Militarism, Torture … and Air Conditioning?


Two days before Earth Day 2010, the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate released a report on efforts by the U.S. military to “reduce dependence on fossil fuels and cut global warming pollution by enhancing energy efficiency and harnessing clean energy technologies.”

The Navy, in one of Pew’s examples, “is developing a ‘green’ carrier strike group to run completely on alternative fuels by 2016.” And they scheduled an Earth Day demonstration of “the ‘Green Hornet’, an F/A-18 Super Hornet powered by a 50/50 biofuel blend.” [1]

That as much as anything reveals the shallowness of America’s reaction to the many environmental crises we face. Were our society actually interested in becoming more ecologically sound, we could make immediate, long strides simply by eliminating those activities that are most dangerous and destructive in their own right, starting with the bloated war-making apparatus. To attempt instead a “greening” of the U.S. military-industrial complex will only boost its killing power.

The technology of destruction can’t be tamed by laying improved environmental technology over the top of it. An instructive if unlikely example is provided by that most routine of technologies, air-conditioning, and the role it plays in military conquest.

The rise of the “Gunbelt”

The southern and western states have long been favored as sites for military bases, and those states also form what University of Minnesota professor Ann Markusen once termed the nation’s “Gunbelt” [2]. In that region, the value of prime defense contracts swelled by 70 to 100 percent in real terms from the 1950s to the 1980s, going into the Reagan military buildup. Meanwhile, military contracts in the once-dominant mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions fell off sharply, and those on the Pacific coast stayed level. The Sun Belt/Gunbelt went on to become the top supplier of both troops and armaments for the wars of the 1990s and 2000s.

The rise of the Gunbelt was part of a more sweeping economic transformation of the South that came in the age of air-conditioning.   In his classic 1984 paper on air-conditioning’s role in helping create the New South, University of South Florida historian Raymond Arsenault showed how the region’s industrial boom would not have occurred without the growing availability of air-conditioning and the energy to run it. Arsenault concluded that  “General Electric has proved a more devastating invader than General Sherman.” [3] In the quarter-century since he wrote that, the Sun Belt’s share of industrial power, both civilian and military, has continued to grow in parallel with the expansion of indoor climate control.

Americans who have fought and died in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have come disproportionately from the hometowns and military bases of the Sun Belt. Soldiers from the South may have grown up in a hot climate, but since the 1960s, America’s foreign adventures have taken them into some truly torrid climates. For the most part, they had to simply endure the heat and humidity of Indochina four decades ago. But the twenty-first-century wars in Southwest Asia have been the most heavily air-conditioned in history.

Air-conditioning goes to war

In the summer of 2008, Reuters reported on the innumerable tankloads of diesel fuel that the US military was hauling daily by road to forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of that fuel, fully 85 percent was going to power air conditioning systems via generators. [4]  Air-conditioning the thousands of tents in which many of the troops sleep is not exactly an efficient use of fuel, so the Army has experimented with spray-on foam insulation.

Bases run by the occupying armies feature not only air-conditioned housing but also a full range of other climate-controlled facilities. Here is a partial list, compiled by Global Policy Forum, from three bases:

“In addition to four mess halls and a big sports facility, Balad boasts two huge “post exchange” department stores and several fast food restaurants including a 24-hour Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Starbucks knockoff called “Green Beans,” and Baskin Robbins ice cream outlets as well as a miniature golf course. Al-Asad has a football field, a Hertz Rent-a-Car office, an internet café, an indoor swimming pool, a movie theater showing the latest releases and even an automobile dealership. It also has a Burger King, a Pizza Hut and other fast food stores. Victory/Liberty likewise has fast-food outlets, an elaborate gymnasium/sports facility, and Iraq ‘s largest “post exchange” department store. Local troops receive more modest accommodations. Construction began in 2009 of a new, heavily fortified forward operating base at Qaleh-ye Now in western Afghanistan. The $10-million-plus facility will be home to 600 Afghan soldiers, a 25-member U.S. training team, and up to 25 interpreters. The Afghan soldiers’ quarters will feature ceiling fans, while the trainers and interpreters will enjoy air conditioning.” [5]

The huge front-line demand for fuel to run cooling equipment has created long, vulnerable supply lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, prompting the Pentagon to implement new energy-saving policies such as those publicized by Pew. Reports the Wall Street Journal, “If it comes to pass, the Army’s planned shift away from massive, gas-guzzling supply lines carrying all kinds of luxuries to the front could herald a break with more than a half-century of U.S. military logistical doctrine.” [6]

