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The Silent Casualty of War: The Global Environment

The brunt of war in the 20th and early 21st centuries has shifted from combatant soldiers to civilians due to more powerful war weapons, war intensity, and war tactics. By the 1990s, 90 % of those who died in war were civilians, and the majority were women and children. For the same reasons, the impact of war and militarism on nature and the lived environment follows a similar pattern. One Vietnam veteran described the rain of death in the Vietnam War – bombs, mortars, napalm, and chemical warfare – as a war against the environment, creating 20 million bomb craters and “reducing the Earth to ashes.” According to Barry Sanders in his eye-opening book on military pollution The Green Zone, the first three weeks of the 2003 war in Iraq used the amount of fuel that 80,000 Americans would use for a year’s worth of driving, or 40 million gallons.

The military enterprise as a whole is hyper-privileged, secretive, and un-touchable when it comes to budget, international law, and environmental protection. By contrast, environmental health policy on toxics has moved from targeting one toxic substance at a time to toxics reduction, healthcare without harm, clean technology, green housing, pollution prevention, and the Precautionary Principle. We need a comparable leap in policy that addresses heightened defense spending, arms trafficking, and global military power projection. Why? Given the scale of the American military-industrial complex and the nearly 1,000 military bases colonizing the world, the U.S. military is the largest single polluter on the planet.

Consider this:

  1. By the late 1980s, public data revealed that the Pentagon was generating a ton of toxic waste per minute, more toxic waste than the five largest U.S. chemical companies together, making it the largest polluter in the United States. According to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report, nearly 900 of EPA’s approximately 1300 Superfund sites are abandoned military bases/ facilities or manufacturing and testing sites that produced conventional weapons and other military-related products and services. (And what of the nearly 1000 U.S. bases worldwide where the military is not held to current U.S. standards of environmental protection?)

  2. By 1994, nearly 5,000 contaminated sites at the Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear weapons and fuel facilities had been identified for remediation. The now-closed Hanford nuclear weapons facility which recycled uranium and extracted plutonium, is the largest nuclear waste storage site in the United States and may be the world’s largest environmental cleanup site. The waste on the 600 acre site includes nearly five tons of plutonium and more than 53 million gallons of plutonium-contaminated waste in underground tanks, much of which is leaking into groundwater adjacent to the Columbia River, a regional source of salmon, agricultural irrigation, and drinking water supply.

  3. A 1992 National Cancer Institute (NCI) study determined that about 150 million curies of radioactive iodine was released into the atmosphere during open-air testing of nuclear weapons in Nevada from the early 1950s to the early 1960s. The fallout contaminated dairy cattle feed and the American milk supply. As a result, millions of children and adults were contaminated with radioactive iodine, a fact kept secret by the federal government. NCI suppressed the 1992 study findings for five years and later admitted in testimony before the U.S. Congress, that the radioactive iodine may have caused an excess of 212,000 thyroid cancers, which can have a latency period as long as 38 years.

  4. Between 2002 and 2008 approximately 400 facilities and 15,000 people were handling biological weapons agents in sites throughout the United States, in many cases unbeknownst to the local community. The rush to spend more than $57 billion since 2002 on bioterrorism research has raised many grave concerns, among these the militarization of biodefense research with the risk of a biological arms race. In March 2005, 750 top microbiologists, comprising over 50 percent of scientists studying bacterial and fungal diseases, wrote the NIH to argue that the agency’s emphasis on biodefense research had diverted research away from germs that cause more significant disease. Between 1998 and 2005, grants for biodefense research increased 15-fold. During the same period, grants to support research on non-biodefense germs that cause major sickness and death (such as TB resistant microbes and influenza) dropped 27 percent.

  5. Depleted uranium, the waste product of the uranium enrichment process, is used by the U.S. and other militaries in both defensive armor and armor piercing ammunition that is known as DU penetrators. DU was used in the Gulf War, the war in the Balkans and is likely being used in the war in Afghanistan. Available information suggests that the U.S. and British forces released between 110-165 tons of DU in the 2003 war in Iraq. Both soldiers and civilians in war and post-war situations are at risk of internal and external exposure to DU through inhalation, ingestion of DU particles, and skin exposure. A United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found very high soil contamination and groundwater contamination in the Balkans. A journalistic report on Iraqi children working to support their families revealed that the children are sorting through blasted Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles, stockpiled in scrap yards by U.S. military contractors, in order to salvage metal parts to sell to metal dealers – a likely source of high level exposure for the children. Animal and in vitro studies have found that DU may be genotoxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic, signaling serious concern for the fate of DU in the human body. Thus, the decision to use DU in weapons has been made in an environment of uncertainty about the health impacts on those exposed in conflict and post-conflict situations. DU exposure during and post-war adds long-term radiation and chemical exposure to the already existing risks of death, injury, and environmental damage from war.

  6. Author Barry Sanders estimates the U.S. military’s “armored vehicles, planes and luxury planes consume one-quarter of the world’s jet fuel and close to two million reported gallons of oil every day.” By his calculation, the U.S. military contributes 5 percent to world global warming. Worldwatch researcher Michael Renner estimated in 1989 that the military industrial complex consumed almost double the oil equivalent energy as the U.S. military. Thus the entire military enterprise is far and away the largest single climate polluter and contributor to global warming.

If, as many contend, the principal threat to world security in the 21st century is environmental degradation (through climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and resource scarcity), then the acute damage to the environment and usurpation of resources for war preparation and war itself, must become a paramount concern in environmental health policy. It’s time to make the policy case for turning swords into plowshares by bringing our war dollars home.

Taking Action:

  1. Form a study group to read The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism.

  2. Write letters to editor, column for newsletters, op-eds on environmental costs of war and militarism.

  3. Support environmental health organizations taking on these issues.

  4. Show film Scarred Lands and Wounded Lives in public forums for discussion.

  5. Organize a Bring Our War Dollars Home initiative in your town/city.


  1. Film

  2. Day, Alice and Lincoln. 2009. Scarred Lands & Wounded Lives: The Environmental Footprint of War. Fund for Sustainable Tomorrows.

  3. Books

  4. Sanders, Barry. 2009. The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism. Oakland, CA: AK Press

  5. Campaigns

  6. International Coalition to Ban Uranium Weapons. “FAQ An attempt to tackle some of the more frequently asked questions about depleted uranium.”

Pat Hynes retired as Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health and chairs the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.

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