The Big Green Machine

article image
David Gothard /

Ten years ago,Robin Eckstein was a college student in Appleton, Wisconsin, struggling to pay her bills. Out of the blue, a National Guard recruiter e-mailed, offering a free college education in exchange for her military service. She enlisted and reported for active duty in October 2000. Three years later, she was driving supply trucks across the Iraqi desert.

Eckstein has been out of the U.S. Army for three years now, but on this frigid Tuesday morning in late March, the 33-year-old finds herself pulling transport duty once more. This time she’s driving a big blue biodiesel-fueled bus across the state of Ohio with an ex-marine, a former Army sergeant, and a one-time Army specialist in tow.

The foursome is part of Operation Free, a campaign to promote clean energy organized by the Truman National Security Project, a progressive leadership organization. Now in its second year, Operation Free has gotten dozens of veterans to log more than 25,000 miles and travel across 21 states to stop and talk at union halls, factories, statehouses, and radio and TV stations about how America’s dependence on oil determines not only which wars we fight but also our ability to wage war.

They argue that America must become energy-independent, invest in renewables, and commit to a future that eradicates the threat of climate change–not because it’s the feel-good thing to do but because this nation’s security depends on it.

While she drives down I-71, Eckstein talks about a typical day in Iraq as an Army specialist, working a slow-moving convoy of trucks that carried water and fuel to troops dispersed throughout the desert. Exposed to harsh weather and frequent sniper fire, her detail was one of the most dangerous in the service. “We were the weakest link,” she says. “If one of us gets taken out, you don’t know how far the dominoes are going to fall.” Without fuel to power up their Humvees, helicopters, and tanks, troops can do little other than sit and wait. Even now, Eckstein can’t help but think of thirsty soldiers waiting for fuel in the middle of the desert.

She is not alone in her worry.

In late April, 33 retired generals and admirals signed an open letter to the leaders of the Senate stating that “America’s billion-dollar-a-day dependence on oil makes us vulnerable to unstable and unfriendly regimes.” They also called on President Obama and Congress to “enact strong, comprehensive climate and energy legislation to reduce carbon pollution and lead the world in clean energy technology.”

Drew Sloan, who just received his MBA from Harvard Business School, was serving in Afghanistan in 2004 when his Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He woke up four days later in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., recalling nothing of the attack that blew in his vehicle’s windshield and shattered most of the bones in his face. Soon after, he was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. He then turned down a medical discharge in order to go to Iraq, where he earned a second Bronze Star.

Operation Free asked Sloan to appear before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in late 2009. He testified that climate change and its attendant extreme weather events would exacerbate geopolitical instability. As sea level rises, he said, millions of people who live in coastal nations such as Bangladesh may have to flee across borders and become climate refugees. If that happens, who would quell the unrest? Sloan later asked rhetorically. The U.S. military–“the only institution that can take on a massive humanitarian crisis.”

“When [people attack] the science of climate change, they ridicule the data as being uncertain,” Sloan says. “Veterans know you can’t wait for 100 percent certainty. If you wait until everything is clear and laid out, you’re probably no longer alive. . . . Veterans know how to deal with ambiguity and still make decisions.”

Sloan’s testimony squares with a number of climate change initiatives recently adopted by the U.S. military. In the February 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a summary of Department of Defense strategies and priorities, climate change is addressed for the first time in the report’s history. “Assessments conducted by the intelligence community indicate that climate change could have significant geopolitical impacts around the world,” reads the document, “contributing to poverty, environmental degradation, and the further weakening of fragile governments.”

In an effort to reduce its own carbon emissions, Defense Department officials laid out a series of goals. The Air Force will increase its alternative fuel load to 50 percent by 2016, for example; the Army is converting nontactical vehicles to hybrids and electrics stateside, and the Navy is exploring biofuels for its carriers.

In Cincinnati,Eckstein is talking to a group of about 100 people gathered at a labor hall for a green energy and jobs rally. Some people wear hard hats that read “2 million green energy jobs now!” Others sport T-shirts that say “Make our energy clean. Make it American.”

Eckstein’s been on the road since 6:00 a.m.; she has been involved in a morning press conference, shaken dozens of hands, briefed aides to Ohio governor Ted Strickland, and spent a few harried hours with her fellow soldiers trying to fix a broken brake light. To quell her exhaustion, Eckstein draws on the crowd’s energy and tells them that the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency are serious about taking action. “These are not organizations known for hugging polar bears,” she says.

The line gets a laugh from the crowd, but a bearded man in his 50s isn’t buying it. He finds it laughable to extol the green leadership of the U.S. military. The military is creating a human and environmental disaster in Iraq, he says. He advocates dismantling the armed forces and using that money to rehabilitate the Midwest’s factories and invest in projects that promote a “humane” green economy. “The military is not a leader,” he says. “The military is the obstacle!”

For a moment, it looks as if the riders of the big blue bus have crashed headlong into the idealism of the old left.

“Thank you for your passion,” Eckstein responds respectfully. “It’s not that I don’t care about the human toll, because, trust me, I do, and I know my fellow veterans do. But if this is the approach we have to take so that certain other individuals will get it, is it not a good approach? When certain individuals hear the words ‘climate change,’ they shut down. For whatever reason, when they hear veterans speak on it, they actually listen.

“They get it, they understand it, and they’re willing to change. That’s what we want. We all want change.”

Excerpted from OnEarth (Summer 2010), the charismatic environmental magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, nominated for a 2010 Utne Independent Press Award for environmental

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.