Please stop missing the point on the Iraqi chemical weapons story

The New York Times has published a dynamite investigative report into the negligent and/or deliberate exposure of U.S. soldiers to Saddam Hussein’s stockpile of rusted out 1970s and 80s-era chemical munitions in the aftermath of the Iraq War:

The United States had gone to war declaring it must destroy an active weapons of mass destruction program. Instead, American troops gradually found and ultimately suffered from the remnants of long-abandoned programs, built in close collaboration with the West.

The New York Times found 17 American service members and seven Iraqi police officers who were exposed to nerve or mustard agents after 2003. American officials said that the actual tally of exposed troops was slightly higher, but that the government’s official count was classified.

The secrecy fit a pattern. Since the outset of the war, the scale of the United States’ encounters with chemical weapons in Iraq was neither publicly shared nor widely circulated within the military. These encounters carry worrisome implications now that the Islamic State, a Qaeda splinter group, controls much of the territory where the weapons were found.

The American government withheld word about its discoveries even from troops it sent into harm’s way and from military doctors. The government’s secrecy, victims and participants said, prevented troops in some of the war’s most dangerous jobs from receiving proper medical care and official recognition of their wounds.

The report is scandalous from top to bottom, from the fact that it was our government, along with a few others, that sold or abetted the sale of these chemical weapons or their precursors to Saddam, to the treatment of those service members who were exposed to the chemicals after the war, to the fact that our failure to own up to the existence of these weapons likely prevented their systematic identification and destruction, which means that Daesh may well have their hands on some of them now.

But let me say this: if your reaction to learning that the U.S. military poisoned its own soldiers with rusted out, decades old Iraqi chemical weapons is, “HAHA LIBERALS, BUSH WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG” (no, literally, that’s the argument), please protest all those media lies and liberal perfidy about Iraqi WMD by never speaking or writing anything in public again. Because the thing about these chemical weapons is, we already knew Saddam had them, because WE HELPED HIM GET THEM. The Bush administration’s pre-war argument was never “we have to invade Iraq to clean up all these old chemical weapons stockpiles that we sold to them in the 1980s,” because nobody would have supported that rationale for the invasion. We were supposed to be worried about Saddam’s active WMD programs — nuclear and biological more than chemical — which we (still) know didn’t exist. And if you really, honestly, truly believe that the United States killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and countenanced the deaths of thousands of U.S. and coalition soldiers over chemical munitions that couldn’t be used in a military capacity (terrorism is another issue) anymore, then you’re either a sociopath or way more cynical about this country than I am.

You know how we know that these old chemical weapons don’t vindicate the “Saddam had WMD” argument? Because these discoveries were being reported in 2004, and nobody in the Bush administration had the chutzpah to try to claim that they’d been proven right after all (they seem to have wanted to ignore the existence of these weapons altogether). If the Bush administration itself wasn’t willing to be awful (or stupid, or awfully stupid) back then in service of its WMD case, why is anybody going there now?

One thought on “Please stop missing the point on the Iraqi chemical weapons story

  1. I have the luxury of ignoring the wingnuts and their lies because I live in a safely blue state where their kind gets lumped in with the crazy guy screaming about chemtrails down at the 7-11.

    Nope, my nightmares are haunted by the usual gang of idiots typified by FireDogLake and the Daily Kos. Those guys are ecstatic over the Times report because it proves what they suspected all along: Obama has been covering up Bush era crimes as part of a Deep State plot to install Clinton as President in 2016 and subsequently round up the liberals for neutralization. You simply can not argue with logic like that.

    And it all misses the point. I was part of the Dugway Proving Grounds citizen oversight group when plans were being laid to set up the incinerators and get rid of our own chemical munitions, so I like to think I actually know a bit about the subject. First off, it is trivially easy to convert an agricultural chemicals plant to produce chemical agents; the hard part is doing it in such a way that you don’t get caught – and the inspectors have very subtle ways to distinguish between licit and illicit processes. So while I like and have used the old joke “We know Saddam had chemical weapons because we kept the receipts” the truth is that he made his own and our guilt lies in helping to cover up. Also, the figures I have read are seven Iraqi policemen and seventeen US servicemen injured in handling the old and decayed munitions. This sounds horrible (and it is, for the guys injured) but in the context of seven years mucking about in the field for deadly agents that may or may not be there it is actually a pretty impressive safety record. I shudder to think how many people would be stone cold dead if the kossacks or the firebaggers or the neocons had been in charge of the cleanup, obsessed as they are with catapulting the blame onto the enemy of the day as opposed to actually following expert recommendations to get the job done as safely as possible.

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