The military and the environment

The two main threats to the survival and wellbeing of humankind and the biosphere – war and the environmental crisis – are usually considered separately. In fact, however, the two problems are closely connected: neither of them can be solved without at the same time tackling the other.

On the one hand, the environmental crisis generates conditions that make war more likely. Soil erosion, desertification, deforestation, acidification of the oceans and similar processes intensify competition for control over arable land, sources of freshwater, fishing grounds and other natural resources. Alternating flood and drought augment the flow of refugees. Cross-border impacts fuel new international tensions. 

On the other hand, war and other military activity – development, manufacture, testing and maintenance of weapons and equipment, military training, military games and exercises, disposal of waste – themselves make a major contribution to the environmental crisis. Danger and secrecy impede attempts to gauge this contribution and assessments of environmental issues usually ignore it. That is one of the main reasons why global heating is proceeding so much more rapidly than predicted. Even in peacetime, for example, the Department of Defense is the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the United States, causing CO2 emissions roughly equal to those of Denmark, but military emissions are excluded from international climate agreements.

War devastation

The list of countries and regions devastated by war is long and growing longer, from Congo and Libya to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, the Gaza Strip, Yemen and Kashmir. War devastation takes many forms. Some are well known – the bombed-out buildings, the piles of rubble, the landmines lying in wait for their victims. Less well known but no less noxious are the diverse forms of environmental devastation, including:

* toxic heavy metals (e.g., lead, tungsten, mercury, molybdenum, cadmium, cobalt) and white phosphorus deposited by bombing in the soil and the water supply, causing tumors, congenital deformities and other serious effects

* radiation from the depleted uranium (DU) used in manufacturing munitions, spreading cancer, cerebral palsy and other diseases (militaries like bullets made of DU fused with metal alloys because they are better at penetrating armour.)

* radiation and toxins released into the environment by the bombing of nuclear power stations and chemical plants

* urine and excrement in the streets and streams as a result of destruction of the sewage system

* oil pollution from damage to pipelines and refineries (Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait in 1991 torched 630 oil wells, turning the sea and sky black.)       

Nuclear war and nuclear winter

Even a ‘minor’ nuclear war would be an ecological disaster felt throughout the world. The best studied case is that of a ‘limited’ regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan in which 100 Hiroshima-sized warheads (less than half of these states’ nuclear arsenals) are detonated mainly over cities. Besides the 20 million projected short-term deaths and longer-term victims of radiation, such an exchange would inject up to 6.5 million tonnes of soot into the upper atmosphere, cooling the global climate for several years and reducing summer crop yields in various countries by 12-16 percent over a 10-year period.

In a full-scale nuclear war between Russia or China and the United States, direct casualties would of course be far higher and the amount of soot much greater. A prolonged ‘nuclear winter’ would ensue, leading to the extinction or near-extinction of Homo sapiens and other species (with the exception of primitive organisms in the deep ocean that do not need sunlight).

Routine activities

Even in times of peace the military does enormous harm to the environment in the course of its routine activities. Thus the Department of Defense is not only the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the United States, it is also the largest polluter, generating more toxic waste than the five biggest American chemical companies combined (according to an estimate made in the late 1980s – a tonne per minute).

Let us consider three specific activities: weapons testing, waste disposal and war games.

Weapons testing

Large tracts of land are devoted to weapons testing. For example, Jefferson Proving Grounds in Indiana, 250 square kilometers in area, is so badly contaminated that it has been cordoned off and abandoned.

Before 1963, when the Soviet Union, Britain and the US banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, these powers conducted a long series of tests of atomic and hydrogen bombs in Kazakhstan, the Australian outback and the Pacific islands, respectively, inflicting radiation sickness on the indigenous people of these areas, who were not evacuated or even warned but used as guinea pigs. China continued nuclear weapons testing at its site in Xinjiang until 1996.

Waste disposal

The manufacture and use of weapons generate a huge quantity of radioactive and toxic waste that somehow has to be disposed of. Often waste is just dumped into the sea. Much is stored in the ground under conditions that do not prevent leakage.

A 100-acre basin for the storage of military waste at Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Colorado has been called ‘the earth’s most toxic square mile’. However, there are probably sites in Russia that are no less toxic and perhaps even less safe, such as Kildin Island in the Barents Sea, home to used-up nuclear reactors and other parts of old nuclear submarines.

War games

War games and military exercises are a source of less drastic but still considerable environmental damage, both on land and at sea. Naval war games, for instance, poison or otherwise harm numerous species of fish, marine mammals and other sea life. The sensitive auditory systems of many whales and dolphins are injured by underwater sonar from submarines. Many non-marine species are also harmed by noise from military aircraft.

President Trump’s decision at his summit with Kim Jong Un to suspend the annual war games in South Korea is some small consolation.

Armaments manufacturing

Then there is the harm to the environment caused directly or indirectly by the process of manufacturing armaments. The production of explosives, for instance, requires toxic chemicals that leak into soil and groundwater.

A telling example of the complex interaction between war and environmental damage is provided by the mining, processing and use of rare metals and rare earth elements. Besides civilian applications, these substances are widely used in military electronic systems for guidance and control, targeting and communications as well as in jet engines. Their extraction causes severe pollution (see The Socialist Standard, MW, May 2011). Moreover, there is high potential for conflict over control of deposits, as in the war in eastern Congo – a rich source of the rare metals cassiterite and coltan (see The Socialist Standard, MW, January 2009).

Thus rare metals and rare earth elements are needed for use in war and war is waged to control them, while both their processing and their use in war cause great harm to the environment.   

One World

The problem of war and the environmental crisis will find their joint resolution – if, that is, they are to be resolved at all – in the creation of One World – an undivided global community. Material and human resources will no longer be wasted and destroyed in war. People will devote their energy and talents to repairing a poisoned planet and devising an ecologically sustainable way of life.


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