Sometimes the environmental costs of war go unrecognized. This doesn’t make them any less real.
The column of smoke from the burning trash pits at the U.S.-run Ballad Air Base in Iraq was, according to journalist Matthew LaPlante, “such an invariable part of the horizon that software engineers writing a program to help fighter pilots navigate their way to the base made it a central part of the digitally simulated skyline.” Other journalists have described how the fumes from burning trash settled over the Ballad air base like fog, and how soldiers would try to filter out some of the pollution by placing wet towels over air-conditioning intakes at night, which would turn black by the morning.
At the peak of its operation in 2007, up to 200 tons of garbage was burned in open-air pits or trenches each day at this base, including plastics, styrofoam, electronics, medical waste, unexploded weapons, and chemicals such as paint, solvents, and lubricants—all known to release toxic fumes when set on fire. But open-air burning wasn’t relegated to the Ballad Air Base. It was used by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) as its primary method of solid waste disposal throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002-2009, and at many bases it was used well beyond this time period. Because the average U.S. service member in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters produced on average eight to ten pounds of garbage per day, taken together this means that hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste were burned daily at U.S. bases at the high points of these wars.
Unsurprisingly, veterans returning home from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have fallen ill, and many have connected their sicknesses to breathing burn-pit fumes. Like sick soldiers home from other wars, they are demanding that policy-makers recognize their illnesses and give them fair treatment. And as with other recent wars, the question beckons, if soldiers were sickened from toxins in the course of their duty, what about the civilians who were also exposed?
If you spend any time reading about burn-pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll soon encounter news articles that feature the personal stories of soldiers that link cancers, respiratory diseases, and other chronic illnesses with exposure to burn pit-fumes. For instance, U.S. Army veteran Brandon Garrison—of Garden City, Kansas—told his local paper how he spent multiple deployments in Afghanistan working as a supply specialist. Part of his job was to take unserviceable equipment—including tires and auto parts filled with transmission and hydraulic fluid—to be dumped in burn pits. Garrison now reports suffering from nerve twitches, muscle weakness, fibromyalgia, and chronic prostatitis. He believes these conditions developed after he breathed fumes from the burning waste.
Stories Told…and Stories Missing
The Salt Lake Tribune told the story of Air Force Sergeant Anthony Roles, who went to Iraq healthy and “with no major problems whatsoever,” but was later diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder called polycythemia vera. He suffered a heart attack at the age of 30. Roles likewise says his health has suffered due to burn-pit pollution.
NBC News ran a story featuring New Mexico Air Guard Master Sergeant Jessey Baca, who at one time ran half-marathons, but no longer has energy to garden or wash a car because he has an advanced stage of constrictive bronchiolitis. Baca has been at the forefront of veterans’ efforts to achieve recognition, medical treatment, and compensation for sicknesses linked to burn-pit exposure. Recognition and compensation has not, so far, been forthcoming from the DoD or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is why the telling of these stories, and many like them from around the country, is so important. Burn-pit exposures have created what seems to be a quintessential example of contested environmental illness. Many important environmental illnesses aren’t initially recognized as such. When people get sick due to some kind of toxic exposure, public health officials often initially dismiss them, while doctors and scientists may not at first have the capacity to prove a causal relationship between pollution and disease.
When public health officials fail to acknowledge environmental illnesses, people suffering from toxic exposures often join together, share their stories, and ultimately achieve recognition and just treatment. The public telling of veterans’ stories linking otherwise unexplained chronic diseases to burn-pit pollution is one important step toward gaining official acknowledgement. But what’s troubling is that stories of Iraqi and Afghan civilians are not being included in these accounts. In my survey of mainstream U.S. newspapers and television news, I’ve found numerous stories focusing on the potential health impacts of U.S. soldiers, but I have not found a single narrative about civilian effects. In fact, only an extreme minority of these stories even mentions the possibility that Iraqis or Afghans might have been harmed too.
Certainly, though, if burn-pit pollution has harmed veterans, it’s likewise harmed civilians who lived nearby. Air pollution from U.S. bases would not stay behind the cement barricades and razor wire that partitioned these areas from the rest of the country. On the contrary, pollution would have moved outside the bases, settling over nearby homes, farmland, and rivers that provide drinking and irrigation water.
In the American imagination, current and former U.S. bases in Iraq or Afghanistan might be located in uninhabited wastelands. In reality many bases were/are located next to populated areas. U.S. military bases burned tons of waste in the open air every day right outside Iraq’s most populated cities of Baghdad and Mosul. Trash was also burned at Camp Leatherneck, just outside the city limits of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan, a city of 200,000 people. Numerous other bases in Iraq and Afghanistan were located in more rural areas, but hardly in the uninhabited dunescapes Americans might imagine. Often bases were located in the midst of irrigated farmland scattered with the homesteads of people who work the land. For instance, the former Balad Air Base in Iraq, which maintained the most notorious burn-pit from 2003 to at least 2009, is located within a mile of the Tigris River and is surrounded by farmland intermixed with rural homes.
