Pentagon Pollution, 1: War and the true tragedy of the commons

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The U.S. military is the world’s biggest and most destructive polluter. Stopping the war machine is an essential part of saving the earth.

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H. Patricia Hynes, a former  professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, now directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. She has kindly given permission for Climate & Capitalism to repost these articles, which were originally published in Truthout in 2011.

Pentagon Pollution


by H. Patricia Hynes

The “Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin’s 1968 controversial essay published in Science, essentially targeted overpopulation (read: poor women) as the prime threat to sustainable life on our finite earth. Hardin, and many who consumed this thesis, failed to single out the very small, but politically powerful, population responsible for a mammoth environmental impact – the military. Per capita, the military complex (read: powerful men) is the most polluting human population.

A well-glued solidarity between the military, national security advisors, civilian defense contractors, and elites of government has cloaked the extraordinary debt of pollution, destruction of land, and use of finite resources in the paternalistic mantle of national security.

Since the origins of recorded history, war chroniclers have told of tactical environmental destruction: destroying crops, forest, and infrastructure; polluting water supply and breaching dikes to flood enemy troops and fields; salting enemies’ fields; catapulting infected blankets into enemy garrisons, and so on. During the American Civil War, a handful of Confederates attempted to burn down New York City and plotted both to poison the city’s drinking water supply reservoir and to spread yellow fever throughout Washington, DC.[1] The Chinese government committed perhaps the single most destructive wartime act in history during Japan’s 1937-1945 war against China. To deter the Japanese advance, the Chinese dynamited a dike near Chengchow, releasing impounded Yellow River water. Not only did the floodwaters drown the several thousand advancing Japanese soldiers, they also destroyed 4,000 villages, 11 cities, and several million hectares of farmland and killed several hundred thousand Chinese civilians.[2]

War breeds environmental destruction, and just as war victims and war tactics have changed in recent times, so also has the scale of environmental destruction from war. The casualties of war in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have shifted from combatant soldiers to innocent civilians, with an estimated nine civilian deaths for every soldier death. The locus of war has moved from battlefields to urban and rural population centers, causing massive numbers of residents to flee and imminent health crises of contaminated water, poor sanitation, inadequate health care, malnourishment, overcrowding, and sexual predation in refugee camps. Nearly half of the world’s refugees — 4.73 million Afghanis and Iraqis — are fleeing US-led warsand ensuing civil conflicts in their countries.

Widespread conflict in populated rural areas jeopardizes vital public health campaigns. The North-South Sudanese conflict threatened the village-based public health campaign to eliminate the human parasite guinea worm because “war and neglect have made south Sudan the worm’s last stronghold.” All the villages where people caught guinea worm in 2010 were suffering armed conflicts; public health campaign staff and residents fled the fighting. With the conflict ending, the government hopes to eradicate guinea worm — “the peace dividend we can give the world,” says the health minister responsible for the eradication program.

Likewise, modern war and militarism have a staggering impact on nature and our lived environment — by the kinds of weapons used (long-lived concealed explosives, toxic chemicals, and radiation); the “shock and awe” intensity of industrial warfare; and the massive exploitation of natural resources and fossil fuels to support militarism. By 1990, researchers estimated that the world’s military accounted for 5-10 percent of global air pollution, including carbon dioxide, ozone-depletion, smog and acid-forming chemicals. The Research Institute for Peace Policy in Starnberg, Germany calculated that 20 percent of all global environmental degradation was due to military and related activities.[3]

Larger, more powerful weapons systems, naval ships, and fighter planes usurp and contaminate huge swaths of land, habitat, groundwater, and soil. A World War II fighter plane “required a maneuvering radius of about 9 kilometers, compared with 75 kilometers in 1990 and a projected 150-185 kilometers for the next generation of jets.”[4] The amount of land and airspace mandated by armed forces for war games, including bombing and shooting ranges, has increased by at least 20 times since World War II. Up to half of US airspace is used for military purposes. Millions of acres of US territory are consigned to military use, resulting in “a scorched-earth policy against an imaginary foe.”[5] As for scorched earth against real “foes,” one Vietnam veteran described the rain of death in the Vietnam War — with bombs, mortars, napalm and other chemical warfare pouring out of the sky — as a war against the environment, creating 20 million bomb craters and “reducing the Earth to ashes.”

War between nations has intensified militarily and, thus, magnified natural resource exploitation and ecological devastation. In the early 1980’s, the Center for Disarmament estimated that global military operations used more aluminum, copper, nickel and platinum than the entire Third World did for development. US military use of various metals ranges from 5 to 40 percent of civilian use.[6] During the six-week air war in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and the 100-hour ground war, “more weapons were reportedly used than during the protracted Vietnam War.”[7] By US Army estimates, the first three weeks of war in Iraq in 2003 consumed 40 million gallons of fuel — the amount that 80,000 Americans would use for a year’s worth of driving.[8] In the same war, the United States employed more than 20 weapons systems that contain depleted uranium (DU), in ranges from 300 grams to 7 tons.Some estimate “that over 1,000 tons of depleted uranium” were deployed, although the Pentagon is tight-lipped about amounts of DU used in recent wars.

The environment has been described as “the silent casualty” of war; one could also call it “the invisible casualty” of war. Governments at war honor the fallen and give lip service to the “collateral damage” of civilians injured and killed, while they treat military pollution as the necessary cost of waging war and disdain any responsibility for remediating environmental contamination. As the muscled-up Pentagon sees it, environmental protection laws hamstring their military training and war readiness and, thus, jeopardize national security. In retort, Karen Wayland, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, has turned their “necessity for national defense” argument on its head: “The Pentagon’s push for blanket exemptions from federal health and pollution cleanup safeguards makes a mockery of national defense. Using national security to sacrifice our nation’s environmental security will endanger our health, leaving us less safe.”

If, as many contend, the principal threat to world security in the 21st century is environmental degradation (through climate change, pollution, soil erosion, habitat loss and species extinction), then 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. The series of articles to follow – on military hazardous waste, Agent Orange, depleted uranium, bioweapons research, nuclear weapons toxic waste, landmines and cluster bombs, and military use of fossil fuels — will provide an overview of modern military pollution and use of natural resources, with a central focus on the US military superpower, a power without precedent or competitor. The Pentagon maintains nearly 1,000 military bases worldwide, and its core budget equals that of the rest of the world’s military combined. Thus, the documented environmental hazards of grievously polluted US military sites, as well as of other sites polluted from US-led wars and war-related activities, serve as the “worst-case” example of global military pollution — the true tragedy of our commons.

Continued in  Part 2: Military waste sickens land and people


1. Jane Singer. “The last word: the terrorists of the Civil War.” THE WEEK. 2003.

2. Arthur Westing. “Conventional warfare and the human environment,” in Illka Taipale et el. War or Health? A Reader. London: Zed Books. 2002.

3. Michael Renner. “Assessing the military’s war on the environment,” in Lester Brown et al. State of the World 1991. New York: W.W. Norton. Also Seth Shulman. The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Legacy of the U.S. Military. Boston: Beacon. 1992.

4. Renner, p.133.

5. 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.

6. Ibid. p.122.

7. 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. P.53

8. Barry Sanders. The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism. AK Press. 2009. P.51.