ARLINGTON, Va. — Pentagon leaders did not engage in a massive cover-up of Gulf War illnesses, but were too consumed by self-interest to admit veterans were sick, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh said Sunday.
Speaking at the closing luncheon of the third annual Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses Conference in Arlington, Va., Hersh said senior military officials, including Gen. Colin Powell and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, avoided asking questions that might bring undesired answers.
“My take on it is real simple,” he said. “I honestly believe they didn’t want anything to spoil the party. They had a big party, it was a great victory.
“And at the beginning, the first year, they just found it hard to believe (veterans were sick). ... Once they set it in motion, it’s a funny bureaucracy: You don’t get ahead by telling the general what he doesn’t want to hear.
“And I’m sorry to say, that’s just the way it is.”
Hersh, who won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting, is a former New York Times reporter who now works for New Yorker magazine. He previously exposed the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Pentagon’s hidden arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
Those experiences taught him not to trust the Pentagon, but he admitted he initially dismissed veterans’ claims that the government was ignoring the illnesses they blamed on their service in the 1991 Gulf War.
“I said, ‘It can’t be. They just wouldn’t turn their backs,’” he said. “This was their war. They won it big.”
But veterans kept sending him information that finally persuaded him to look into the issue of sick veterans.
Earlier this year, he published “Against All Enemies,” a book subtitled “Gulf War Syndrome: The War Between America’s Ailing Veterans and Their Government.”
Hersh said that he looked for a conspiracy, but found a pattern of deliberate neglect. “I don’t believe there was a specific cover-up; that would make it too easy. It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “They didn’t know, they didn’t care about finding out. They had too much invested.”
Military leaders told him privately that by early 1993 they were concerned about a “draft dodging president” who was planning massive defense cuts and reductions in the number of senior officers.
“They didn’t want to have something that would besmirch the honor,” he said. “It’s as simple and as stupid and as awful as that.”
Hersh said Powell and Schwarzkopf ignored their duty to take care of their troops after the war.
“I called Powell early on and he said, yeah, he may have heard something, but he didn’t believe it could be true,” Hersh said. “‘And, anyway,’ he said, ‘I retired in the fall of 1993 and it’s not my responsibility after that.’”
Powell’s attitude permeated the upper ranks, Hersh said. “By the time you get to that level, three or four stars, GIs just don’t seem to matter that much.”
Hersh predicted that documents will eventually come out that show some government leaders also played down the illnesses because they were worried about the potential cost of treating sick veterans.
Military leaders of today are doing more to help because they don’t have their prestige as closely linked to the Gulf War, he said.
“This is a very profound and serious illness,” he said.
“And unless they come to terms with it and understand it, we are going to be in real trouble if we have to go back into the Middle East.”
Originally Published, September 21, 1998, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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