STATS Spotlight

Croatian Peacekeeper Syndrome

by Howard Fienberg
January 2000

Did Canadian soldiers fall ill because of their peacekeeping duties in the former Yugoslavia? Has the military ducked its commensurate responsibility? Colonel Joe Sharpe thought so, summarizing his inquiry’s December report by saying, “We don’t take as good care of our soldiers as our airplanes.” The news media agreed, bandying headlines like “Fears About Toxic Dirt Ignored,” “Army Playing Blame Game,” and “Call In The Cops.”

The latest report from the inquiry reiterates his conclusions, blaming soldiers’ illnesses on the unmitigated stress of peacekeeping.

That a military review should come to a conclusion similar to the news media should have been comforting. But it was not. Bigger scandals remain unearthed. Scandal-happy news outlets took the public on a roller-coaster ride, fueled by rumours and unsubstantiated reports pointing to a conspiracy to remove medical notes and deprive soldiers of health benefits. Two scandals persist untouched in the public eye: a military incapable of protecting its image without avoiding public scrutiny and media outlets more keen to exploit soldiers for news copy than to provide them with truth and accuracy.

Media coverage has been erratic, so it should come as no surprise if the public in general – and soldiers in particular – are confused and angry. Sufferers have claimed everything from fatigue, diarhea and aching joints to Crohn’s Disease, epilepsy and cancer. Alleged causes of these illnesses have included bauxite, PCBs, radiation, contaminated water and deliberate poisoning with battery acid.

How many veterans are ill? Back in July, the Ottawa Citizen could verify only five. On Aug. 6, Master Cpl. Phil Tobocoe claimed he knew of 19 Calgary veterans ill, as well as 66 elsewhere. Retired officer Matt Stopford long claimed knowledge of at least 60 ill veterans. The National Post counted as many as 300 recently. In the end, it may take years to compile a reasonable number because most soldiers fear discharge from service if they log complaints of ill health.

How many are ill specifically because of factors involved in their peacekeeping service? That we may never discover.

Reliance on self-reporting from veterans poses the main problem. Veterans are certainly experts at determining how they feel. However, few have medical training. Laymen can mistakenly rush to judgment on the cause of their symptoms and illnesses.

Some veterans are ill, but the great number of different symptoms and diseases offers no suggestion of a common cause or all-encompassing syndrome. As the Inquiry reported, “The illnesses reported go far beyond what can be expected to result from environmental contamination.” Some of the symptoms described may be caused by stress, as the Board has essentially concluded, but stress is not the cornucopia of causation sought either. All these symptoms and diseases afflict ordinary people across Canada and there is no reason to assume that they were caused by some factor of military service.

Modern fear of chemicals and minerals drives the insistence that these illnesses must be caused by some sort of environmental hazards. In reality, the two prime suspects are not so fearsome. Dr. Tee Guidotti, of the University of Alberta Occupational Health Program, dismisses bauxite as “benign” and “a bit of a nuisance.” As well, evidence of ill health in humans tied to minimal PCB exposure is hazy at best.

There is a distinct difference between a scientific inquiry and a political one. The quest to make science “prove” causation for which no evidence yet exists is misguided. In hunting the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, the U.S. alone has spent over $120 million dollars – much of that going to fringe projects of dubious scientific worth. At some point, officials must understand that it would be cheaper to simply provide full medical care for all Canadian soldiers. Canada has an obligation to provide quality medial treatment to its veterans, if for no other reason than that it is the only way to ensure that the military attracts the best and brightest soldiers available.

While the scandal of environmental exposure appears to have been wrong, the other aspects of the investigation could be on the right track. Since the Somalia affair, the culture of secrecy at the Department of National Defense (DND) has intensified dramatically. While this might be useful for media spin control from time to time, it is not conducive to relations with the public – particularly a public grown suspicious of the DND since the paper-shredding and inquiry-quashing of the Somalia affair. In the long term, the military will suffer at the recruiting stations and in the halls of power. Two large constituencies, normally at odds with one another, take advantage of such scandals: (1) those who believe the military is underfunded and soldiers are not respected, and (2) those who simply oppose the military as an entity and/or concept. DND will find it hard to manage both simultaneously.

Further erosion of scientific integrity in service of political pressure will carry a heavy cost. By abusing science in this fashion, the DND can produce only a temporary shield because sound science is inevitably required by all facets of government authority.

The news media also have much to learn in how they cover such topics. In the rush to spear the secretive military, accuracy and reason were left behind. Sporadic media flurries like we have seen over “Croatian Peacekeeper Syndrome” keep the military on its toes, but help no one. They might even provide more stress than a tour of duty in the Croatian badlands.

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