It’s widely known that burning trash in the open air is hazardous. It’s for this reason that the open burning of household waste is banned by states and municipalities across the United States, and why the Environmental Protection Agency and most state-level environmental agencies have information on their websites warning that burning trash releases a whole host of harmful chemicals, including dioxin. Even miniscule amounts of this extremely dangerous substance can cause illnesses and reproductive problems.
The DoD and the VA now acknowledge that burn-pits might have been a contributing factor in some individual illnesses, but both departments continue to insist that there is no proof that burn pits posed a widespread public health risk. Both departments also point to the already poor air quality in some places in Iraq and Afghanistan, caused by blowing sand and dust along with a general lack of pollution controls, and say that it is impossible to know how much burn-pit emissions might have contributed—if there is any contribution at all—to veterans’ illnesses in relation to these other environmental factors.
Despite resistance from the DoD and the VA, veterans who link their illnesses to burn-pit emissions felt some hope in 2014 when the VA opened up a “burn-pit registry,” which was mandated by Congressional legislation to track the long-term health impacts of these emissions. Some veterans anticipate that this development, as in the case of veterans suffering from exposure to Agent Orange, will eventually lead to recognition and compensation for their losses.
The parallels between the experience of Agent Orange and the burn-pit controversy haven’t been lost on many veterans, reporters, and politicians. When awareness of possible illnesses due to burn-pit pollution was first building in 2009, a group of U.S. senators and representatives wrote to the Secretary of Defense. In their letter, they cited the history of Agent Orange when asking him to be “vigilant in monitoring and treating our veterans long after they have returned from the battlefield.” Later that year, President Obama pledged to veterans that he would not let burn-pit illnesses turn into another Agent Orange. Numerous national news stories have also made the connection. “NBC Nightly News,” for example, entitled a 2013 segment on the topic, “This Generation’s Agent Orange.” And Lieutenant Colonel Brian Bower, who believes his lung cancer is connected to burn-pit exposure, told “PBS NewsHour” that “the military response is very similar probably to Agent Orange, which was at first denial, assessment, acceptance of culpability, and treatment. We seem to be going through those same phases now.”
The comparison between burn-pit pollution and Agent Orange is inexact to be sure. While open-pit burning produced an extremely large amount of dangerous toxins, the ecological and human health impacts of Agent Orange were on an entirely different level. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government sprayed almost 20 million gallons of this and other dioxin-contaminated herbicides across South Vietnam in order to kill trees and other plants that might give enemies cover, and in so doing also sprayed people, crops, and water sources. Tens of thousands of people in Vietnam continue to suffer from the effects of this poison.
Despite the differences in scale, both burn-pits and Agent Orange share some similarities as causes of contested environmental illnesses. As Bower pointed out, in both cases the U.S. government at first denied that toxic exposures caused sicknesses and refused to compensate soldiers for their losses. Eventually, the U.S. government changed course for Vietnam War Veterans, even if only after a long political fight that left many sick veterans without compensation or adequate healthcare. Sick veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars hope that the U.S. government will make a similar change of course.
They were the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians who were also exposed. Agent Orange left a horrible legacy in Vietnam of cancers, other diseases, and birth defects. But the U.S. government—aside from starting to clean up one especially polluted spot at the Da Nang Airport—has never sought to aid Vietnamese civilians dealing with contamination, or to compensate those sickened by exposure. The question is, will the U.S. government similarly wash its hands of the pollution it caused during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, looking away even while civilians suffer from its lasting effects?
It is important to keep burn-pits within the context of the overall destruction of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. While U.S. military bases released very large quantities of toxic chemicals by burning their waste, this is hardly the most important environmental issue in Iraq and Afghanistan. The millions of refugees who fled their homes in both of these countries over the past decade and a half have sometimes lacked secure access to the most basic elements of the environment—food, water, and shelter—that make life possible. And even for many Iraqis and Afghans who are secure in their homes, years of conflict and underdevelopment have made clean water and sanitation unavailable.
Other less obvious environmental damages pose their own risks in these countries. For one, the U.S. government used a large amount of depleted uranium munitions in Iraq and, to a much lesser extent, Afghanistan. Depleted uranium is used in shells because it is significantly more dense than lead, making it more effective at penetrating armor and destroying tanks. While it is much less radioactive then naturally occurring uranium, it’s also not perfectly safe. Even low doses of radiation can cause health impacts. And depleted uranium, like lead and other very heavy metals, is also chemically toxic. When depleted uranium shells explode upon impact, or when they are left to degrade over time in the elements, small particles can travel through the air or into waterways, eventually ending up in people. The extent of any potential human health impacts from depleted uranium is not known. But it’s a risk that was imposed, mostly on Iraqis, without their awareness or consent. As such it is often pointed to as an unresolved environmental issue in that country.
The environmental impacts of war are real, even if they sometimes go unrecognized. We would do well to pay attention to this damage and to remember it when military and political leaders consider a new invasion. Our nation never came to terms with the environmental destruction of the Vietnam War. In the eventual aftermath of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we will have a new opportunity to acknowledge, and to work to remedy, new kinds of environmental harm. Maybe this time we will do a better job.
Eric Bonds is a peace and environmental activist and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Virginia ([email protected]).