After the Iranian government fired a barrage of missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq earlier this month, many impacted American service members reported suffering from concussion-like symptoms. On Wednesday, the U.S. president was asked about the severity of these soldiers’ injuries, during a news conference in Davos, Switzerland. “I heard they had headaches,” Donald Trump replied. “No, I don’t consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen.”
On Friday, January 24, the Pentagon announced that 34 U.S. service members had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries as an apparent result of their proximity to the exploding Iranian missiles. By Tuesday, that number had grown to an even 50, following a CNN report in which the Pentagon confirmed that an additional 16 service members are suffering from TBI symptoms.
In retaliation for the U.S. government’s assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Tehran launched a missile attack against heavily fortified U.S. bases in Iraq on January 8. Iran’s decision to strike a hard target — and telegraph its attack — was ostensibly intended to avert mass U.S. casualties, and thus, a major escalation in its conflict with Washington. In this respect, the strike was successful. No Americans were killed in the attack, and initial reports suggested that none were injured either. The Trump administration chose to shrug off the strike, justifiably concluding that it had “won” the exchange, with Soleimani’s life being far more valuable to Iran than undamaged Iraqi bases were to the United States. But while U.S. troops had been safely sheltered in protective bunkers as the missiles rained down on them, many were mere feet away from where the bombs landed. Now, the administration has confirmed that the sound and force of those explosions caused nearly three dozen U.S. service members serious harm.
On the one hand, it seems vastly preferable for Trump to downplay the costs of Iran’s retaliation than for him to do the opposite. The president may have dismissed American troops’ potentially incurable brain injuries as mere “headaches” out of a narcissistic refusal to concede that his Iran policy had had any ill effects. But, to the extent that Trump’s willful ignorance about the seriousness of concussions has kept him from igniting another cycle of needless violence, it is probably for the best.
On the other hand, it is hard not to think about what would have happened to Barack Obama, had he dismissed the wounds of U.S. soldiers as not “very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen,” or to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had she referred to a potential Iranian attack on U.S. installations in the Middle East as “a little noise.” I suspect that the consequences for each of them would have been quite serious, relative to the tepid blowback that Trump and Mike Pompeo have weathered.
This post has been updated to reflect an increase to the number service members injured in the attack.