Most urban Iraqis, meanwhile, have had to “go green” involuntarily since 2003, sharply reducing their energy and water consumption simply because of breakdowns in the systems. After enjoying a rising standard of living in the 1980s and 90s, they lost regular utility services, and many have completely lost their homes. To journalist Nir Rosen, the terrible plight and curious living quarters of one man he met in 2009 encapsulated the situation faced by the country’s 2.7 million internal refugees:

“I saw in southern Baghdad, on basically a vast pile of mud and sewage, a man had built a home entirely out of air conditioners. He piled air conditioners three high and built walls and threw on a tarp over it, and that was his home. It’s almost impossible to breathe when you visit many of these people, because the stench of the sewage and garbage is so strong. They have little access to healthcare, to schools. Their life is really miserable and desperate.” [7]

An instrument of torture

Among the many haunting images to come out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were photos of Military Police Specialists Sabrina Harman and Charles Graner smiling and posing with a dead man packed in ice. Manadel al-Jamadi had been tortured to death by his CIA interrogators, who then kept his corpse chilled until it could be removed from the site (with an intravenous drip in his arm to fool other prisoners into believing he was alive.) But many other detainees were very much alive when they were administered the cold treatment.

The US Army Field Manual, last updated in 2006, forbids “inducing hypothermia” as a means of torture. But a secret 2007 report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), leaked in 2009, scrutinized the treatment of “high value detainees” held by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and it shows that the CIA did not recognize the military’s restrictions as valid. ICRC charged, “Detainees frequently reported that they were held for their initial months of detention in cells which were kept extremely cold, usually at the same time as being kept forcibly naked. The actual interrogation room was often reported to be kept cold.” [8]

Overchilling was thought to enhance the effects of other “enhanced techniques” such as waterboarding. From 2002 through 2008, as first-hand accounts of detainees’ treatment trickled out of Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo, and other less well-publicized scenes of horror, the over-chilling of cells and interrogation rooms was repeatedly employed as a technique of “persuasion.”

One of the more well-known prisoners, alleged Osama bin Laden associate Abu Zubaydah, testified that in 2002 he was held for an extended period in, of all places, Thailand. He was kept naked, with no blanket, in a bare room that was “air-conditioned and very cold.” One US official said Zubaydah would appear to “turn blue.” [8]

Second-generation Briton Moazzam Begg was captured in Pakistan in 2002, accused by the United States of being an enemy combatant, and taken to Bagram and then to Guantanamo. Begg—who was never charged with any crime and was eventually released—reports being kept in an outrageously air-conditioned cell with only a thin plastic sheet to fend off the cold. An FBI official reported visiting another Guantanamo detainee who was kept barefoot and shivering under intense air conditioning one day and in 100° temperatures with no ventilation the next. [8].

Mohammed al-Qahtani, was accused of having planned to serve as a twentieth 9/11 hijacker. He had been refused entry to the United States in August 2001 and was later captured in Afghanistan. This shocking account of treatment he received is based on a late 2002-early 2003 Army interrogation log from Guantanamo Bay:

“For eleven days, beginning November 23, al-Qahtani was interrogated for twenty hours each day by interrogators working in shifts. He was kept awake with music, yelling, loud, white noise, or brief opportunities to stand. He was then subjected to eighty hours of nearly continuous interrogation until what was intended to be a 24-hour “recuperation.” This recuperation was entirely occupied by a hospitalization for hypothermia that had resulted from deliberately abusive use of an air conditioner. Army investigators reported that al-Qahtani’s body temperature had cooled to 95 to 97 degrees Fahrenheit and that his heart rate had slowed to thirty-five beats per minute . . . The prisoner slept through most of the 42-hour hospitalization after which he was hooded, shackled, put on a litter and taken by ambulance to an interrogation room for twelve more days of interrogation, punctuated by a few brief naps. These and other instances of abusive chilling were within Army guidelines (“cooling with an air conditioner was authorized ‘environmental manipulation’”) and usually supervised by physicians.” [9]

A 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report, made public the following spring, traced the origins of some previously outlawed interrogation techniques to a course called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Evasion (SERE) that is taught to the US military’s special forces. SERE exposes US personnel to the kinds of abuse and torture, including hypothermia, that American troops suffered at the hands of North Korean and Chinese forces during the Korean War. The program is meant to teach techniques for withstanding such treatment.

