The Earth, Under Siege
As nations have begun to assemble ever more advanced systems of weaponry in a quest to ensure military
supremacy, the risk of catastrophic loss of life is constant- but this risk goes for beyond human populations. From
the gasses of World War I to the Agent Orange of Vietnam, the practice of war and its willingness to despoil
the environment has raised the question if it is truly possible to defend a nation while defending a planet.
(Photo Courtesy of Ronald Haeberle)
By Dr. Arthur Westing
As human numbers keep increasing - and with associated human needs and desires increasing even more rapidly - the impact of those increases on the global biosphere is becoming ever more worrisome and ever more urgently in need of amelioration. The civil sector of society accounts for a major part of that impact largely through the over-exploitation of the world's renewable natural resources (agricultural and rangeland soils, trees, ocean fishes, etc.) on the one hand, and through the discharge into the global atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for anthropogenic climate change (global warming, etc.) on the other. However, the military sector of society is also a substantial part of the problem, especially in wartime, but also in peacetime.
Regrettably, the pursuit of war remains one of the abiding characteristics of humankind. War is by its very nature and intent a deadly and destructive pastime. So it comes as no surprise that warfare inevitably leads to enemy fatalities (human, livestock, wildlife) as well as to disruption of the ground on which it is fought, whether urban/industrial, agricultural, or more or less natural. It is hoped that in highlighting those environmental impacts ways can be found to minimize them. This is a good time to do so since public awareness of the ever worsening environmental deterioration is spreading rapidly throughout the world.
The high-explosive munitions often employed so lavishly in modern times are in general aimed at enemy personnel and infrastructure, with the inevitable associated environmental damage for the most part unavoidable, and referred to by the military as collateral damage. Heavy off-road vehicles (tanks, trucks, etc.) lead to further local environmental disruption. Moreover, the "necessities" of war lead to environmental damage beyond the battlefield through the construction of base camps, fortifications, lines of communication, and so forth. Armed forces also place extended demands upon timber, food, and feed well beyond the actual war zones, with such increased exploitation inevitably subject to relaxed environmental safeguards and thus exacerbated environmental deterioration.
Armed forces expend huge amounts of fuel during peacetime and voracious levels during wartime, thereby contributing inordinately to the dangerously excess carbon dioxide being discharged into the atmosphere. Moreover, on the high seas, naval vessels are by international law and practice essentially exempt from the normal environmental restrictions that apply to merchant shipping, whether during wartime or peacetime. Pre-war (between-war) military activities such as the manufacture and testing of munitions as well as the disposal of obsolete ones, training exercises and maneuvers, and routine deployment and patrolling all lead to environmental disruption. Finally, displaced persons during and following a war often overload urban sanitation facilities in their own or neighboring states or else tend to do considerable environmental damage in and around rurally situated refugee centers.
Beyond the inevitable collateral environmental damage occurring during warfare outlined above, the pursuit of war may additionally involve the intentional decimation of field or forest as a specific means of denying an enemy the benefits of such central components of the environment. The benefits being denied the enemy might include access to water, to food, to feed, and to construction materials. Often even more important, the denied benefits could include denial of access to cover or sanctuary. These usually take the form of heavy and repeated bombing and shelling; incendiary attacks, site conditions permitting; the placement of mines or cluster-bomb submunitions, whether manually or by remote delivery; mechanical clearing with heavy tractors; or flooding. Indeed, all of these approaches have been employed in the past with greater or lesser military success.
The intentional disruption of the environment for military purposes is generally called environmental warfare, and is often accomplished through repeated and/or massive attacks upon the environment under siege. However, under certain circumstances the intended environmental attacks can be accomplished through a relatively minor expenditure of destructive energy that in turn leads to hugely successful military impact plus inevitably immense environmental damage. Such more "elegant" environmental warfare involving the release of so-called dangerous forces can be accomplished through the breaching of a dam or dike to produce massive flooding or the bombing of nuclear or chemical facilities to produce widespread release of noxious airborne substances.
The Second Indochina War of 1961-1975 provides a major example of intentional forest and agricultural destruction by US forces through massive chemical poisoning and equally massive bombing, and secondarily through tractor clearing - all carried out primarily in order to deny the enemy cover and sustenance. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 provides a major example of the intentional release into the terrestrial and marine environments by Iraqi forces of huge amounts of both liquid oil and smoke from burning oil, actions perpetrated primarily in order to harass and debilitate the enemy. The Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, World War II of 1939-1945, and the Korean War of 1950-1953, all provide major examples of intentional flooding of extraordinarily wide areas, the first by Chinese forces and the second two by US forces, and all primarily in order to destroy industrial and agricultural facilities or capabilities.
