After the U.S. invaded Iraq, American soldiers found, and in some cases were wounded by, thousands of chemical-weapons munitions and the U.S. government has been loath to talk about it, the New York Times’ C. J. Chivers reports tonight. Soldiers repeatedly uncovered caches of expired or degraded chemical weapons in the country and even had to deal with the munitions being incorporated by insurgents, perhaps unwittingly, into improvised explosive devices.
It isn’t quite news that there are non-negligible numbers of chemical weapons left in Iraq, but Chivers’s story suggests they are much more numerous and more widely dispersed than had been disclosed. And disturbingly, as soldiers were exposed to hazardous, if maybe not deadly, weapons, almost none of these events were made known to the public.
This seems to have been partly because the military didn’t have the resources to deal with the weapons, especially after it became clear that Saddam hadn’t had an active program or new munitions. High-level investigations, such as the 2004 Iraq Study Group, kept the discoveries quiet, even as the Pentagon was finding out some of the defunct chemical weapons could still be dangerous. The U.S. military could have been accused of not adequately complying with international law in dealing with the munitions now under its control (though the Pentagon says, given the circumstances, it followed the rules). Moreover, many of the weapons were developed or bought by Iraq with U.S. help, when Saddam Hussein was fighting Iran in the 1980s.
The existence of these weapons doesn’t affect the debate over the war’s justification either way: They’re not evidence that Saddam Hussein was, as proponents of the war contended, in the process of resuming chemical-weapons production or starting other WMD programs. But on the other hand, as the existence of thousands of hidden or mislabeled chemical-weapons munitions reported in Chivers’s article could suggest, Saddam was clearly not complying with United Nations requirements about exposing and dismantling his chemical-weapons stores, which was the legal justification for the war.
The largest concentration of acknowledged chemical weapons, which the Iraqi government has been responsible for monitoring and dismantling after the U.S. withdrawal, is at the Al-Muthana chemical-weapons complex, northwest of Baghdad. That facility was in the news this summer: The Islamic State took control of it and all its contents in July. These old chemical weapons aren’t likely to be very useful militarily, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be dangerous, destructive, or terrifying, as the Pentagon seems to know.
Here are the soldiers explaining a cover-up in their own words:
“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.”
The good news is that the Pentagon is now being forced into action, and will make sure that affected soldiers are getting the attention they need:
Prompted by the Times reporting, the Army acknowledged that it had not provided the medical care and long-term tracking required by its chemical exposure treatment guidelines. It said it would identify all troops and veterans who had been exposed and update and follow their cases.
“We’re at the point of wanting to make this right,” Col. Bill Rice, director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of the Army Public Health Command said last Friday. “We can’t change the past, but we can make sure they are pointed in the right direction from this point forward.”
Chivers’s whole piece, which includes a number of multimedia features on the soldiers affected, is here.