Frustrated over their inability to extract useful information from detainees captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere, US interrogators turned SERE inside-out. According to the Senate committee, the lessons in how to survive torture provided what military officials referred to as a “skill set” for administering the same techniques. [10]. That “skill set” included the induction of hypothermia; here is the US Navy’s description of how cold can cause death:

“Symptoms of hypothermia begin subtly with fatigue and loss of concentration. Ataxia [failure of muscle coordination], impaired judgment, oliguria [low urine production], and slight confusion may be subtle symptoms but may progress to stupor, coma, and resemble rigor mortis . . . The most important differential diagnosis is death; patients who are cold and could be resuscitated must be differentiated from patients who are cold because they are dead.” [11].

Of the ninety-eight detainees who died in US custody in 2002-06 [12] , it is not known for how many hypothermia was a contributing factor.

The American way of life

Am I being unfair here? Is it going one step too far to tag as mundane a device as the air conditioner with the stigma of militarism and torture? Before answering, recall that the two major wars this country fought in the past 20 years were, not coincidentally, fought in a region that has the greatest concentration of oil and natural gas on the planet and is crisscrossed with key pipelines. Only a tiny share of the gas and fuel oil, and none of the coal, that powers America’s residential and commercial air-conditioning comes directly from Southwest Asia. But summer climate control is one of the fastest-growing contributors to our growing overall energy hunger, a hunger that has pushed us into military crusades for control of global resources.

Buoyed by his 1991 victory over Iraq, President George H.W. Bush informed the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that the “American way of life is not negotiable.” [13] Writing at about the same time and employing another vivid image used by Bush in the run up to that war, Cambridge professor Gwyn Prins put the situation this way: “Americans (and the rest of us) need to know where they ‘draw the line in the sand’ to defend their perception of the irreducible minimum requirement of energy to sustain ‘normality’ in the Republic. At  present, air conditioning composes a significant portion of that felt need.” [14]

In the eighteen years since Prins wrote those words, energy use for residential air-conditioning in the United States has more than doubled, despite a 28-percent increase in efficiency of air conditioners. [15] The total military budget has more than doubled as well. Tinkering with technology will do nothing to reverse environmental destruction as long as trends like those continue.

STAN COX’s book Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (And Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer) will be published in June by The New Press. Contact him at t.stan@cox.net.


1. “Pew Study: Department of Defense Embracing Clean Energy,” April 20, 2010.

2. Ann Markusen, The Rise of the Gunbelt: The Military Remapping of Industrial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

3. Raymond Arsenault, “The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture,” Journal of Southern History 50 (1984), 597-628. See http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change%20F03/AC.pdf

4. Deborah Zaborenko, “U.S. Army Works to Cut its Carbon ‘Bootprint,’ Reuters, 27 July 2008.

5.  Global Policy Forum, “War and Occupation in Iraq,” June 2007, http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/168/37163.html. See also Graeme Wood, “An Air-Conditioned Nightmare,” The Atlantic, 14 August 2008.

6. Keith Johnson, “Army Green: U.S. Military Gunning To Curb Carbon ‘Bootprint’,” Wall Street Journal blogs, 28 July 2008, http://blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2008/07/28

7. Nir Rosen interview by Juan Gonzales and Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, 9 April 2009.

8. The report was published online (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22614) by the New York Review of Books as an appendix to Mark Danner, “The Red Cross Torture Report: What It Means,” 30 April 2009.

9. Steven Miles, “Medical ethics and the interrogation of Guantanamo 063,” The American Journal of Bioethics 7(2007): 5–11.

10. Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, “Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” 30 November 2008, http://armed-services.senate.gov/Publications/Detainee Report Final_April 22 2009.pdf

11. “Prevention and Treatment of Heat and Cold Stress Injuries,” US Navy Environmental Health Center, Technical Manual NEHC-TM-OEM 6260.6A, June 2007.

12. Hina Shamsi, Command’s Responsibility: Detainee Deaths in U.S. Custody in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York: Human Rights First, 2006).

13. Jack Beatty, “Playing Politics with the Planet,” Atlantic Unbound, 14 April 1999, http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/polipro/pp9904.htm

14.  Gwyn Prins, “On Condis and Coolth,” Energy and Buildings 18 (1992), 251–58.

15. See Chapter 2 of STAN COX, Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World, to be published in June by The new Press.




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Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is an editor at Green Social Thought, where this article first ran. He is author of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing and, with Paul Cox, of How the World Breaks: Life in Catastrophe’s Path, From the Caribbean to Siberia

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