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April 22, 2015
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May 4, 2015

The Ghost of Gulf War Syndrome

Wind is more than just wind in the deserts of Iraq.

Wind stones. Wind sneaks into your ears. You understand the sickness of the first Gulf War a little better in the middle of a sandstorm because it’s here that you know through the sudden crunch in your teeth how the shit gets in. In the way that your tongue turns to paper and your nose starts to clot and your glasses ash, you start to know: what you bury in the ground, what you pile-drive deep into the earth becomes the earth, and when there’s no rain the earth becomes dry, and when the wind lifts the earth and the air become one, and with that oneness comes the ghostly scurf of old bombs and bodies, the white phosphor, the sarin, the rubber, the steel, the depleted uranium, the blowback of the secret past a grand amphetamine called war you can’t help but snort.

Sand is more than just sand.muj

We were stranded at Al Taqaddum, a base about fifty miles west of Baghdad. I stood outside my bunkhouse looking at the dust collecting on the trucks, the Humvees and the MRAPs, the canopy of net above the vehicles festooned with gray dust-covered leaves of plastic, the single potted pine outside the bunk house covered in this 9/11 like ash, untwisted clothes hangers turned shishkebab sticks like starved black bones on the ground, the sound all around me an almost arctic silence, a hissing whispery world that seemed to be telling me to pay attention, to not go back inside the bunkhouse with my PAO, Reynolds, for inside was the shelter of the screen.

We’d just watched “The Kingdom” with Jamie Foxx, a movie about a terrorist attack on an American compound in Saudi Arabia. It wasn’t a terrible flick, but I didn’t want to spend my war watching movies about war. Yes, there was relief in sitting in front of a big screen TV and saying nothing, and certainly it’s worth mentioning that a certain post-modern boredom—spending your war watching movies about war—is a big part of the contemporary American war. But still, it felt important, after “The Kingdom” was done, to not yield to the temptation of a double-feature. So I stepped outside and walked around in the sandstorm, looked at the ochery paste coming out of my nose, listened to the voice of the wind that seemed to say: “Listen! THIS is Gulf War Syndrome.”

tank

Gulf War Syndrome. Remember that? What a great name for the American mind of the early twenty-first century. The inexplicable fatigue. The amnesia. The sudden outbursts of anger. But what it really refers to is a secret most Americans don’t know about a March night in 1991 in the deserts of Iraq at “the end” of the first war, the demolition of a witch’s brew of poisons and munitions by our troops suddenly an act of inadvertent suicide, the windy March night turning a strange gray and green mushroom cloud of chemical weapons and explosives into a fifty mile swath of nightmarish blowback, the toxic winds of the Khamisiyah weapons depot causing more long-term casualties than all of Saddam’s troops, the deaths and wounds gathering slowly in the stat sheets until the safest and shortest war in American history suddenly seemed one of the most costly, the ratio of injury to participant higher in Desert Storm than in any other war, the chemical weapons of that war still haunting the sands to this day.

The sun appeared like a moon, a rubbed out silver coin disappearing in the clouds. There was a missile tail for an ashtray on the stoop of the bunkhouse. I stepped back inside, believing maybe another movie wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

 

M. C. Armstrong
M. C. Armstrong

M. C. Armstrong recently embedded with JSOF in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He published extensively on the Iraq war through The Winchester Star. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Esquire, The Mantle, The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, Mayday, Monkey Bicycle, Epiphany, The Literary Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is the guitarist and lead singer for Viva la Muerte.

2 Comments

  1. Bob Porter says:

    I never knew the reason for Gulf War Syndrome. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  2. VPS server says:

    Those vets with this set of health problems — often referred to as “Gulf War Illness” — have not been improving since the end of their service. And their symptoms picture is shared by many others who never served in the military.

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