Seventeen years after the end of the first Gulf War, when a coalition of 34 nations, led by Britain and America, successfully expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, many veterans still live in the shadow of the conflict. Nearly 6,000 British servicemen remain ill – as do thousands more in the US – with an array of symptoms ranging from depression and pain, to arthritis and memory loss. None of these conditions can be explained away by the ravages of battle.
That these veterans have suffered as a result of their service is perhaps unsurprising. The first Gulf War has been described by the US Congress as "the most toxic in history". Yesterday, a comprehensive investigation commissioned by an American veterans' association, and supported by Congress, formally recognised that pills given to both US and UK troops to protect them from nerve agents, as well as from pesticides used during the US deployment, have caused the sickness.
These findings begin to answer those questions posed by veterans who were originally told that their symptoms were inexplicable. They represent a gesture of good faith by the US government which investigated their complaints. They also invite unfavourable comparison with our own Ministry of Defence, which has left internal investigations under-resourced, and has given veterans and their families plenty of talk but meagre help. Indeed, the only independent inquiry into Gulf War diseases in Britain was financed by an anonymous donor, not the MoD.
In 2005 officials agreed to pay "compensation" to affected veterans on the basis that they could not prove that the illnesses were unrelated to the war. But accepting that our soldiers fell ill is not the same as accepting responsibility, or even that "Gulf War Syndrome" – by which they mean a range of illnesses caused by an identifiable group of poisons – exists. As a result, the "compensation" is little more than a disability pension by another name.
To date, the MoD has faced not a single legal challenge. That could well change in the light of this new evidence. As the report states, the first Gulf War created "lasting health consequences that for too long were denied or trivialised." Our defence ministers should examine the issue again.