Burn Pits, Climate Change and the US Military


Having watched the debates and most of the town halls, it’s disappointing how little time has been spent discussing environmental issues, especially global warming, during this US primary season. A partial exception to this has been Bernie Sanders, who started out strong, calling climate change the greatest threat to the country’s national security in a pre-Iowa debate (and was somewhat brave for saying so almost immediately after the mass shooting in San Bernadino). In his remarks, he made clear what many have long believed: much of the conflict in the world is driven by environmental degradation, especially food shortages caused by drought and bio-diversity loss.

While it’s obvious that the Democratic candidates are much better on these issues than the four Republicans still seeking their party’s nomination, the media needs to take a share of the blame for so rarely bringing up the topic. The Republican candidates are allowed to ignore the issue of climate change altogether, except to say that it either doesn’t exist or is not caused by humans, a position refuted by most of the world’s climate scientists and at least one of its largest oil companies.

Another thing these Republican candidates seem to agree on is that the US military is in some sort of decline. This would be news to most economists and indeed much of the rest of the world, especially citizens in the more than 60 countries where the US military has bases. Although it is almost never mentioned, beyond whatever good or bad the Pentagon does in the day to day world, it’s one of the biggest polluters on the planet.

Getting Some Perspective

Since 2001, the American military has almost doubled in size, not including various classified operations. To put this in perspective, in 2014, the United States, a country separated from most of the world by two oceans, spent $571 billion on its military. Its nearest competitor China, a country with a long history of discord within its borders and perpetual invasion from without, spent just under $130 billion.

Besides the issue of cost, missing from most discussions of the US armed forces are the environmental impacts they create, in their use of fuel, in their training exercises and through the conflicts, covert and overt, that they are involved in. In this regard, the Pentagon is in a class by itself, unrivaled in a history that has seen environmental destruction used as a weapon since human beings first took up arms against their neighbors.

Just imagine if a tiny country of 1.4 million people produced 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. There would be widespread indignation and demands that said nation find ways to reduce its environmental footprint. Depressingly, this is the approximate size of the US military and this is the Pentagon’s contribution to global emissions each and every year. To put it another way, the US military consumes around 340,000 barrels of oil a day. This is as much energy as Nigeria, a country of over 140 million people, consumes in the same amount of time.

Little reported on by mainstream news sources are the long term impacts of military operations associated with the most popular contemporary form of intervention, air campaigns. One of the main targets of aerial campaigns in Libya, Iraq and elsewhere has been infrastructure, which must then be rebuilt, adding to the overall cost to the environment after the damage caused by the bombing itself. This isn’t even accounting for the health and other impacts on civilian populations left without electricity or functioning sewage systems. .

In fairness, some of the consequences of these foreign interventions are unintended or the result of negligence on the part of American and allied militaries. A good example of this is Afghanistan, where insecurity has resulted in the Taliban and other warlords illegally logging what little remains of the country’s forests. This has led to soil erosion and loss of habitat for animals in a country already suffering from the early effects of climate change.

And it isn’t only in other countries that the Pentagon is having a large scale environmental impact. Take the case of Ke’awalau o Pu’uloa, Hawaii, better known as Pearl Harbor. As reported on the website Culturalsurivival.org it’s, “one of the most contaminated military installations in the nation, with six Superfund sites, and contaminants that include lead, TCE, mercury and petroleum. Furthermore, Navy ships have flushed radioactive cobalt and chemicals into the harbor.”

Burn Pits and the Tragic Costs of Occupation

After the first Gulf War in 1991, many returning veterans found themselves suffering from a variety of ailments that collectively came to be called Gulf War Syndrome. Rather than putting the full resources of the US government  towards alleviating these problems, authorities spent years denying these service people care or any kind of compensation.

Burn pits, also a little mentioned part of that first Gulf War, have become an issue similar to what Gulf War Syndrome was at that time. Some of these pits, which the military has promised to replace with incinerators, are still run by Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR) in both Iraq and Afghanistan and have been blamed for cancer and other illnesses afflicting a large number of veterans. According to author Joseph Hickman who just released a book on the subject, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers” at their peak there were over 250 of these pits, running 24 hours a day, to dispose of waste associated with the occupations.

As one soldier recently explained, “We were told to burn anything – electronics, bloody gauze, the medics’ biohazard bags, surgical gloves, cardboard. It all went up in smoke,” Because most of these burn pits were constructed and maintained by private contractors they did not always follow Pentagon regulations, environmental or otherwise  Hopefully, a suit brought by veterans and their families will proceed in US federal court in Maryland and these men and women will receive some kind of compensation for their continued suffering. As for the health impacts on innocent Iraqis and Afghans living nearby, this remains less than an afterthought.

Although the Pentagon has gone to great lengths to publicize its drive to develop more renewable energy sources to power its efforts on the battlefields of the future, the fact remains that the US military is a polluter far worse than any private company. In this sense perhaps there’s an opportunity for concerned citizens around the world to link environmental justice to issues of war and peace, a pairing that should have been central to activism regarding both a long time ago.


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