LOYAL OPPOSITION: Army Ads Get Ironic Facelift

Be all you can be? Not anymore. The new advertising slogan for the Army -- backed up by a $150 million ad campaign -- is "an Army of one." Like its predecessor, this pitch fixes on the individual -- an odd choice for an organization in which recruits are supposed to sublimate themselves to the larger good of the institution. But the Army's copy-gunners -- the Leo Burnett USA agency -- had to concoct a nifty way of selling their client to Generation Y, many of whom have been raised on a diet of Internet individualism. In the first commercial to feature this focus-group-tested message, a lone corporal runs though the Mojave Desert, in the opposite direction of a squad of other soldiers. Is he going AWOL? Nah, he's just demonstrating that today's soldiers are able to march (with a 35-pound pack on their backs) the road less traveled. "I am my own force," the corporal declares. "...I am an Army of one."

The new Army campaign has more truth to it than its authors and the Army may have realized. Too often, the US military has treated its grunts as armies of one that could be disavowed or tossed aside. Remember Agent Orange -- the toxic defoliant used in Vietnam which ended up poisoning American GIs as well as the locals? For years, the military ducked responsibility for harming its own. A more recent example is the military establishment's reluctance to recognize the reality of Gulf War syndrome, a collection of chronic symptoms, including fatigue and neurocognitive and musculoskeletal problems. For years after the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon brass dismissed talk of such a disease. In fact, in the mid-1990s, when the National Gulf War Resource Center tried to enlist the so-called heroes of the Gulf War -- Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and Norman Schwarzkopf -- in an effort to publi cize the health troubles faced by the men and women they sent into battle, all three were MIA. Powell, for one, was dismissive of early studies showing a link between Gulf War service and illnesses.

Today, the Veterans Administration recognizes Gulf War syndrome. Of the 700,000 Americans dispatched to the Persian Gulf in 1991, 183,000 -- a third -- filed medical claims with the VA, as of the end of 1999, and the VA approved three-quarters of them. The Pentagon has conceded that 100,000 soldiers were exposed to low levels of nerve gas, and 436,000 entered areas contaminated by depleted uranium -- but without acknowledging these exposures definitely caused harm. And hundreds of thousands of America troops who participated in Operation Desert Storm breathed air while more than 700 burning oil wells belched fumes and particulates. Perhaps the corporal in the new ad is running like hell from an environmental hazard.

As the Army's ad-buyers purchase slots on _Friends_, _The Simpsons_, _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_, and MTV, would-be soldiers should pay heed to the scandal under way in Europe concerning the US military's use of depleted uranium during the undeclared war against Serbia in 1999. American fighter jets fired 31,000 rounds of DU ammunition against Serbian targets. (DU is placed on the tips of shells to enhance their ability to penetrate armor.) Several dozen French, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish soldiers who have served as peacekeepers in the Balkans have contracted cancer or other serious diseases, with 15 dying from leukemia. Other European peacekeeper vets have complained of ailments that resemble Gulf War syndrome, and the European press has proclaimed the rise of the "Balkan syndrome." There is widespread speculation these soldies may be victims of exposure to depleted uranium. A recent UN study found evidence of radioactivity at 8 of 11 sites in Kosovo that were hit with DU rounds. Some of this radiation was located in the middle of villages where children were playing. Last May, another UN study warned that m uch of Kosovo's water could be contaminated by depleted uranium. Par for the course, the Pentagon and NATO have denied DU exposure caused these illnesses and deaths. European governments, nevertheless, are investigating. Meanwhile, the United States, Britain and France have turned down calls from their NATO allies to suspend the use of DU ammunition.

So did the United States and NATO radiate Kosovo to save it? The spread of Gulf War syndrome did nothing to curb the US military's enthusiasm for depleted uranium shells. Perhaps the Pentagon's scientists are correct in believing there is no connection between DU and the deaths of the peacekeepers. But that question remains a matter of debate. Moreover, the US government has at times recognized that DU can be a health threat to those who have to work with it. A Department of Transportation memo warned, "If [DU] particles are inhaled or ingested, they can be chemically toxic and cause a significant and long-lasting irradiation of internal tissue." And a 1999 document disseminated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff did note that military personnel who handle the heads of DU anti-tank shells or entered vehicles blasted by a DU round ought to take strong precautions to prevent exposure to the material. Given the existence of competing scientific views on the health risks posed by DU ammo, shouldn't the US military, as an act of prudence, limit its use of DU weaponry in order to protect all its "armies of one" -- and the troops of its allies and the civilians it claims to be assisting?

On the other side of the globe, in Colombia, the US military has been helping the Colombian army and police dump herbicide on coca fields in attempt to stop cocaine at the source. Last November, General Barry McCaffrey, the US drug czar, maintained the chemical, Roundup, which is manufactured by Monsanto, was "totally safe." Twice I've used Roundup sparingly to deweed small areas of my humble lot. Being somewhat paranoid about chemicals designed to kill, I wore a mask over my mouth and plastic g loves -- and obsessively paid attention to wind direction. Still, after each time, I felt slightly ill. But you need not take my word. The product is sold with a warning: do not apply "this product in a way that will contact workers or other persons, either directly or through drift." The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that Roundup is in a category of substances that can cause vomiting, swelling of the lungs, pneumonia, mental confusion and tissue damage. Now that's a bad trip. And when you spray a chemical from an airplane, it does have a tendency to "drift." Not surprisingly, residents of the Colombian areas where the herbicide has been used, complain that hundreds of acres of food have been destroyed, and cattle and fish killed. Several farmers, according to the Washington Post, have said they experienced fever-lie symptoms after being sprayed. Scott Wilson, a reporter for the Post, wrote, "a recent tour of the [Putumayo] area suggested there is no way to fumigate from the air without harming legal agriculture as well as drug crops." And probably without harming civiliams. In this instance, the US military is helping overseas authorities to poison villages in order to save them. (In 1997, Donald Rumsfeld, a former secretary of defense whom George W. Bush has picked to be the new secretary of defense, told a gathering of other former defense secretaries that deploying the military to win a war on drugs was "nonsense." Sounding like the Michael Douglas character at the end of the new film, _Traffic_, Rumsfeld explained: "The problem's going to be dealt with by families and by people and by schools and by churches, and not by the military." But when asked recently by the Senate Armed Services Committee for his opinion of the multi-billion-dollar US military involvement in Colombia, he wrote: "I have less than well-informed personal views which I prefer to discuss with the appropriate officials before taking a public position." Credit Rumsfeld with one big cop-out.)

The new Army ad is right: there's a lot from which that soldier should be fleeing. Yet none of the across-the-waters controversies tarnish the US military's image at home. So much so that the chiefs of the armed services have had the audacity to claim they need -- and deserve -- $50 billion a year to modernize their forces. Let's put that number into perspective. During the campaign, George W. Bush, who clamed to be rah-rah-rah for the military, advocated a spending boost of $4.5 billion -- and that did not cover the tab for his proposed anti-missile program, which could top $100 billion. Whatever extra billions the Pentagon does manage to win from Bush and Congress, a good chunk ought to be spent on health insurance for all those "armies of one" and the people to whose rescue they ride. Too often, the grunts and the civilians need it after the mission is done.


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