The employment of chemical, biological, or especially nuclear weapons - that particular group of weapons often collectively referred to as weapons of mass destruction, and their employment as "unconventional" warfare - can be extraordinarily destructive not only of enemy personnel and infrastructure, but also of the environment. Some major powers might argue that any resulting environmental devastation from the use of nuclear or other weapon of mass destruction would "merely" be an unintentional collateral effect. However, both the likelihood and likely severity of the environmental impact would not allow of such a disclaimer. That is to say, the employment of weapons of mass destruction is ipso facto a form of environmental warfare. World War I of 1914-1918 and the Second Indochina War of 1961-1975 provide major examples of the intensive use of chemical weapons - in the first instance by British, French, German, and US forces, primarily against enemy personnel, and secondarily against enemy livestock; and in the second instance by US forces, primarily against enemy trees and crops, and secondarily against enemy personnel.
For better or worse, the world is now divided into more than 190 sovereign states (sovereign nations). It has long been taken for granted that one of the central rights and obligations of each of those states is to prepare and provide for the security of its citizenry. Such national security has traditionally been interpreted to mean the state's obligation to protect its citizens both from domestic dangers to life and limb and from outside aggression, the former generally accomplished through a police force, and the latter through an army. However, especially since the end of World War II this circumscribed notion of a state's obligation to provide its inhabitants national military security has been slowly (and unevenly) expanding to additionally embrace the need for a state to provide its citizenry such newly recognized human rights as access to adequate space, food, housing, jobs, education, health care, old-age care, judicial recourse, and so forth. Provision for that cluster of human rights, referred to as national social security, has over the years been adopted little by little by a growing number of states as a legitimate extension or component of the national security it has long been tacitly obligated to provide, with the implicit understanding that the latter could not be achieved without the former.
In time, it has become ever more apparent that the attainment of national security requires more of a state than achieving a combination of military security and social security. As human numbers and their needs and desires have expanded in recent decades, the inexorable demands upon the national environment, the high seas, and the remainder of the global biosphere have become ever more problematic. It has thus become obvious that in order for a state to achieve national social security for its citizenry it must simultaneously achieve a sustainable natural resource base - that is to say, it becomes necessary to further expand the concept of national security to include as well environmental security. The achievement of environmental security is, of course, additionally necessitated in its own right in order to ensure the long-term well-being of the plants and animals with which we share this finite globe.
The necessary environmental security must rest on a firm basis of the sustainable exploitation of renewable natural resources and the frugal exploitation of the non-renewable ones. It must further rest unambiguously upon the sustainable discard of waste products (solid, liquid, and gaseous), upon the release of pollutants into the environment that pose no threat to human or animal (livestock, wildlife) health, and upon the setting aside as sacrosanct some modest fraction of the global biosphere (including representative areas of each major biome and adequate portions of the world's several major species hot spots). Moreover, it must soon become quite clear that for those states not able to provide their citizenry with environmental security on their own, they must be able to do so in cooperation with other states regionally or even further afield. This now all-encompassing national security that derives from an intertwined relationship among military security, social security, and environmental security has been referred to as comprehensive human security.
The global biosphere upon which all human and other life on earth ultimately depends is being ever more seriously over-utilized, both in terms of extractions and discharges - one poignant indication of such biospheric abuse being the increasing numbers of plant and animal extinctions. Achievement and subsequent long-term maintenance of environmental security is thus becoming an ever more elusive goal for most states and for the world at large. The military sector of society of necessity contributes to this dilemma, more or less in proportion to its contribution to a state's gross domestic product (GDP). During wartime - and there are always a dozen or more wars in progress throughout the world at any one time - the undermining of environmental security can become serious owing to the collateral environmental damage inflicted upon the environment from the conventional means of warfare alluded to above, such impact exacerbated by the truly profligate consumption of oil by armed forces. And the impact can become truly grievous when armed forces resort to means of environmental warfare.
It no longer seems necessary to alert the general public, nationally or internationally, or even many of the world's governments to the debilitating impact of global warming and other rapidly increasing assaults on the global biosphere - a biosphere on which we all depend for our day-to-day well-being and ultimate survival. However, what is still necessary is to make it eminently clear to all - to the citizenry, legislative bodies, governments, and armed forces - that environmental warfare should simply not be tolerated in the future to exacerbate this tragedy. To that end, there is the urgent need to find means to accomplish this formidable challenge.
Dr. Arthur Westing is a forest ecologist who has long studied the military's impact on the environment. He was instrumental in calling for the end of military use of pesticides during the Vietnam War. He is a United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Laureate.