War & the Environment
Part 1: War's Dirty Footprint
Harming Life • Heating our Planet
Why Focus on the US Military?
“The United States is responsible for 40% (1) of the world’s total military spending.”
Beyond Immediate Casualties
War once was fought with sticks and stones. Modern warfare leaves a legacy of long-term devastation & harm to the planet, and therefore to life on the planet as well.
1997 Exemptions for U.S. Military
In 1997, the U.S. Congress exempted the US military from federal pollution safeguards. “The Pentagon’s push for blanket exemptions […] makes a mockery of national defense” (2). Using national security to sacrifice our nation’s environmental security will endanger our health, leaving us less safe.” (Karen Wayland, Natural Resources Defense Council)
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Millions of acres of land that could be used for growing food or creating communities are instead reserved for military purposes.(3) Adding to this are the thousands of square miles of abandoned sacrifice zones from weapons testing, because the land is too dangerous and expensive to clean up.(4)
Scorched Earth Isn’t a Metaphor
Flooding crops, contaminating water supplies, and burning forests and homes are still widespread in war. Our wars in Iraq have helped to desertify the land, and contributed to Iraq’s shift from a food exporter into a country that must import 80% of its supply.(5)
Largest Polluter in the Country
Public data revealed that the Pentagon was generating a ton of toxic waste per minute, more toxic waste than the five largest US chemical companies.(6) One need only look at the Grumman site in Bethpage to see this.
Sickening Land and People
Nearly 3/4 of our 1,300 Superfund sites – waste sites classified as those most hazardous to human and ecological health – are abandoned military bases or military-industrial manufacturing and testing sites.(7) The Pentagon has criminally abandoned rusting barrels of chemicals and solvents and millions of rounds of ammunition in bases around the world.
One example in the US is Camp Lejeune: For over 30 years, the base contaminated its own water supply with benzene. However, government authorities adamantly dismissed ongoing reports of cancers, miscarriages, and birth defects among the 500,000 military and family members as unrelated. 8 Vieques8 in Puerto Rico, Hanford in Washington State and Rocky Flats in Colorado are just a few examples of extremely polluted sites which continue to leave a legacy of cancer.
Perchlorate, an ingredient of solid rocket fuel and a byproduct of rocket and missile testing and explosives, is now omnipresent in the environment & in over half of all food tested. This toxic chemical accumulates in the thyroid gland and harms fetuses, infants and children at even very low levels. In 2011 the EPA regulated perchlorate.(8)
Chemical Warfare & Agent Orange
Dioxin-contaminated toxic defoliant Agent Orange was used to destroy the Vietnamese and adjacent Laotian forest cover and food crops. (This was in fact first-strike chemical warfare, in violation of the 1925 Geneva Convention against biological and toxin weapons warfare.) Dioxin persists in the environment, causing cancer, birth defects and many other diseases for generations.(9)
The Radioactive Legacy of War
Between 1946 and 1958, the US dropped more than sixty nuclear weapons on the people of the Marshall Islands, yielding ongoing high cancer rates for the Islanders. Cancer rates in the US rose with above-ground weapons testing in southern Nevada. Downwinders and their livestock were the hardest hit. The actor John Wayne developed cancer 8 years after filming at a highly radioactive location (10)
Depleted uranium (DU) has been used since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Twice as heavy as lead, it is used for coating armor-piercing munitions and protective tank plating. It is very cheap because its raw material is radioactive waste. Some estimate that we have used over 1,000 tons of depleted uranium in Iraq. It explodes into dust upon impact. A 2010 study found ominously higher reported cancers (child leukemia, breast cancer, brain tumors, lymphoma) than expected, higher infant mortality post-2004 than in comparative Middle East countries, and an alarming change in sex ratio at birth, with much fewer boys.(11)
The Military Assault on Climate
Sara Flounders writes, “By every measure, the Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy in general. Yet the Pentagon has a blanket exemption in all international climate agreements … Any talk of climate change which does not include the military is nothing but hot air.”(13)
The US Air Force (USAF) is the single largest consumer of jet fuel in the world. Fathom, if you can, the astronomical fuel usage of USAF fighter planes: the F-4 Phantom Fighter burns more than 1,600 gallons of jet fuel per hour and peaks at 14,400 gallons per hour at supersonic speeds.
Barry Sanders observes with tragic irony that, while many of us assiduously reduce our carbon footprint through simpler living, eating locally, recycling, reusing, conserving energy, taking public transportation, installing solar panels, and so on, the single largest institutional polluter and contributor to global warming — the US military, paid for by our taxes — is immune to climate change concerns.
Just how much petroleum the Pentagon consumes is one of the government’s best-kept secrets. Barry Sanders calculates that the US military consumes as much as one million barrels of oil per day and contributes 5 percent of current global warming emissions: 0.0002 percent of the world’s population is generating 5 percent of climate pollution.(14)
What can we do?
Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Spread the word on the long-term costs of war.
Talk to your friends and family.
Join peace groups.
Come up with your own actions & ideas.