By Clare Hanrahan
War is an all out assault on life. Every living being is in peril. The interrelated systems that sustain life are approaching total collapse from resource depletion, wanton killing and the environmental degradation of centuries of senseless war. The single most egregious and unrelenting source of ecocide is the Pentagon, an agency that consumes nearly 50 percent of each U.S. tax dollar extorted from the workers in the name of national defense.
More than fifty years ago U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned that "the problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without."
We have gone way too far—beyond the limits of law, morality and of sane self interest.
With the Pentagon's practices of obfuscation and denial, it is a daunting task to uncover and document the staggering facts of just how severe—and in some instances irreversible—is the ecological damage brought on by militarism. What is known of the grim statistics is a stunning indictment of the woefully misnamed Department of Defense. How did this happen? What is the extent of the poisoning? Who will clean up the mess? Is it too late to turn this around?
Warfare has never been easy on the earth, yet throughout thousands of years of recorded military history, this living planet has managed to recover and adjust to a succession of trampling armies encroaching with roads, leveling forests, damming rivers, polluting the air, the soil and water, digging entrenchments, bombarding and poisoning the lands, destroying habitat and crops, raping, pillaging and eliminating uncounted species of plants and animals.
The human cost in war has also been high but in past centuries was limited mostly to combatants. That is no longer the reality. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated in the 1990s that civilian deaths constituted 90 percent of all deaths in war. In recent decades more children have been killed than soldiers and more deaths occur after the battlefield is abandoned than during combat.
In almost every U.S. community where the Department of Defense and its corporate military contractors employ millions in the production, maintenance, and storage of "conventional," chemical, and nuclear weapons, the health of the workers and the natural environment is sacrificed. According to a 1989 US General Accounting Office report, the US Military produces more than 400,000 tons of hazardous waste each year. That figure is most certainly a low estimate.
With astounding obedience, We the People have been willing to relinquish our lives, our children's lives, our values and the very survival of the earth in the name of national security.
In 1942, the 3,000 residents of five rural Tennessee mountain communities were given just a few weeks' notice to vacate their homes and ancestral farms. Thus was the "secret city" of Oak Ridge established, and the 60,000 acres of Tennessee valleys and ridges expropriated for the war effort. The Manhattan Project was developed to enrich the uranium used for the Hiroshima bomb.
In subsequent decades, and in the name of national security, officials knowingly subjected atomic industry workers, soldiers and nearby residents to deadly doses of radiation at nuclear sites throughout the country. "Some 300,000 people, or half of those who ever worked in the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, are believed to have been affected by exposure to radiation," asserts Michael Renner, of the World Watch Institute writing in the 1997 book War and Public Health. Every step of the nuclear bomb-making process involves severe environmental contamination that lingers for generations.
"Of all the different ways in which military operations have an impact on human health and the environment, nuclear weapons production and testing is the most severe and enduring," Renner says. As a result of naval accidents there are at least 50 nuclear warheads and 11 nuclear reactors littering the ocean floor. Some researchers estimate that the radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests have already caused as many as 86,000 birth defects and 150,000 premature deaths. Two million more cancer deaths may yet ensue from the now-banned above ground explosions.
Despite the horrific consequences of nuclear energy, in Oak Ridge today, the Obama administration has approved an additional 7.5 billion dollars for refurbishing the next generation of thermonuclear weapons, assuring a stockpile of death for generations to come.
The unprecedented atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, murdering hundreds of thousands, pales in comparison to the impact of modern weapons of mass destruction. Militarism in this atomic age has developed and used weapons so heinous as to extend the murderous reach to all future generations.
After more than 60 years producing atomic weapons and nuclear energy, the Department of Defense and Department of Energy have accumulated over 500,000 tons of so-called depleted uranium, which it offers free of charge to weapons makers throughout the world.
In Jonesborough, Tennessee, down a quiet country lane in the heart of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, Aerojet Ordnance employs a small workforce to produce weaponized uranium armaments. Bullets are coated with the radioactive waste from enriching U-235 to produce fuel for nuclear reactors and atomic bombs.
According to investigative reporter Bob Nichols, writing in 2010 for the San Francisco Bay View,Iraq and virtually all the rest of the Middle East and Central Asia has been continually dosed for almost 20 years with thousands of tons of weaponized ceramic uranium oxide gas, also known as depleted uranium." These bullets, shells and bombs, when exploded, reach temperatures over 3,000 degrees centigrade and become a lethal uranium aerosol that "never stops indiscriminately maiming and killing." The contamination persists for billions of years, both on the battlefield and at US manufacturing and storage sites. Research has confirmed that uranium oxide (UO) particles, when inhaled, migrate up the olfactory nerve to the brain. They are so small they can even enter the body through the skindestroying cells in the brains, bones, and testicles or ovaries of anyone contaminated with the radioactive particles—friend, foe or noncombatant.
In addition to the horrific crimes of authorizing, producing and deploying weaponized uranium, the U.S. military's lethal footprint around the globe includes toxins from heavy metals, dioxins, PCB's, asbestos, mustard, sarin and nerve gas, as well as other chemical and biological weapons. And scattered on battlefields throughout the world are as many as 100 million unexploded antipersonnel land mines. Eighty percent of landmine victims have been noncombatants.
