Watch or read about the NoWar2017: War and the Environment Conference.
War and preparations for war are not just the pit into which trillions of dollars that could be used to prevent environmental damage are dumped, but also a major direct cause of that environmental damage.
The US military is one of the biggest polluters on earth. Since 2001, the US military has emitted 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases, equivalent to the annual emissions of 257 million cars on the road. The US Department of Defense is the largest institutional consumer of oil ($17B/year) in the world, and the largest global landholder with 800 foreign military bases in 80 countries. By one estimate, the US military used 1.2 million barrels of oil in Iraq in just one month of 2008. One military estimate in 2003 was that two-thirds of the US Army’s fuel consumption occurred in vehicles that were delivering fuel to the battlefield.
As the environmental crisis worsens, thinking of war as a tool with which to address it threatens us with the ultimate vicious cycle. Declaring that climate change causes war misses the reality that human beings cause war, and that unless we learn to address crises nonviolently we will only make them worse.
A major motivation behind some wars is the desire to control resources that poison the earth, especially oil and gas. In fact, the launching of wars by wealthy nations in poor ones does not correlate with human rights violations or lack of democracy or threats of terrorism, but does strongly correlate with the presence of oil.
War does most of its environmental damage where it happens, but also devastates the natural environment of military bases in foreign and home nations.
The US military is the third-largest polluter of US waterways.
At least since the Romans sowed salt on Carthaginian fields during the Third Punic War, wars have damaged the earth, both intentionally and — more often — as a reckless side-effect.
General Philip Sheridan, having destroyed farmland in Virginia during the Civil War, proceeded to destroy bison herds as a means of restricting Native Americans to reservations. World War I saw European land destroyed with trenches and poison gas. During World War II, the Norwegians started landslides in their valleys, while the Dutch flooded a third of their farmland, the Germans destroyed Czech forests, and the British burned forests in Germany and France.
Wars in recent years have rendered large areas uninhabitable and generated tens of millions of refugees. War “rivals infectious disease as a global cause of morbidity and mortality,” according to Jennifer Leaning of Harvard Medical School. Leaning divides war’s environmental impact into four areas: “production and testing of nuclear weapons, aerial and naval bombardment of terrain, dispersal and persistence of land mines and buried ordnance, and use or storage of military despoliants, toxins, and waste.”
At least 33,480 US nuclear weapons workers who have received compensation for health damage are now dead.
Nuclear weapons testing by the United States and the Soviet Union involved at least 423 atmospheric tests between 1945 and 1957 and 1,400 underground tests between 1957 and 1989. The damage from that radiation is still not fully known, but it is still spreading, as is our knowledge of the past. New research in 2009 suggested that Chinese nuclear tests between 1964 and 1996 killed more people directly than the nuclear testing of any other nation.
Jun Takada, a Japanese physicist, calculated that up to 1.48 million people were exposed to fallout and 190,000 of them may have died from diseases linked to radiation from those Chinese tests. In the United States, testing in the 1950s led to untold thousands of deaths from cancer in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona, the areas most downwind from the testing.
In 1955, movie star John Wayne, who avoided participating in World War II by opting instead to make movies glorifying war, decided that he had to play Genghis Khan. The Conqueror was filmed in Utah, and the conqueror was conquered. Of the 220 people who worked on the film, by the early 1980s 91 of them had contracted cancer and 46 had died of it, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. Statistics suggest that 30 of the 220 might ordinarily have gotten cancer, not 91.
In 1953, the military had tested 11 atomic bombs nearby in Nevada, and by the 1980s half the residents of St. George, Utah, where the film was shot, had cancer. You can run from war, but you can’t hide. The military knew its nuclear detonations would impact those downwind, and monitored the results, effectively engaging in human experimentation.
In numerous other studies during and in the decades following World War II, in violation of the Nuremberg Code of 1947, the military and the CIA have subjected veterans, prisoners, the poor, the mentally disabled, and other populations to unwitting human experimentation for the purpose of testing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as drugs like LSD, which the United States went so far as to put into the air and food of an entire French village in 1951, with horrific and deadly results.
A report prepared in 1994 for the US Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs begins:
“During the last 50 years, hundreds of thousands of military personnel have been involved in human experimentation and other intentional exposures conducted by the Department of Defense (DOD), often without a servicemember’s knowledge or consent. In some cases, soldiers who consented to serve as human subjects found themselves participating in experiments quite different from those described at the time they volunteered.
For example, thousands of World War II veterans who originally volunteered to ‘test summer clothing’ in exchange for extra leave time, found themselves in gas chambers testing the effects of mustard gas and lewisite. Additionally, soldiers were sometimes ordered by commanding officers to ‘volunteer’ to participate in research or face dire consequences. For example, several Persian Gulf War veterans interviewed by Committee staff reported that they were ordered to take experimental vaccines during Operation Desert Shield or face prison.”
