Gulf War Illness — The Bad Of The ‘Good War’
- By JESSE LEAVENWORTH, HARTFORD COURANT
- November 23, 2008
In her new book, “When You Come Home,” Nora Eisenberg contrasts nurturing and destruction, health and sickness, a bright future and endless suffering.
The novel, which will be released in early December, centers on two U.S. Marines who have returned triumphant from the “good war,” the invasion of Kuwait that booted Saddam Hussein back to Baghdad and won brief acclaim for President George H.W. Bush.
The Persian Gulf War, however, has left a more lasting stamp on Eisenberg’s characters and tens of thousands of real-life veterans and their families — a brew of maladies known as gulf war illness. A federal report released this week concludes that roughly one in four of the 697,000 U.S. veterans of the 1991 gulf war suffer from this illness.
Eisenberg, author of two other novels, answers questions recently about the information and emotions that drove her story.
Q: How did you come to focus on gulf war illness?
A: I’d been obsessed with the 1991 gulf war from the start. In a five-week war, we dropped more bombs than in the history of all earlier wars combined. The official story… is that we won militarily — losing only 148 troops — and morally, putting a bully in his place. But as I sat glued to CNN, I couldn’t stop thinking about the devastation in Iraq. Over 100,000 soldiers and civilians died. And then, when the war was over, I couldn’t stop reading about injuries and the extensive disease that followed. So, in a way, you could say I’ve been focused on gulf war illness for 17 years, Iraqi gulf war illness, the huge increases in cancer, birth defects and all sorts of systemic disease.
Q: How did you research the topic?
A: I spoke with some veterans. And I spoke with some doctors in environmental medicine, immunology and psychiatry to get their sense of the causes and characteristics of these illnesses. But mostly I read everything I could get my hands on… Each source led me to another source. As a fiction writer, though, the challenge is to draw on this knowledge, but not drown the book in it.
Q: Was the “you’re stressed” diagnosis common in those early days when veterans complained about feeling ill?
A: Yes, “you’re stressed” was the line that sick veterans got for over a decade… A common refrain among veterans with gulf war illness is that they were made to feel it was their fault. And lots held off even going for treatment because illness was attributed to stress and stress was associated with personal weakness, making them unfit for military service. So, in the beginning, we had mostly reservists seeking treatment and the story passed around was that this was because they were stressed, because they weren’t real soldiers; but what came out is that the career soldiers and Marines were afraid they’d be thrown out of the service if they reported they were sick.
Q: A current of anger runs through the book — about the waste and sadness of war and what it does to families. Is that your anger?
A: “Waste and Sadness” — that would have been a good title for the novel. Yes, I’m sad and angry about the waste. But so are the veterans and families. The troops went to war, came back sick, and then were told it’s all in your head and you got to get your head together. Once your eyes are opened, it’s hard not to be angry … But I’m angry and saddened not only about what the 1991 gulf war inflicted on our troops and their families, but what it did to the Iraqis. As I wrote the book, the new war in Iraq was raging, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the ways it was devastating our troops, of course, but also the ways it was destroying Iraq and Iraqis. So in a way, the sense of waste and sorrow that I felt was for both wars.
Q: I think it’s fair to say that the Persian Gulf War has remained a “just war” in the public mind, but some of the characters in the book rail against it as unnecessary and the result of corrupt U.S. leadership. Is that your view?
A: There is abundant evidence that the Bush 41 administration used misinformation and disinformation to mount the case for the 1991 war. Harper’s publisher, John MacArthur, brilliantly tracks the campaign in his book, “Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War”… Even politicians I admire for their opposition to the invasion of Iraq talk about the 1991 war with respect and even nostalgia, like why can’t this Iraq war be more like that Iraq war? Like that war reflected the real America, an efficient America that can get in and out of a war in five weeks, and a cooperative America, which knows how to mount a true coalition. It’s still viewed as a cool, a Nintendo war, fought with surgical precision for noble reasons.
Q: Both Lily and Tony [characters in the story] had fathers who were killed by the Vietnam War, one in-country and one who died a slower, more painful death after he came home. Do you see a strong parallel between Vietnam and the gulf war?
A: There are lots of connections between the two wars. The gulf war was advertised as a kind of rematch, a big chance to reverse Vietnam, from which we came home shamed and weak as Americans should never be. … We watched in on a screen, with lots of graphics, and it was like a 5-week-long Nintendo game. With so few immediate American deaths and so little media coverage of any suffering, it was easy for many Americans to believe that for a while, and view it as a kind of fun war that would cheer us up as a nation. But, of course, we didn’t kick any syndrome, once and for all, but got new ones, both physical and psychic. So, I wanted to present a truer picture of both wars, and the trail of misery from one to the other.
Q: While the book deals with the devastation of war and the macho attitudes of the young Marines, there’s also a focus on birth and nurturing, particularly in the character, Mimi. Do you think women make better leaders in the government and military because they’re more centered on life and extending life?
A: I meant for the women in the book and what they do to contrast with war, disease, and death. On the very first pages, I show Mimi delivering a baby with great skill and spirit; then good-naturedly enduring a long car ride with a pouting teenager, Lily; then picking up her Marine son from the base where’s been returned from the gulf alive, unlike his father, who died in Vietnam; then driving them all home, celebrating, washing up… But by the end of the first chapter, I make it clear that she is very tired and depleted … Even birthing babies, her antidote to the loss of her young husband in war, isn’t working.
When her son goes to war, midwifery loses its charm, and she thinks, “Why should we birth them if they’re only going to kill them.” So I mean to honor the birthing and nurturing of women like Mimi and the creativity and feisty perseverance of young women like Lily and Nancy. They are the fabric that supports domestic life. But they are tattered, tired, even the young ones, by death and illness from war. Their plans and dreams — as young women and middle-age women — have been ambushed. WHEN YOU COME HOME • Nora Eisenberg (Curbstone Press, 294 pages, $15)