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.