While Memorial Day officially commemorates U.S. soldiers who have died during military service, it should also serve as a reminder of the ravages of war more broadly—not only in terms of lost human lives, but also for its devastating ecological impacts.
Here in the United States, one rarely hears of the everyday environmental damage related to U.S. wars and militarism. Indeed, it is far more common to learn of the Pentagon’s efforts to “go green.” The subtitle of a 2010 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, for instance, characterizes the Pentagon as “stepping forward to combat climate change.” Meanwhile, President Obama recently extolled the military’s endeavors to reduce its fuel consumption via biofuel-using technologies, specifically the Navy’s FA/18 fighter jet, nicknamed the Green Hornet due to its putative eco credentials, and the Marine Corp’s Light Armored Vehicle.
Such “greenwashing” masks the fact that the U.S. military is the world’s single biggest consumer of fossil fuels, and the single entity most responsible for destabilizing the Earth’s climate. Devouring about 330,000 barrels per day (a barrel has 42 gallons), the U.S. military would be ranked number 37 in terms of oil consumption if it were a nation-state—ahead of countries such as the Philippines, Portugal, and Nigeria—according to the CIA Factbook.
And although much of the military’s technology has become far more fuel-efficient over the last few decades, the amount of oil consumed per soldier per day in war-time has increased by 175 percent since Vietnam, given the Pentagon’s increasing use and number of motorized vehicles. A 2010 study by Deloitte, the financial services company, reports that the Pentagon uses 22 gallons of oil per soldier deployed in its wars, a figure that is expected to grow 1.5 percent annually though 2017.
The worst offender is the Air Force, which consumes 2.5 billion gallons of aviation fuel a year, and accounts for more than half of the Pentagon’s energy use. Under normal flight conditions, a F-16 fighter jet burns up to 2,000 gallons of fuel per flight hour. The resulting detrimental impact on the Earth’s climate system is much greater per mile traveled than motorized ground transport due to the height at which planes fly combined with the mixture of gases and particles they emit.
Among the ironies of all this, given that a central goal of U.S. military strategy is to ensure the flow of oil to the United States (a policy known as the Carter Doctrine), is that the Pentagon’s voracious appetite for energy helps to justify its very existence and seemingly never-ending growth. Engaged in multiple wars, and with a network of hundreds of military bases around the world and dozens more in the United States, the Pentagon’s budget is now roughly the equivalent of all of the rest of the world’s militaries combined.
In a direct sense, war and militarism produce landscapes and ecosystems of violence. In Laos, unexploded ordnance from Washington’s illegal and covert bombing litters the countryside, and has killed and maimed thousands since the war’s end, and continues to do so at the rate of almost one person per day. In Vietnam, about 500,000 Vietnamese children have been born since the mid-1970s with birth defects believed to be related to the defoliant Agent Orange that the Pentagon dumped on the country.
Beyond countries directly targeted by war, the ill effects of military consumption of environmental resources do not respect territorial boundaries. They exacerbate a growing environmental crisis on a global scale. From the degradation of the world’s oceans, to a steep decline in biodiversity and intensifying climate destabilization, war and militarism threaten humanity and life more broadly in unprecedented ways.
On Memorial Day, let us remember all those who have died while serving in the military—as well as those killed and maimed by war. But let us also reflect upon the environmental ravages brought about by war and militarism. More important, let us dedicate ourselves to ending them. More than ever, humanity—and Mother Earth—can no long afford them.
Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Among his books is "Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid" (City Lights Books).