On the eve of my deployment to Saudi Arabia in January 1991 for the Gulf War, I was pulled aside by a Seattle news crew. A reporter asked me, "What do you expect once you're there?" I answered: "My feelings are irrelevant. We are just the tools used when the decision is war."
At the close of the war, President George Bush declared, "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula."
But the lessons of Vietnam should never be forgotten. No matter how popular a war might be, there is always a price to pay on both sides.
Popularizing the Gulf War to bury the memory of Vietnam harms those affected by both wars. We cannot forget the sacrifice of more than 58,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians killed in the Vietnam War. Nor should we hide the ongoing human costs of the Gulf War.
The war we waged against Iraq was one of the most ecologically destructive wars of the past century. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers were exposed to health and environmental hazards by being camped downwind from burning oil fields and blown-up chemical and biological weapons depots. Many were also exposed to uranium oxide particulates unleashed by the impact of thousands of highly toxic depleted uranium shells, which the allies used for the first time. And for civilian populations living in these contaminated areas, the incidence of cancer and other diseases is up, according to Robert Fisk of the London Independent newspaper.
The consequences are well known within the veteran community. Since 1991, more than 130,000 Gulf War veterans have been classified as disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is more than 25 percent of those who served in the Gulf War and is nearly double the percentage of Vietnam veterans and nearly triple the percentage of World War II veterans who were classified as disabled.
In Iraq, tens of thousands died during the Gulf War, mostly noncombatants. In the years since, more than 1 million Iraqi civilians are believed to have died, including hundreds of thousands of children, as a result of war damage and a decade of U.S.-enforced economic sanctions.
Last month, I joined a Veterans for Peace delegation of American veterans traveling to Iraq to begin restoring four water facilities near Basra that were damaged by the war. In 1991, Pentagon officials acknowledged that water and sewage facilities, electrical plants, transportation networks and other essential civilian infrastructure had been deliberately targeted during the Gulf War. A Pentagon strategist explained in an interview with The Washington Post, "Saddam Hussein cannot restore his own electricity. He needs help. The U.N. coalition can say, 'Saddam, when you agree to do these things, we will allow people to come in and fix your electricity.' It gives us long-term leverage."
As a result, water-borne diseases have been epidemic since the war. Long-term leverage has done nothing to dislodge Saddam Hussein from power or make him comply with U.N. Security Council demands.
But the notion of long-term leverage has held sway throughout the Clinton administration. Ironically, our veterans' delegation was fixing facilities rendered inoperable by U.S. policy.
In Basra I met Hayder (a pseudonym), an Iraqi veteran. Hayder spoke eloquently of the plight of his people, caught for decades between warring governments. He spent five years on the front lines in the Iran-Iraq War and engaged in bloody trench warfare.
When asked by a journalist in our delegation, "Did you ever have doubts about why you were in the war," Hayder's answer echoed my own words nearly 10 years ago, "As a soldier, we are tools. No questions. Only orders."
This Veterans Day I hope our nation's policymakers remember the price both physical and psychological paid by service men and women and the civilians caught in the middle.
Erik Gustafson is a veteran of the Gulf War and executive director of www.saveageneration.org.