US Military Wreaks Worldwide Environmental Havoc

While some German politicians are worried about the closing of US military bases in their regions, others fear nasty surprises will surface after the Americans depart. The United States has consistently valued military power more than the environment  – but at what price?

Some in the White House argue that US national interests transcend greenie niceties, and this certainly was the case with Bush’s 3-day stay at Buckingham Palace last year. US security forces trashed the Royal Gardens, historic statues and even the palace itself in an effort to provide the best environment for the president. The Queen’s ensuing outrage didn’t seem to bother Washington: if US self-protection mandates despoiling a patch of land far away, then so be it.

The issue of US military bases overseas arouses similar conflicts. According to Gary Vest, an assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security, “There is not a [US] military base in the world that doesn’t have some soil or ground water contamination. That is just a given.”

A classic case involves the Clark and Subic bases in the Philippines, which after closing in 1992, were discovered to be veritable death traps: wells had been poisoned by insecticides, industrial waste and toxic metals had been buried in random landfills, and petroleum had leaked from underground tanks. As a result, ground water and nearby agricultural lands were contaminated, and Filipinos living at or near the bases suffered from disproportionately high rates of illness.

It gets worse: while the cost of decontaminating Clark and Subic was estimated to be $1 billion, the US claimed to be exempt from any clean-up liabilities, and even refused to provide technical assistance and pertinent documents.

Germany’s tough environmental laws and strategic importance have ensured more favorable treatment thus far, but significant problems remain. In 1999, a US Department of Defense inspector general said base cleanup costs in Germany could total at least $1 billion.

Yet another black mark in the US environmental record abroad concerns toxic weaponry dumped on countries such as Afghanistan. Via independent monitoring of weapon types and delivery systems, the Uranium Medical Research Center (UMRC) indicated that “radioactive, toxic uranium alloys and hard-target uranium warheads were being used” by US-led coalition forces during 2001’s Operation Enduring Freedom. UMRC’s follow-up assessments of uranium contamination in Afghan civilians’ urine samples found “abnormally high levels of non-depleted uranium,” 400% to 2000% higher than normal population baselines.

Put bluntly, in addition to littering the Afghan countryside with cluster bombs and a seismic shock warheads, it appears US-led forces helped irradiate the local environment, with unspeakable civilian health implications.

Same story in Iraq. In the 1991 Gulf War, depleted uranium (DU) bullets and shells were widely used by US forces because of DU’s ability to cut through conventional armor plating on tanks. DU-weaponry burns upon contact, emitting radioactive dust which can then spread across a large region.

Experts at the Pentagon and the United Nations estimate that while 375 tons of DU were used in Iraq during the Gulf War, up to 2,200 tons of DU were dumped on the country by US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion. DU remains destructive for 4.5 billion years.

But military bases and the War on Terror and aren’t the only justifications given by the US for its assault on the global environment; its War on Drugs has dealt Mother Nature a separate death blow.

The White House has mandated a sharp increase in funding for aerial spraying of coca and opium poppy crops abroad, despite evidence that domestic drug treatment programs are 20 times more effective than eradicating drug supply at the source.

Aerial eradication, a process by which toxic herbicides are indiscriminately dumped from airplanes onto the land and water below, flies in the face of logic. A United Nations’ study, for example, found that coca cultivation in Colombia tripled between 1996 and 2001, despite nearly one million acres of Colombian land having been sprayed during that time.

More alarmingly, an herbicide commonly used in US-sponsored Colombian eradication programs is Roundup Ultra, a broad-spectrum Monsanto product which destroys food crops, water supplies and Amazonian bio-diversity along with the intended coca and poppy plants. According to its warning label, Roundup Ultra should not directly come into contact with bodies of water, people, grazing animals, and desired crops; regardless, the US is funding Colombia to spray such herbicides over hundreds of thousands of hectares each year.

The theme is clear: too often America’s War on Fill-in-the-Blank becomes a war on the environment, a trumped up justification to rape and pillage Mother Nature in the name of increased personal security.

And too often this approach backfires into a spiral of destruction and resentment.

It’s safe to say George W. Bush will not be invited back to Buckingham Palace anytime soon – consider that door slammed. Given the ongoing attacks on American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would appear US interests are not welcome there either. And it’s doubtful that aerial drug eradication in Latin America will lead to much else than hungry locals enraged at Yankee destruction of their habitat.

The White House has to learn that it’s impossible to secure a sustainably safe environment through the destruction of nature and endangerment of people abroad.