Dr. Haile Debas launches the teach-in with a video presentation in May 2007.

From the Archives: Iraq War Teach-in Achieves Critical Mass

Friday, May 5, 2017

Capping off several weeks of intense debate and deliberation in the House and Senate over continued funding for the war and increasing reports of civilian and military casualties, the UCSF campus bore witness to a teach-in entitled "The Health Effects of the Iraq War," that sought to reconcile the conflict's daily occurrences with the state of the American economy and healthcare and research infrastructures through a series of detailed presentations and speeches.

The event, organized by the Iraq Action Group at UCSF, a recently formed coalition of students, faculty and staff united in the goal of educating the campus community and public about the health consequences of the war, took place from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on May 9, 2007 in the Milberry Union gym.

With a record attendance that far exceeded the group's original expectations (most estimates placing it around 700 individuals), the teach-in brought together many distinct segments of the campus population, including representatives from all health science schools and the graduate school.

Bay Area antiwar groups, including the local chapters of Seniors for Peace, Code Pink, Global Exchange and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), were also on hand, as well a diverse sampling of local high school student* groups and members of the public.

The teach-in began with a brief video presentation given by the former UCSF chancellor and dean of the School of Medicine, Haile Debas, and moved right in to the keynote speech, given by Robert Scheer, a professor at the USC Annenberg School of Communication and a nationally syndicated columnist based at the San Francisco Chronicle.

In a fiery address delivered to the rapt audience, Scheer slammed the Bush administration for unnecessarily and surreptitiously taking the country to war and for its poor management of one of the worst foreign policy imbroglios seen in recent history.

He drew parallels between the disastrous mistakes being made now and those made over thirty years ago during the Vietnam War and bemoaned the role the press played in abetting the war by failing to accurately investigate the allegations and intelligence estimates widely used by the administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. He urged health professionals to speak out against the fabrications made about the health and readiness of returning veterans and about the war's devastating impacts on the healthcare system.

Drs. William Schecter, Charles Mannar and Karen Seal, all faculty members at the UCSF School of Medicine with joint appointments at either the San Francisco General Hospital or San Francisco VA Medical Center, discussed the physical and mental toll of the Afghani and Iraqi conflicts on returning American soldiers, citing the high incidence of psychiatric disorders and traumatic brain injuries frequently left untreated.

Over one quarter of returning veterans suffer from one or more mental health disorders while over 24,000 experience injuries to the head, neck and extremities. Dr. Mannar mentioned some of the results of a large-scale research project he's undertaken over the past thirty years evaluating the psychological impact of the Vietnam War on veterans and their close relatives and pointed out that the effects are still being felt by the participants and, more worryingly, their children.

A video presentation chronicling the American siege of Fallujah from the perspective of Salam Ismael, an Iraqi surgeon, was rounded out by presentations from Drs. Daliah Wasfi, Evan Lyon, Richard Garfield and Jess Ghanam, who elaborated on the humanitarian crisis spawned by the war, the Iraqi death toll and the civilians' attitudes towards the American soldiers and their government.

One commonly cited statistic noted that while Iraq used to have the most well-regarded and efficiently run healthcare system in the Middle East, it now had the lowest survival rate for Iraqi children under 5 and a continually shrinking number of operational healthcare facilities and physicians due to the high rate of kidnappings and murders.

According to the most recent results of the study conducted by Dr. Garfield and his colleagues, the number of Iraqi deaths has already exceeded half a million and is now fast approaching the million mark in the wake of the spiraling sectarian violence.

Linda Bilmes' presentation centered on the economic ramifications of the war on the U.S. healthcare system. Bilmes, an economist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, had already co-authored a study this past year with Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz in which she estimated current costs due to the war to amount to close to $600 billion.

She now projects costs attributable to the war, in large part due to current and future veteran care expenditures, to rise to between $1 and $2 trillion.

Daniel Lowenstein, a professor of neurology at UCSF and the director of lAG, concluded the series of talks with a short speech outlining his take on the event and his reasons for helping organize the teach-in and for founding the Iraq Action Group at UCSF.

The event ended with a set of audio clips taken from key passages of a passionate and prescient speech Dr. Martin Luther King delivered shortly before his death in which he explained why he opposed the Vietnam War.

"That so many people from the UCSF community took the time to learn more about the tragedy in Iraq, and expressed their deep concern, if not outrage, about the impact of the war on soldiers and civilians — this was a powerful demonstration of how our institution can participate in the rising call across the country for a new direction in the Middle East," Lowenstein said. "I have never been more proud of our campus."