Alameda, California was once home to one of the largest Naval Air Stations in the world with 271 separate and distinct trades to manufacture and repair every part of any aircraft. Vast quantities of chemicals went into this work including solvents, aviation fuel, and radium-based paints for cockpit dials. Leaks and spills were as common as they are in any operation of this magnitude. Rags, brushes, and cleaning supplies were regularly replaced, the worn-out burned in pits located at the northern tip of the naval base. Enough chemicals were mishandled or leaked out of containers and sewer pipes that the former base is, today, a Superfund site.
As I inch my way through the mountain of documents the Navy amasses as it cleans up the relatively manageable contamination in my home town, I encounter a theme that echoes in my other research into our military, the military mindset, and the effects of militarism: a tendency to under-report, minimize, even deny, “occupational” hazards. It crops up in military documentation, out of the mouths of military spokespeople, and is supported by the the national defense – and homeland security – industries that support and benefit from it.
There are more than 40,000 toxic sites in the U.S. and its territories… approximately 1,000 of which are on the National Priority List, and for which Federal cleanup funding is forthcoming. Certainly the financial costs of cleanup are considerable. But what of the moral and ethical cost? Just as each tax-paying American is implicated in the wars our country wages, so too are we implicated in the human and environmental damage.
Is the damage the U.S. military has caused here and abroad worth the material benefit the U.S. derives?
The more things change…
Vietnam. This year, as they did last year, and for several years before that, delegates from Vietnam came to the U.S. to plead their case and to raise awareness about their countrymen who continue to suffer the consequences of dioxin-laden Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. Air Force.
During the conflict in Vietnam, the U.S. military denied food and protection to those deemed to be “the enemy” and contracted with over 30 U.S. chemical firms to supply chemicals to defoliate Vietnam’s forests. The most lethal chemical, Agent Orange, was contaminated with trace amounts of TCDD dioxin – the most toxic chemical known to science – which disabled and sickened soldiers, civilians and several generations of offspring on two continents.
Medical evidence indicates that cancers such as soft tissue non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, type II diabetes, and spina bifida and other birth defects in children are attributable to this exposure.
Vietnam’s victims of Agent Orange, 2007. Photo: Merle Ratner, Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign
Surviving American veterans of Vietnam finally achieved limited compensation from the U.S. Government for some illnesses they suffer due to the poisons. The Vietnamese have received nothing. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently refused to review the dismissal of the lawsuit of more than three million Vietnamese against 37 companies that manufactured this chemical weapon.
Attorney for the Vietnamese plaintiffs, Jonathan C. Moore, states,“It is unfortunate that U.S. courts have chosen, contrary to U.S. and international law, to deny justice to millions of Vietnamese who suffer from the spraying of dioxin-laden Agent Orange which has left several generations of victims severely sick and disabled.”
These ailments and deformities are significant, sobering, and heartbreaking…made worse because affected families are physically unable to work and generate an income. Moreover, the chemicals continue to affect Vietnam’s natural environment and destroy its mangrove forests, soil, and crops.
Dr. James R. Clary, a senior scientist at the Chemical Weapons Branch (the Air Force Armament Development Lab based in Florida at that time), wrote:
When we initiated the herbicide program in the 1960s, we were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the military formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the civilian version due to the lower cost and speed of manufacture. However, because the material was to be used on the enemy, none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide. And, if we had [considered this scenario], we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.
This scientist’s naive candor is refreshing. If he was working in today’s military, he’d probably lose his job.
…the more they stay the same?
Iraq. Balad Airbase, 68 kilometers north of Baghdad and east of Fallujah, is one of the largest bases housing about 25,000 U.S. military personnel and several thousand contractors.
In June 2008 it had three clean-burning incinerators handling about 120 tons of waste each day. Additionally, the burn pit consumes 147 tons of waste per day: styrofoam, unexploded ordnance, petroleum products, plastics, rubber, dining facility trash, paint and solvents, and medical waste that – according to those performing the burns – includes amputated limbs.
This concoction is set alight with jet fuel, a substance that releases chemicals known to increase the risk of leukemia. Just burning plastic water bottles creates elevated levels of highly toxic dioxins, which can contaminate food chains by landing on plants that are consumed by animals and accumulate in fatty tissue.
A plume of black, tacky smoke hangs over the region when waste is burned. Air Force Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, former bioenvironmental flight commander for Joint Base Balad, wrote in a memo dated Dec. 20, 2006:
“In my professional opinion, there is an acute health hazard for individuals. It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years. There is also the possibility for chronic health hazards associated with the smoke.”
In June 2009 three military servicemen from Charleston filed a class-action lawsuit against Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR). The lawsuit alleges that KBR burned hazardous waste in Iraq and Afghanistan that included human corpses, biohazardous medical supplies, styrofoam, tires, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, paint, and items containing pesticides and latrine waste.
