Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) is back in the news, thanks to a new study released by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), and so is the persistent effort to label it a “mystery.” See, for example, the story by a HealthDay reporter headlined “Gulf War Syndrome Is Real, but Causes Unclear: Report.” Says the article, “its causes, treatment, and potential cure remain unknown.”
A definite mystery, right? Well, no.
There are two “causes” of GWS — the second of which is actually quite interesting, but not mysterious. The first explanation is a normal background rate of disease. That is, among the over 700,000 Americans who served in the Gulf War, there is no more sickness, and the death rate is no higher, than you’d expect in a group of that size and of those demographics after 19 years.
This has been repeatedly demonstrated. A massive 2006 review of studies from four types of data sets — health-care registries, hospitalization studies, outpatient studies, and mortality studies — on American, British, Canadian, Saudi, and Australian veterans found that after 15 years there was “no suggestion that a new unique illness was associated with service during the Gulf War.” What part of “no” don’t the mystery-mongers understand?
As I put it in an article for NRO in 2004:
Activists have attributed at least 123 symptoms to this “will-o’-the-wisp” syndrome, as former New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell described it to the New York Times. They include aching muscles, aching joints, abdominal pain, bruising, shaking, vomiting, fevers, irritability, fatigue, weight loss, weight gain, heartburn, bad breath, hair loss, graying hair, rashes, sore throat, itching, sore gums, constipation, sneezing, nasal congestion, leg cramps, hemorrhoids, hypertension, insomnia, and headaches.
Anybody who hasn’t had most of the above symptoms is probably an android. But when a non-vet gets a cough, it’s called “a cough.” If a Gulf vet gets one, it’s called GWS.
Still, there are different illnesses found among the Gulf vets, which brings us to the second cause. Like the 2006 review, the IOM report also found “no unique syndrome, illness, or symptom complex.” But it did find, on the basis of self-reports (rather than objective examinations), that Gulf vets had an unusually high incidence of “psychiatric disorders [such] as posttraumatic stress disorder, gastrointestinal disorders, joint pain, and respiratory disorders.”
These are all classic symptoms of “mass psychogenic illness,” points out University of Toronto medical historian Edward Shorter, the author of From Paralysis to Fatigue: A History of Psychosomatic Illness in the Modern Era.