In Viet Nam, from 1962 to 1970, the US military engaged in chemical warfare dousing the country with 19 million gallons of herbicides, mostly Agent Orange produced by Monsanto, Dow Chemical and other U.S. manufacturers. The dioxin rich chemicals contaminated about five million acres of farmland, forest and waters. At least one million Vietnamese people and more than 100,000 Americans and allied troops were poisoned with deadly effects that have continued into the third generation. The human and environmental devastation in Central American during the US proxy wars of the 1980s is yet another horrific chapter in the tragedy of US militarism.
In the United States alone, the Pentagon is responsible for at least 25,000 contaminated properties in all 50 states, according to a 2008 Washington Post report. Nine hundred abandoned military bases, weapons manufacturing and testing sites and other military-related industries are listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of 1,300 sites most hazardous to human and ecological health, and that is only a portion of the polluted sites. As many as 20 million Americans in 43 states drink water contaminated by cancer-causing perchlorate, a carcinogen found in missile and rocket fuel.
According to a 1991 edition of Rachel's hazardous Waste news (#224), "… the military has exposed thousands (perhaps millions) of innocent Americans to deadly amounts of radioactivity and to a witch's brew of potent chemical toxins, has covered up these facts, has lied to the victims and their families, has lied to the press, has lied to Congress. It is a scandal and an outrage on such a scale that it takes your breath away." In 2011 it is still hard to catch one's breath in the face of this ongoing and intentional assault on the earth.
And of course, it is not just the Pentagon with its lethal global reach, but the insidious corporate/government alliance that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of over fifty years ago— a crime syndicate that colludes to profit from and deny responsibility for planetary ecocide.
Gaia isn't bound by national borders, nor is this distressed planet protected by the false distinctions militarists make between combat zones and the lands they claim to defend. The militarists and the scientists in their employ have reached into the very heavens to harness the energies of the ionosphere in the service of war.
Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a scientist and Roman Catholic nun confirms that "US military scientists are working on weather systems as a potential weapon. The methods include the enhancing of storms and the diverting of vapor rivers in the Earth's atmosphere to produce targeted droughts or floods."
The US military practiced this so-called "geophysical warfare" in Viet Nam with Project Skyfire and Project Stormfury. Now the Pentagon is arrogantly pursuing what it calls "full spectrum" US military domination. Dr. Bertell has written of military experiments that may have played a part in earthquakes and unusual weather conditions and even accelerated global warming. Current military projects such as HAARP (High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program) are part of a "growing chain of astonishingly powerful, and potentially interactive, military installations, using varied types of electromagnetic fields or wavelengths, each with a different ability to affect the earth or its atmosphere," according to Dr. Bertell.
Is there no end to the arrogance? We must intervene. We must put a stop to the militarism characterized by Academy of Natural Sciences writer Roland Wall as "a direct and relentless assault on human and natural ecosystems."
The Department of Defense uses 360,000 barrels of oil each day. This amount makes the DoD the single largest oil consumer in the world. According to Sharon E. Burke, the Pentagon's director of operational energy plans and programs, the Defense Logistics Agency delivers more than 170,000 barrels of oil each day to the war theaters, at a cost of $9.6 billion in 2010.
Climate change activists, rightly concerned about the continued use of fossil fuels to power our insatiable energy demands, have taken to the streets of Washington, DC to call for a halt to the tar sands oil pipeline, other resisters march in the hundreds to the sites of mountain top removal coal mining, or stand in resistance at the nuclear weapons and nuclear power complexes throughout the nation. Arrests, fines, jail and imprisonment is the lot of many who take a bold stand to call an end to the US military industrial choke hold on the planet.
But a strategically disastrous divide persists between activists in the environmental sustainability movements and war resisters who challenge more directly the militarism that is the largest single cause of the Earth's imminent collapse.
Have we blindly accepted the paradigm that war is inevitable, that violence is intrinsic to our nature, and that our security depends on a strong military? It is a lie—repeated again and again—but it is still a lie.
"Challenging the destruction and damage to the environment and the massive exploitation of oil and metal resources for the military-industrial war machine must become paramount in the work for peace," scientist and author H. Patricia Hynes writes in a recent series of articles on the environmental impact of US militarism. Indeed, as the United Nations asserts, "there can be no durable peace if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed."
"We don't know how to extricate ourselves from our complicity very surely or very soon," Poet and social critic Wendell Berry asserts. "How could we live without the war economy and the holocaust of the fossil fuels?"
We must find the answer to our deadly dilemma and put an end to our complicity in the desecration of the world and destruction of all creation.
"To the offer of more abundant life," Berry writes, "we have chosen to respond with the economics of extinction." We cannot let this be the end.
For further reading:
Wendell Berry. The Way of Ignorance. Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005.
Rosalie Bertell. "Planet Earth the Latest Weapon of War – A Critical Study into the Military and the Environment." The Women's Press, London, 2000.
H. Patricia Hynes. "War and the Tragedy of the Commons," August, 2011 Truthout series. www.truthout.org.
Barry S. Levy et al. "The environmental consequences of war," in Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel. "War and Public Health." American Public Health Association. 2000.
Michael Renner. "Environmental health effects of weapons production, testing, and maintenance," in Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel. "War and Public Health." American Public Health Association. 2000.
Barry Sanders. "The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism." AK Press. 2009.