The U.S. military’s toxic bootprint


The U.S. military is one of the world’s largest polluters. As climate catastrophe looms, we must understand the consequences for the planet of the Pentagon’s carbon footprint. The bloated Pentagon budget exceeds the spending of the two biggest rivals of U.S. imperialism, Russia and China, combined. A large portion of that budget is spent on fuel and machinery. It is estimated that if the U.S. military were a country, it would rank 47th in the world in carbon emissions.

“The best estimate of U.S. military greenhouse gas emissions from 2001, when the wars began with the U.S invasion of Afghanistan, through 2017, is that the U.S. military has emitted 1,212 million metric tons of greenhouse gases (measured in CO2 equivalent, or CO2e). In 2017, for example, the Pentagon’s greenhouse gas emissions (59 million tons) were greater than the greenhouse gas emissions of entire industrialized countries (such) as Sweden or Denmark” (Pentagon Fuel Use, Climate Change, and the Costs of War  by Neta C. Crawford).

The reach of U.S. military power over the last 20 or so years extends far beyond the Middle East and Central Asia, with troops involved in “counter-terror” activity in 80-90 countries worldwide. The purpose of these operations is to protect oil and energy resources for a fossil fuel dependent U.S. economy and to secure the resources needed for so-called green technologies.

While the military claims to grasp the threat posed by climate change, little is being done to address the problem. Talk of “greening” the military with increased use of solar power, electric vehicles, and alternative fuels has not translated into policy except in minor ways. The U.S. military is the largest government or corporate user of energy in the world. In addition to ground vehicles, ships, and airplanes, the U.S. military has more than 800 bases, with more than 560,000 buildings worldwide, which all require heating, cooling, and electrical generation—costing $3.5 billion in 2017 alone.

The military accounts for 93 percent of U.S. government energy use, consuming 30,000 gigawatt hours of electricity and 4.6 billion U.S. gallons of fossil fuel annually. Looking at carbon emissions by service branch, the Air Force is the largest user of fossil fuels, followed by the Navy and then the Army. The Air Force uses about 2 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, which is about 81 percent of their energy usage. To put it in perspective, a B-52 bomber uses about 3300 gallons of jet fuel per hour—about what the average automobile driver uses in five years.

Pollution in war zones

The U.S. operated more than 200 burn pits in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan over the last 20 years. While the practice was supposedly banned in 2010, as of 2019 there were nine burn pits still in operation in those countries. These pits, operated by the military or by subcontractors, are reported to have burned tires, munitions, medical waste, human waste, electronics, aviation fuel, and plastics. Veterans who were exposed to these pits have filed more than 12,000 disability claims with the Veterans Administration (VA), which has denied 80 percent of the claims, citing lack of evidence of harm. Troops and employees of civilian contractor Kellog-Brown and Root (KBR) report respiratory ailments, kidney disease, neurological disorders, and cancer. A leaked US Army memo from 2011 asserts that troops exposed to burn pits face “reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.”

An Air Force veteran told this writer that the smoke from the burn pit on base in Afghanistan would be so thick on the runway that personnel couldn’t see or breathe: “They burned everything there—tires, body parts, garbage.”

This reckless disregard for the environment is nothing new, and the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to pay the price in higher disease and cancer rates. Cancer rates skyrocketed in Iraq in the years following Gulf War 1 (GW1), from 40 per 100,000 people to 1600 per 100,000. During GW1, retreating Iraqi troops burned oil fields and the U.S. used toxic depleted uranium in tank shells and other ammunition. During the same war, the U.S. bombed sewage and water treatment plants in Iraq, rendering water dangerous to drink. The sanctions imposed by U.S. imperialism in the 1990s denied Iraq the materials necessary to rebuild. It is estimated that more than a million Iraqis, half of them children, died as a result of the harsh sanctions regime.

During the genocidal U.S. war in Vietnam, the Pentagon dropped 13 million gallons of the toxic defoliant known as Agent Orange. Almost 300,000 U.S. troops and 3 million Vietnamese were exposed to the toxin. It took decades for the VA to recognize the effects on veterans and to compensate them for their exposure. The Vietnamese still suffer the effects of the dioxins in Agent Orange, with elevated cancer rates, neurological ailments like Parkinson’s Disease, stillbirths, and birth defects. 

Toxic groundwater

The Department of Defense (DoD) knew as early as 2001 that firefighting foam used to extinguish aircraft fires contained potentially carcinogenic compounds such as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. Almost 700 military bases and facilities have been found to have these toxic compounds in their drinking water.

Two closed Navy bases in suburban Philadelphia leached these chemicals into the groundwater, forcing the closing of both public and private wells. State health officials found an increased rate of pancreatic and bladder cancer among residents in these communities.

One of these bases, the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warrington, Pa., was closed in 1996 and was redeveloped into parks, homes, and businesses. The Air National Guard, which is based in Horsham, Pa, was appealing enforcement of PFAS limits in runoff and effluent as recently as May 2021. PFAS, deemed a “forever chemical” have been identified in drinking water of 34 U.S. cities or counties, including Atlanta; Boston; Charleston, S.C.; Chicago; Columbus, Ohio; New Orleans; Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; and Washington, D.C.

War is a horror that must end 

War destroys human lives, creates environmental disasters, and contributes substantially to the acceleration of climate change. The notion of “greening” the military is farcical. The role of the U.S. military is to enforce the will of the ruling rich and to protect the strategic and economic needs of U.S. imperialism. An institution that fights wars for oil and other resources will never play any role in effectively curbing greenhouse gases and stopping climate change.

As long as the U.S. boot is on the necks of the oppressed and exploited of the world, the effects of the climate crisis will be balanced on the backs of those most affected by extreme weather, rising sea levels, and loss of arable land. Fighting against climate change and opposing imperialist war is a combined struggle. A more militant climate movement can make links with a reinvigorated antiwar movement to put an end to these threats to the planet and all that live on it.

Photo: U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (Jonathan Mallard)

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