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Although it has not always been recognized that stress can cause both psychological and physiological symptoms, medical science does so today. Few events are more stressful than war, and a rich literature examines the relationship between combat-induced stress and various symptoms manifested by soldiers, sailors, and airmen. During and after every war this nation has fought, members of its armed forces have suffered ill effects from combat-related stress, and the Persian Gulf War was no exception.
But the Gulf War was unusual. First, it was mostly an air war and against an overmatched enemy. After the first few days, coalition aircraft owned the skies, and the Iraqi air defenses posed only a marginal threat. Second, it was short. The air war lasted less than two months, and the ground war was even shorter, lasting a matter of days. The huge disparity between the coalition forces and those of Iraq not only translated into a short war but also into one of few casualties for the coalition. The United States sustained fewer than 200 killed, an unusually low number of casualties given the number of forces arrayed on both sides and the lethality of their equipment.
But one of the most striking aspects of the Gulf War appeared after it was over. Thousands of veterans began reporting a wide variety of symptoms, ranging from sleeplessness, to aching joints, to memory loss that remained undiagnosed. Many of the symptoms are evocative of those reported by veterans of previous wars and attributed to the psychological trauma of combat. While multiple pathways are being followed in an effort to determine the cause of these symptoms, the fact that at least some of the symptoms mirror those caused by combat-induced stress in previous wars raises the possibility that stress plays a role here as well.
Psychological and Psychosocial Consequences of Combat and Deployment with Special Emphasis on the Gulf War, David H. Marlowe, MR-1018/11-OSD, 2000 RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of its research sponsors.