Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.
Did the United States poison tens of thousands of its own soldiers in Iraq with fumes from burning toxic trash? Before you consider it an outlandish suggestion, I suggest you read J. Malcolm Garcia’s moving account in the Oxford American of two American soldiers who made it back from their tours of duty having escaped insurgents’ shells, bullets, and improvised explosive devices—only to die slow, torturous deaths from the effects of garbage torched in open pits by the U.S. military.
Personal stories like those of Billy McKenna and Kevin Wilkins may only become more common in coming years, according to Garcia, since the U.S. military operated at least 23 burn pits in Iraq before combat operations ended this year, including a notoriously noxious one that often literally cast a pall over Balad Air Base.
“The burn pit at Balad consumed about 250 tons of waste a day,” he writes, “exposing 25,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands of contractors to toxic fumes.”
Garcia’s immersive narrative is a humanizing look into a slowly unfolding story that has been reported in bits and pieces for a few years, but hasn’t entirely sunken into the national consciousness, perhaps in part because it runs so counter to a reflexively patriotic, military-booster mindset: We wouldn’t have harmed our own soldiers, would we?
It just so turns out that we probably did. Writes Garcia:
The Veterans Administration states on its own webpage that chemicals, paint, medical and human waste, metals, aluminum, unexploded ordnance, munitions, and petroleum products among other toxic waste are destroyed in burn pits. Possible side effects, the department notes, “may affect the skin, eyes, respiration, kidneys, liver, nervous system, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, peripheral nervous system, and gastrointestinal tract.”
The issue first came to public light in 2008 when the Military Times reported on the use of burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, spurring Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) to request a probe by the General Accounting Office.
The GAO looked into it and warned in 2010 that the burn pits violated laws designed to keep service members safe. Pressure mounted on legislators to take up the cause, and despite a general lack of public outrage, the campaign has finally had an effect: Both Missouri Republican Sen. Tom Akin and a bipartisan group of eight senators last month introduced identical bills that would create a registry for service members affected by health problems from burn pit exposure.
The whole sorry saga stands as a stark contrast to the image of an environmentally friendly U.S. armed forces as portrayed by Edward Humes in the new Utne Reader feature “Lean, Green Fighting Machine,” an excerpt from Sierra magazine. Humes describes how the military has greened up its act with energy-efficient innovations such as solar power for remote outposts, hybrid amphibious assault ships, and biofuel-powered aircraft carriers. But he also notes that most military officials are quick to wave away suggestions that environmental concerns drive their actions, instead citing security, efficiency, and monetary savings.
All of those motivations, ironically, hold true in this case. Burn pits in a sense kept troops safe by avoiding garbage convoys; they disposed of trash with relative speed and ease; and they were much cheaper than more sophisticated waste management alternatives. But ultimately, the leaders who instituted and maintained them displayed an aggressive ignorance of basic modern health and environmental principles—a grave lapse for which thousands of soldiers are now paying.