A Syndrome for Every War

By Josie Glausiusz|Wednesday, May 01, 2002
The symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome—including fatigue, headaches, memory impairment, and joint pain—have been blamed on everything from nerve gas antidotes to depleted-uranium antitank shells. But a controversial study indicates that the condition is not unique to soldiers who fought in Kuwait and Iraq. Similar symptoms surfaced among veterans of many wars of the past century.

Edgar Jones, a medical historian at King's College in London, dug out the pension files of British soldiers who had fought in the Boer War, the first and second world wars, and the Gulf War. Then he randomly selected the files of 1,856 veterans whose medical records noted long-term physical disability. He found evidence of post-combat syndromes associated with all of the wars he surveyed. Although each one had unique features, their symptoms overlapped. Veterans of the Boer War and World War I, for example, suffered from a debility typified by fatigue, weakness, and difficulty completing tasks. Soldiers who fought in World War I were often diagnosed with a cardiac disorder characterized by rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Some World War II combatants displayed a similar set of symptoms but were more inclined to experience depression, jumpiness, and nightmares. Neuropsychiatric ailments were more common among Gulf War veterans.

Jones emphasizes that his study, which was supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, does not deny the reality of the soldiers' complaints. He believes that post-combat syndromes may be triggered by a variety of physical causes, which are then compounded and perpetuated by the extreme stress of war. "High levels of stress over a long period have been linked to physical damage of the immune system. These are serious disorders. War damages men's health in ways other than wounds," he says.

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