A mother in Baghdad’s Al Mansour Hospital’s pediatric oncology ward. Her child suffers from a cancer rarely seen in children. Photo: SUSAN GALLEYMORE, 2004.
Since then dozens of U.S. military personnel have filed 34 lawsuits against KBR for allegedly incinerating toxic waste and releasing it into the atmosphere in Iraq and Afghanistan. A KBR spokeswoman responded via email that the “general assertion that KBR knowingly harmed troops is unfounded.” KBR, she says, did not operate most of Balad’s burn pit, and that the others are operated at the direction of the military.
According to the June 12, 2009 Post and Courier article, “Burn pit caused injuries, suit says: Disposal of toxic wastes improper, servicemen claim,” there is also an Iraqi-run recycling center on the Balad base. Iraqis sort through recyclables tossed into the burn pit ? such as the roughly 90,000 aluminum cans produced daily by the base ? and resell them on the local market.
Are emissions from these burn pits and material from the recycling center simply adding to the toxic cocktail already flooding Iraq?
Fallujah’s hospitals are experiencing a wave of newborns with chronic deformities and early life cancers. Dr Bassam Allah, the head of the Fallujah’s children’s ward, urges international experts to take soil samples across the region, and for scientists to mount an investigation into the causes of so many ailments. “Such abnormalities,” he says are “acquired” by mothers before or during pregnancy.
The UK Guardian reports that Fallujah’s doctors, “are dealing with up to 15 times as many chronic deformities that may be linked to toxic materials left over from the fighting….from two [hospital] admissions a fortnight a year ago to two a day now.” Most deformities are in the head and spinal cord…. and “there is also a very marked increase in the number of cases of [children] less than two years [old] with brain tumours.”
Pediatrician Samira Abdul Ghani’s kept detailed records over a three-week period and revealed 37 babies born with anomalies, many of them neural tube defects that result in brain matter found in the spine and dysfunctional lower limbs.
Abnormal clusters of infant tumors have also been cited in Basra and Najaf – areas that have in the past also been intense battle zones where modern munitions have been heavily used.
Baghdad’s hospitals sees young children with rare cancers too. I visited Al Mansour’s pediatric oncology ward in January 2004. Mothers nursed children with leukemias, neuroblastomas, non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and other cancers rarely seen in young children. Iraqi parents were selling their cars, houses, and other possessions to pay for chemotherapy whose medicines the U.S. refused to supply because, it was claimed, they were potential ingredients in the manufacture of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Doctors in Fallujah repeat what I heard from doctors in Baghdad: they are reluctant to draw direct links with war zone chemical pollutants. “We simply don’t have the answers yet….We need funds to conduct scientifically accurate studies.”
Baghdad’s babies were not, of course, victims of the May and November 2004 battles in Falluja. Are they victims of the economic sanctions of the 1990s? Or victims of pollutants from U.S.’s ongoing bombing raids over the no-fly-zones during the same period? Or victims of airborne pollutants from burning oil during Gulf War I ? U.S. troops continue to suffer Gulf War Syndrome so why would the region’s children be immune? Iraqis have better luck receiving compensation for their enormous health disasters than the Vietnamese have had? Or will their plight be similar to that of the Vietnamese and unacknowledged in the furor over American troop exposure? What about Kuwait? And Bosnia? And Gaza? And Afghanistan?
For more than eight years the U.S. Government has maintained the fallacy that bombarding Afghanistan is necessary, that that is a “righteous” war against terrorism. The lawsuit against KBR includes burn pits in Afghanistan and it is a matter of time before the world is aware of the affects on troops and civilians there. It is likely that the wave of deformities in Afghan newborns will go undetected for a longer period than they took to crest in Iraq since many Afghan babies are born at home and in remote regions. A new study by the U.S.-based independent charity Save the Children says 60 out of every 1,000 Afghan babies die; this is already one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
When I began researching the military mindset I held that large institutions are inherently chaotic, that administrating millions of acres of military real estate around the world and the personnel occupying it – and their supply chains – results in inevitable errors, and that those responsible for public coffers would, occasionally, makes egregious mistakes that they’d want to hide. But, we the people, can no longer sustain this mindset and culture. We, the people, have reached the cul de sac of our “westward expansion.” We have nowhere else to go. We must turn around and face…ourselves…. We must begin the real work of recognizing our complex mutual humanity and interdependence…and cop to our innate glory…and vainglory, intoxication with self, denial, egotism, and our less-than-perfect traits that cross political boundaries. As we recognize the incontrovertible evidence in the arc of degradation that is war we must accept our responsibility for it…and ensure we no longer contaminate our world or its people.
SUSAN GALLEYMORE is author of Long Time Passing: Mothers Speak about War and Terror, host of Stanford University’s Raising Sand Radio, and a former “military mom” and GI Rights Counselor. Contact her at email@example.com.