General Philip Sheridan, having destroyed farmland in Virginia during the Civil War, proceeded to destroy American 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.”
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 U.S. 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 U.S. Secretary of Energy released records of U.S. testing of plutonium on unwitting U.S. 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. When my 2009-2010 book tour took me to more than 50 cities around the country, I was surprised that many of the peace groups in town after town were focused on stopping the damage that local weapons factories were doing to the environment and their workers with subsidies from local governments, even more than they were focused on stopping the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Kansas City, active citizens had recently delayed and were seeking 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.
I joined several local activists in staging a protest outside the factory gates, similar to protests I’ve been part of at sites in Nebraska and Tennessee, and the support from people driving by was phenomenal: many more positive reactions than negative. One man who stopped his car at the light told us that his grandmother had died of cancer after making bombs there in the 1960s. Maurice Copeland, who was part of our protest, told me he’d worked at the plant for 32 years. When a car drove out of the gates containing a man and a smiling little girl, Copeland remarked that toxic substances were on the man’s clothes and that he had probably hugged the little girl and possibly killed her. I can’t verify what, if anything, was on the man’s clothes, but Copeland claimed that such occurrences had been part of the Kansas City plant for decades, with neither the government, nor the private owner (Honeywell), nor the labor union (the International Association of Machinists) properly informing workers or the public.
With the replacement of President Bush with President Obama in 2010, opponents of the plant expansion deal hoped for change, but the Obama administration gave the project its full support. The city government promoted the effort as a source of jobs and tax revenue. As we’ll see in the next section of this chapter, it was not.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. military dumped huge quantities of chemical weapons into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1943 German bombs had sunk a U.S. ship at Bari, Italy, that was secretly carrying a million pounds of mustard gas. Many of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. The United States has not.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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. U.S. 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.
To these examples of the types of environmental damage done by war must be added two key facts about how our wars are fought and why. As we saw in chapter six, wars are often fought for resources, especially oil. Oil can be leaked or burned off, as in the Gulf War, but primarily it is put to use polluting the earth’s atmosphere, placing us all at risk. Oil and war lovers associate the consumption of oil with the glory and heroism of war, so that renewable energies that do not risk global catastrophe are viewed as cowardly and unpatriotic ways to fuel our machines.
The interplay of war with oil goes beyond that, however. The wars themselves, whether or not fought for oil, consume huge quantities of it. The world’s top consumer of oil, in fact, is the U.S. military. Not only do we fight wars in areas of the globe that happen to be rich in oil; we also burn more oil fighting those wars than we do in any other activity. Author and cartoonist Ted Rall writes:
“The U.S. Department of [War] is the world’s worst polluter, belching, dumping, and spilling more pesticides, defoliants, solvents, petroleum, lead, mercury, and depleted uranium than the five biggest American chemical corporations combined. According to Steve Kretzmann, director of Oil Change International, 60 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions between 2003 and 2007 originated in U.S.-occupied Iraq, due to the enormous amount of oil and gas required to maintain hundreds of thousands of American military forces and private contractors, not to mention the toxins released by fighter jets, drone planes, and the missiles and other ordnance they fire at Iraqis.”
We pollute the air in the process of poisoning the earth with all variety of weaponry. The U.S. military burns through about 340,000 barrels of oil each day. If the Pentagon were a country, it would rank 38th in oil consumption. If you removed the Pentagon from the total oil consumption by the United States, then the United States would still rank first with nobody else anywhere close. But you would have spared the atmosphere the burning of more oil than most countries consume, and would have spared the planet all the mischief our military manages to fuel with it. No other institution in the United States consumes nearly as much oil as the military.
In October 2010, the Pentagon announced plans to try a small shift in the direction of renewable energy. The military’s concern did not seem to be continued life on the planet or financial expense, but rather the fact that people kept blowing up its fuel tankers in Pakistan and Afghanistan before they could reach their destinations.
How is it that environmentalists have not prioritized ending wars? Do they believe the war lies, or are they afraid to confront them? Each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spends $622 million trying to figure out how we can produce power without oil, while the military spends hundreds of billions burning oil in wars fought to control the oil supplies. The million dollars spent to keep each soldier in a foreign occupation for a year could create 20 green energy jobs at $50,000 each. Is this a difficult choice?