upfront that they were receiving the anthrax vaccine.

The new study confirms that rumors about health risks, especially from vaccinations and pills, spread rapidly among troops just before, during and after the war.

About 90 percent of the survey participants listed one or more personal problems, including anger, depression, forgetfulness, lumps, rashes, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, brain lesions, incontinence and self-enforced isolation.

More than one-third of vets worried about unknown pollutants that had somehow entered their bodies. Concern focused on exposure to depleted uranium used during the war by U.S. and British forces, tablets and vaccinations provided to protect against Iraqi biological and chemical warfare and smoke from oil fires set by Iraqi forces as they retreated from Kuwait.

About two-thirds of vets said that they did not, at the time of the survey, suffer from any full-blown illness but still felt susceptible to developing Gulf War Syndrome.

Most participants also cited a lack of confidence in their leaders, from commanders of military units to government officials. Frustration over military secrecy and over not knowing whom to trust was common.

After the war, rumors reaffirmed the social bond among returning vets and helped them to shape a bewildering array of physical and psychological symptoms into the common burden of Gulf War Syndrome, the scientists propose.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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