The New York Times's C.J. Chivers has dropped a bombshell of a scoop that details 17 US troops and seven Iraqi policemen who were exposed to old chemical weapons in Iraq, some of whom were declined appropriate medical care and service awards on the grounds of secrecy.
If Mr. Chivers' reporting holds up – and there's little reason to doubt his deeply-reported piece – this is a scandal that eclipses long waits and poor funding at VA hospitals in the US. Sure, far fewer people were affected by exposure to mustard agents or sarin in Iraq, but these allegations represent enormous callousness and a direct breach of trust with soldiers.
The problems at the VA were systemic, and came at a time when a surge of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were entering the system. Yes, it's a vast bureaucracy, relying on out-dated technology and without the kind of financial backing from Congress you'd expect after listening to their Veterans Day speeches about "supporting the troops." But, no one was deliberately setting out to deny warriors care.
That's the central issue in Chivers' piece, which is hard to read in full without mounting anger. But the following four graphs contain the nut of the scandal here, as I see it (emphasis mine):
The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.
“I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier,” said a former Army sergeant who suffered mustard burns in 2007 and was denied hospital treatment and medical evacuation to the United States despite requests from his commander.
Congress, too, was only partly informed, while troops and officers were instructed to be silent or give deceptive accounts of what they had found. “ 'Nothing of significance’ is what I was ordered to say,” said Jarrod Lampier, a recently retired Army major who was present for the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war: more than 2,400 nerve-agent rockets unearthed in 2006 at a former Republican Guard compound.
Jarrod L. Taylor, a former Army sergeant on hand for the destruction of mustard shells that burned two soldiers in his infantry company, joked of “wounds that never happened” from “that stuff that didn’t exist.” The public, he said, was misled for a decade. “I love it when I hear, ‘Oh there weren’t any chemical weapons in Iraq,’” he said. “There were plenty.”
That chemical weapons from before the first Gulf War remained in Iraq was an operating assumption at the time the US invaded the country in 2003 and was established fact by the end of that year. But, while the US made the search for evidence of ongoing chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons programs a priority (it failed to find any), disposing of whatever they did find apparently was not.
In the first year of the US-led war, the military didn't have the manpower to secure all of the hundreds of conventional weapons bunkers that littered the country. The shells, RPGs, and rifles that were looted from these bunkers were put to use by the then-growing Iraqi insurgency to attack both foreign soldiers and the new government in Baghdad.
Chivers' story details how as late as 2008, US soldiers were involved in the secret destruction of chemical weapons in ways that violate the protocols set out in the United Nations's Convention on Chemical Weapons. The lax US approach appears to have led to the exposure of the soldiers – and it left behind an unknown quantity of old chemical weapons, some possibly in the hands of anti-government insurgents like the so-called Islamic State. The US knew it was leaving old chemical weapons behind when soldiers withdrew from the country at the end of 2011. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations had ever made their destruction a priority.
Much of the reaction to the story has missed the central point, distracted by partisan finger pointing. Fox News predictably frames the story as "There were chemical weapons in Iraq after all." No. This is not news – and the possible existence of old sarin and mustard agent shells inside the country was not the reason that the Bush administration presented for going to war. Folks on the left have focused on the fact that these old chemical weapons were US "designed." That isn't really news either (nor that the US was notably silent about Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war).
The story is an enormous breach of trust between the US and its own soldiers. It starts with the officers and the members of the Bush administration involved, whose names the story doesn't give.
An officer who I'm friendly with on Twitter launched a rant about the story (most of which I can't share since he uses salty language) that captures the mood of many veterans. Some shareable highlights: "But again, make no mistake: the information started with and was controlled by DoD [The Department of Defense]. A complete break in faith with service members... Clearly, I'm livid about this. I wonder (oh, how I wonder) when (IF) Congress will start hunting heads on this... I have never been in a position to question the loyalty of soldiers beneath me. But I've had myriad reasons to doubt that of my 'leaders.'"
The question "why" screams out from this story, but isn't really answered. Maj. (Ret.) Lampier shared a theory with Chivers that doesn't really make sense to me.
Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the US suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Lampier said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.”
I'm not sure how hiding the presence of old chemical weapons helped bolster a case that Saddam had newer chemical weapons, or that he'd used them recently. Nor am I persuaded by the suggestion that the US was "embarrassed" over the role of American companies in designing many of these old weapons. That has been public knowledge for almost 15 years.
My guess is that the source of the secrecy was how inadequately funded and resourced US ordinance disposal efforts were in Iraq, particularly around chemical weapons, which US leaders frequently speak of as one of the great scourges of the modern age. The simple fact that as late as 2008 US troops were being exposed to mustard agents – the lead anecdote in Chivers' article – is troubling evidence of failure to take the issue seriously.
The original US invasion force was woefully inadequate to America's ambitious plans for Iraq, and the failure to secure weapons coupled with the disastrous decision in 2003 to fire the entire Iraqi Army, set the insurgency well on its way. Part of that insurgency has since morphed into the Islamic State, which US warplanes are battling inside Syria and Iraq.
But whatever the thinking was behind the decisions to cover this stuff up, it's hard to see any justification. Another anecdote in Chivers' story tells of a group of soldiers exposed to mustard agent, the blistering chemical sometimes called "mustard gas."
All the while secrecy prevailed. The military determined the soldiers had been burned by an M110 shell. Both victims said word of their exposure was purposefully squelched.
“We were absolutely told not to talk about it” by a colonel, the former sergeant said. The order, he added, included prohibitions against mentioning mustard agent when writing home.
The secrecy was so extensive that Dr. Dave Edmond Lounsbury, a former Army colonel, said he suspected officials hid the cases even from him and two other Army doctors assigned to prepare an official textbook on treating battlefield wounds, including those related to chemical warfare.
Lets hope that sunlight proves its value as a disinfectant this time.