War Is Hell—on Mother Earth

| May-June 2010

  • War Is Hell

    image by REUTERS / STR New

  • War Is Hell

If history is any guide, when U.S. troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan, they won’t take stock of their environmental boot print. They won’t clean up the damage done by chemical weapons and depleted uranium, worry over the water rendered undrinkable by war-damaged infrastructure, or do anything to improve air quality, which has been compromised by fires, high-powered vehicles, and weapons. In the United States, the public will also turn a blind eye to reports of cancer and birth defects.

According to a piece by Clay Risen in the Washington Monthly (Jan.-Feb. 2010), environmental negligence is a commonplace by-product of conflict. And while international law is astonishingly weak on the subject, letting governments off the hook “for militarily necessary activity”—which is not strictly defined—Risen argues that countries’ refusal to address environmental and public health problems is largely due to bureaucratic stinginess. “Remediation and health care for victims are incredibly expensive,” he writes, “and no country wants to set a precedent that would force [it] to spend billions cleaning up [its] own mess.”

This sort of cold-blooded calculus has long kept the United States from owning the myriad issues caused by Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. “We [would] do gymnastics to avoid setting that precedent,” a former Pentagon official tells Risen.

In the extremely rare case that a country’s leaders do take responsibility, it’s in the interest of geo­politics, not clean consciences. Japan didn’t acknowledge chemical weapons it left on Chinese soil after World War II until 1997, when the government recognized China’s growing role as a superpower and embarked on a $1 billion cleanup project to boost bilateral relations. Similarly, the United States has funded cleanup efforts in Canada while short-changing toxic legacies in the Philippines and Panama.

Risen points out that the U.S. relationship with Vietnam is changing because the country is “an increasingly important trading partner . . . and an important potential ally in the event that competition with China heats up.” All of which makes it plausible that reparations for Agent Orange may one day become reality. Whether we’ll place high value on a strong postwar relationship with Iraq or Afghanistan remains to be seen.

Cristina Garcia_1
6/10/2010 10:45:14 AM

John Jacobs, If that is true then you should agree that it is important to educate on the effects pollution and all that has on the environment, the community and the future to change their attitudes and habits. That sort of attitude arises even in the US from people who are ignorant and it does not surprise me that there is some over there as well. If America stayed and didn't explain, educate and reward environmental awareness then of course the damage would only increase. I don't think simply handing over a few dumpsters and garbage trucks will fix things. People have to know why they should care. They have to have some sort of motive or incentive. You have to look at why they're doing it. Perhaps because they can't drive to a dump, its cheaper to not pay for the dump and just put things in the river, etc.. War doesn't make things any easier. People are busy figuring out what to eat, caring for family, looking for work. Or maybe he finds work, doesn't want to lose it by opposing the boss who says to dump in the river and has to go along with it. There are a lot of factors that play into this. I'm not excusing people, I just feel that it is not so easy and just saying "they've done it forever, they don't care, they'll keep doing it."

john jacobs_1
5/27/2010 4:21:33 PM

I just read the War is Hell on Mother Earth article and I had to stop myself from laughing. Iraq is an environmental cesspool and was so long before the Americans arrived. As a Marine in charge infrastructure repair projects I had an amazingly difficult time convincing Iraqi city councils that protecting the environment was a subject even worth debating. The truth was that they could care less. Their cities were over flowing with garbage so we bought them dumpsters and garbage trucks. They ignored the dumpsters and they stripped the trucks of all usable part and the then used them as private places to defecate. We tried to teach them about proper storage and disposal of hazardous materials but they continued to throw everything from motor oil to acid into the rivers and into open pits in the middle of town. In contrast, every time one of our vehicles had a fuel or oil leak we would call in our own environmental team to clean up the spill and remove the contaminated soil. Mind you that the environmental teams had to drive over IED infested roads and risk their lives to clean up a quart of oil in one foot by one foot patch of sand. All the while the Iraqis would stand around and watch while they threw their garbage on the ground and marveled at the fools who were washing dirt. If America stayed in Iraq for another hundred years we would still not be able to replicate the kind of environmental damage that the Iraqis have done and continue to do to their own country.

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