The full report contains numerous complaints about the secrecy of the military and suggests that its findings may be only scraping the surface of what has been hidden.
In 1993, the US Secretary of Energy released records of US testing of plutonium on unwitting US victims immediately following World War II. Newsweek commented reassuringly, on December 27, 1993:
“The scientists who had conducted those tests so long ago surely had rational reasons: the struggle with the Soviet Union, the fear of imminent nuclear war, the urgent need to unlock all the secrets of the atom, for purposes both military and medical.”
Oh, well that’s all right then.
Nuclear weapons production sites in Washington, Tennessee, Colorado, Georgia, and elsewhere have poisoned the surrounding environment as well as their employees, over 3,000 of whom were awarded compensation in 2000. Many peace groups around the United States are focused on stopping the damage that local weapons factories are doing to the environment and their workers with subsidies from local governments. Sometimes this work ends up taking priority over protesting the next war.
In Kansas City, activists have tried to block the relocation and expansion of a major weapons factory. It seems that President Harry Truman, who had made his name by opposing waste on weaponry, planted a factory back home that polluted the land and water for over 60 years while manufacturing parts for instruments of death thus far used only by Truman. The private, but tax-break-subsidized factory will likely continue to produce, but on a larger scale, 85 percent of the components of nuclear weapons.
Weapons production is the least of it. Non-nuclear bombs in World War II destroyed cities, farms, and irrigation systems, producing 50 million refugees and displaced people. The US bombing of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia produced 17 million refugees, and as of the end of 2008 there were 13.5 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world. A long civil war in Sudan led to a famine there in 1988. Rwanda’s brutal civil war pushed people into areas inhabited by endangered species, including gorillas. The displacement of populations around the world to less habitable areas has damaged ecosystems severely.
Wars leave a lot behind. Between 1944 and 1970 the US military dumped huge quantities of chemical weapons into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1943 German bombs had sunk a US ship at Bari, Italy, that was secretly carrying a million pounds of mustard gas. Many of the US sailors died from the poison, which the United States dishonestly claimed to have been using as a “deterrent,” despite keeping it secret.
The ship is expected to keep leaking the gas into the sea for centuries. Meanwhile the United States and Japan left over 1,000 ships on the floor of the Pacific, including fuel tankers. In 2001, one such ship, the USS Mississinewa was found to be leaking oil. In 2003 the military removed what oil it could from the wreck.
Perhaps the most deadly weapons left behind by wars are land mines and cluster bombs. Tens of millions of them are estimated to be lying around on the earth, oblivious to any announcements that peace has been declared. Most of their victims are civilians, a large percentage of them children. A 1993 US State Department report called land mines “the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind.” Land mines damage the environment in four ways, writes Jennifer Leaning:
“fear of mines denies access to abundant natural resources and arable land; populations are forced to move preferentially into marginal and fragile environments in order to avoid minefields; this migration speeds depletion of biological diversity; and land-mine explosions disrupt essential soil and water processes.”
The amount of the earth’s surface impacted is not minor. Millions of hectares in Europe, North Africa, and Asia are under interdiction. One-third of the land in Libya conceals land mines and unexploded World War II munitions. Many of the world’s nations have agreed to ban land mines and cluster bombs.
From 1965 to 1971, the United States developed new ways of destroying plant and animal (including human) life; it sprayed 14 percent of South Vietnam’s forests with herbicides, burned farm land, and shot livestock. One of the worst chemical herbicides, Agent Orange, still threatens the health of the Vietnamese and has caused some half million birth defects.
During the Gulf War, Iraq released 10 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf and set 732 oil wells on fire, causing extensive damage to wildlife and poisoning ground water with oil spills. In its wars in Yugoslavia and Iraq, the United States has left behind depleted uranium. A 1994 US Department of Veterans Affairs survey of Gulf War veterans in Mississippi found 67 percent of their children conceived since the war had severe illnesses or birth defects. Wars in Angola eliminated 90 percent of the wildlife between 1975 and 1991. A civil war in Sri Lanka felled five million trees.
The Soviet and US occupations of Afghanistan have destroyed or damaged thousands of villages and sources of water. The Taliban has illegally traded timber to Pakistan, resulting in significant deforestation. US bombs and refugees in need of firewood have added to the damage. Afghanistan’s forests are almost gone. Most of the migratory birds that used to pass through Afghanistan no longer do so. Its air and water have been poisoned with explosives and rocket propellants.
Ethiopia could have reversed its desertification for $50 million in reforestation, but chose to spend $275 million on its military instead — each year between 1975 and 1985.