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Synthesis/Regeneration 52   (Spring 2010)


It's Not Good for the Environment, Either

by Kim Scipes

The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of the Military, by Barry Sanders, AK Press, 2009, 160 pp., $14.95. ISBN 978-1904859949

As a US military veteran - USMC, 1969-73, who turned around while on active duty - I have been incredibly frustrated at the impotence of the anti-war movement in the United States to stop the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, increasingly, Pakistan. I am obviously not alone. Many other people - veterans, as well as many more civilians - share this frustration.

Barry Sanders's new book, The Green Zone, takes a different angle from any I've seen before, and I believe it's an approach that we all need to consider: Sanders focuses on the environmental costs of militarism, particularly those from the US military.

"The [US] military produces enough greenhouse gases...to place the entire globe...in the most imminent danger of extinction"

Sanders recognizes the threat posed by greenhouse gases to the well-being of the world's peoples and, in fact, to our very survival. Sanders also knows the environment is threatened not just by greenhouse gases, but also by pollution of the water, air and soil, which joins with greenhouse gases to imperil us all.

Yet he makes an important point, trying to put things into perspective and to focus our attention, writing, ". here's the awful truth: even if every person, every automobile, and every factory suddenly emitted zero emissions, the Earth would still be headed head first and at full speed toward total disaster for one major reason. The [US] military - that voracious vampire - produces enough greenhouse gases, by itself, to place the entire globe, with all its inhabitants large and small, in the most imminent danger of extinction." To put it in plain language, that social institution that is said to protect Americans is, in fact, hastening our very extermination along with all the other people of the planet.

Sanders addresses the military's effects on the environment in many ways. He starts off with trying to figure out how much (fossil) fuel the military uses, with their resulting greenhouse emissions. Despite diligent efforts, he cannot find out specific numbers, so he is forced to estimate. After carefully working through different categories, he comes to what he calls a conservative estimate of 1 million barrels of oil a day, which translates to almost 20 million gallons each and every day! He puts this number into international perspective: "If that indeed turns out to be the case, the United States military would rank in fuel consumption with countries like Iran, Indonesia, and Spain. It is truly an astonishing accomplishment, especially when one considers . that the military has only about 1.5 million troops on active duty, Iran has a population of 66 million, and Indonesia a whopping 235 million." The cost, incidentally, is also quite high. He quotes a US Army General as estimating that the cost of this fuel averages $300 a gallon!

...the United States military would rank in fuel consumption with countries like Iran, Indonesia, and Spain.

Yet, how does this contribute to global warming? Because burning one gallon of gasoline produces 19.4 pounds of carbon dioxide, his estimate of one million barrels of oil a day means that "the combined armed forces sends into the atmosphere about 400 million pounds of greenhouse gases a day, or 200,000 tons. That totals 146 billion pounds a year - or 73 million tons of carbon a year." And that's just the military's fuel use.

Sanders also discusses the impact of exploding bombs, cluster bombs, napalm, cannon rounds, depleted uranium, etc. He points out that the US military estimates that it needs about 1.5 billion rounds for its M-16 rifles each year. He also highlights the heavy impact of US military bases around the world, including in the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

To me, the most sickening chapter was the one on depleted uranium or DU. Sanders explains, "Depleted uranium is essentially U-238, the isotope after the fissionable isotope, U-235, has been extracted from uranium ore." DU has a half-life of 4.7 billion years. He continues:

[A] good deal of the country of Iraq, both its deserts and cities, hums with radioactivity. For since 1991, the US has been manufacturing "just about all [of its] bullets, tank shells, missiles, dumb bombs, smart bombs, and 500- and 2000-pound bombs, and everything else engineered to help our side in the war of Us against Them, [with] depleted uranium in it. Lots of depleted uranium. A single cruise missile, which weighs 3,000 pounds, carries within its casing 800 pounds of depleted uranium." Recall that the Air Force dropped 800 of these bombs in just the first two days of the war. The math: 800 bombs multiplied by 800 pounds of depleted uranium equal 640,000 pounds, or 320 tons of radioactive waste dumped on that country in just the first two days of devastation.
The impact is devastating. When DU hits something, it ignites, reaching temperatures between 3,000-5,000 degrees Celsius (5,432-9,032 degrees F). It goes through metal like a hot knife through butter, making it a superb military weapon. But it also releases radiation upon impact, poisoning all around it. Its tiny particles can be inhaled - people don't have to touch irradiated materials. Thus, Iraqis are being poisoned by simply breathing the air! And, once inhaled, DU hardens, turning into insoluble pellets than cannot be excreted. DU poisoning is a death sentence. It not only kills, however, but it can damage human DNA - it's the gift that keeps on giving, to generations and generations.

Yet, radiation is an equal opportunity destroyer: it also poisons those in occupying armies. Evidence from Gulf War I ("Desert Storm") shows the impact on American troops. Sanders quotes Arthur Bernklau, who has extensively studied the problem:

Of the 580,400 soldiers who served in Gulf War I, 11,000 are now dead. By the year 2000, there were 325,000 on permanent medical disability. More than a decade later, more than half (56%) who served in Gulf War I have permanent medical problems.

Bernklau then points out that the disability rate for soldiers in Vietnam was 10%.

Yet the impact is not just on Iraqis, or the soldiers who fought there. Sanders points out that, according to the London Sunday Times, radiation sensors in Britain reported a four-fold increase in airborne uranium just a few days after George W. Bush launched the March 19, 2003 attack on Iraq. That sounds bad enough, that the uranium can travel the 2500 miles from Baghdad to London. But what Sanders does not note is that global weather does not travel east to west: it travels west to east. In other words, this uranium had to cross North America to get from Iraq to Britain!

A single cruise missile...carries within its casing 800 pounds of depleted uranium.

There is much more detailed information included in this small, highly accessible book. AK Press deserves our respect and support for publishing such a worthy volume, and this is one we each should purchase and urge others to do so as well.

The biggest strength of this book is Sanders's clarity: this man is, if you will permit, "on target." He sees the problem being not just the illegal and immoral wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. He sees the US military as being an essential part of the US Empire, along with the major multinational corporations. He sees the military as an institution as a threat to global environmental survival. He recognizes that politicians won't address the problem; they are too incorporated into the US Empire. His book says it is up to us, individually and collectively, in the US (primarily) and together with people around the world.

Basically, Sanders's argument is this: the US military can continue to launch wars and continue killing people (including Americans) around the world, or we can end war and devote resources to the well-being of people in this country and others around the world. The choice is ours. But we also need to realize that if we let the US military continue on its path of continual war with its ongoing quest for global domination, it will destroy all the humans, animals and vegetation on the planet. Your move, good people.

[3 sep 10]

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