Painfully aware that the internet now delivers the carnage of war onto our screens in real time, the US military has made a concerted effort to redefine itself as a “helping” force, offering disaster relief and defending the weak and vulnerable. Increasingly, this includes protecting the environment.
By rebranding itself as a guardian of nature, the military improves its own public image and achieves a veneer of unassailability while bolstering its primary mission, which is, of course, the ability to wage war. In reality, war’s brutal and merciless goal of domination and control is the furthest thing imaginable from nurturing or preservation.
“The number one priority of the Army is readiness. We have to be ready for war,” said Dr. Christine Altendorf, director of the Pacific Region US Army Installation Management Command. “Readiness requires training, and training requires environmental stewardship, which goes hand in hand. Sustaining the ability to train requires protecting the environment.”
Altendorf was speaking on September 5 in Honolulu, Hawaii, at a panel discussion hosted by the US State Department entitled “Department of Defense Conservation: A Good News Story.” The event was held at the US Pavilion of the World Conservation Congress (WCC), a gathering organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This year’s WCC, attended by over 10,000 conservationists, scientists, government leaders, NGOs and members of civil society from 192 countries, also included representatives of the Army, Navy and Air Force who were eager to talk about caring for the natural world.
A Good News Story
With more than 12.4 million acres of Army-controlled land that, according to Altendorf, include 156 installations, 1.3 million acres of wetlands, over 82,000 archaeological sites, 109 Native American sacred sites and 223 endangered species, there’s plenty of environment for the Army to protect.
Altendorf said the US Army spends between $1 billion and $1.5 billion annually for renewable energy, water and waste programs, as well as the cleanup of former Department of Defense sites. The impact of the US military can be found in places like South Korea; Okinawa, Japan; Guam; the Philippines; the Marshall Islands and Hawaii, where contamination from fuel spills, chemical weapons, depleted uranium, unexploded ordnance and bomb blast craters have become part of the landscape.
The day before the opening of the WCC, as President Obama arrived in Honolulu to speak to Pacific Island nation leaders about the expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, protesters demonstrated on the campus of the University of Hawaii against issues ranging from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to military testing and live-fire training. When Obama spoke about the world’s largest protected marine area, he did not mention the broad exemptions for the military to operate within the newly expanded conservation area in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The Elephant in the Room
The WCC offered a dizzying array of more than 1,300 panel discussions, workshops, meetings, talks and exhibitions considering everything from the Amazon rainforests and biocultural conservation to world heritage and zoos, but there was very little discussion of how militarism, conflict and war impact nature and people.
When asked whether the WCC is an appropriate venue for discussing the environmental impacts of the military, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told Truthout, “Of course it’s relevant because a lot of the bases are really polluting. These are the ones that are causing heavy metal, toxic poisoning and all that. But I’m not sure that IUCN is dealing with this issue at all.”
In 2012, when the WCC convened on South Korea’s Jeju Island, environmental and human rights defenders were angered as the IUCN met just miles from where South Korean police were arresting protesters trying to stop the construction of a large naval base, which opponents said was being built at the expense of the environment and the island’s culture.
Retired US Army Colonel and diplomat Ann Wright attended this year’s WCC and told Truthout that it is crucial to address the destructive effects of military operations on nature.
“The heavy funding the IUCN gets from governments is undoubtedly the rationale for not addressing this ‘elephant in the room’ in a conference for the protection of the endangered planet — a tragic commentary on a powerful organization that should acknowledge all pressures on the planet,” Wright said.
Why Do We Care?
Also talking up Department of Defense conservation was Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy Miranda Ballentine, who spoke of a “good news/bad news story.”
“Essentially, what we’ve done is built perfect islands of habitat within the [military base] fence line,” Ballentine said. This limits the range of threatened and endangered species, which “could encroach on the military mission.” For this reason, she said it’s important to expand conservation efforts beyond the base with the goal of “protecting a species from a landscape perspective and enhancing the military mission.”
Spanning 9 million acres globally with 115 species documented among 161 installations and 44 range complexes, threatened and endangered species on Defense Department land, Ballentine said, are five times denser than on US Fish and Wildlife Service land.
“Why do we care about conservation on military bases?” Ballentine asked. “It comes down to natural infrastructure. Just like we invest in our built infrastructure, we invest, protect and conserve our natural infrastructure [which] provides services back to us as human beings.”
Need for a Critical Space
Among those challenging the military’s environmental claims at the WCC were Okinawan and Japanese delegates who ran a booth sharing information about how the forced construction of a new US Marine air base on reclaimed land at Cape Henoko in northern Okinawa threatens coral, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems and tramples human rights.
The outspoken mayor of Okinawa’s Nago city, Susumu Inamine, came to the WCC to present Okinawa’s case against a plan that would require dumping 21 million cubic meters of sand and dirt imported from seven Japanese locations into Oura Bay to reclaim land for the proposed base. The bay is recognized by environmental and scientific organizations as one of the most biologically rich marine environments in East Asia.
Hideki Yoshikawa — the international director of the Save the Dugong Campaign Center, an NGO seeking to protect a vulnerable sea mammal threatened by the planned construction — is working with Okinawan officials to challenge a Japanese government environmental impact assessment. Yoshikawa is also petitioning the IUCN to take a stronger position on the Henoko base. “The IUCN needs to create a critical space in which the environmental impacts of war, military exercises and [bases] are seriously discussed,” Yoshikawa told Truthout.
Dr. Mariko Abe, a coral reef biologist with the Nature Conservation Society of Japan has been monitoring Okinawa’s coral reefs since 1998. Her organization has been petitioning the IUCN to issue recommendations in support of dugong conservation since 2000. Abe explained that the land reclamation project threatens to introduce invasive species and would irreversibly alter the biodiverse bay, which is home to at least 34 noteworthy recently reported species and 262 threatened and endangered marine species.
Abe said support for conservation work should go directly to scientists rather than be routed through the military.
Professor John Knox, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, said military base construction and associated activities should be held to the same requirements under human rights laws as other potentially environmentally damaging enterprises, such as extractive industries like mining, oil and timber. This should include fully informed participation by affected local people, participation in decision-making, remedies for violations and the ability to exercise rights of free expression and association. “You should absolutely be able to protest and get together with other people to protest and not worry about being thrown in jail as long as you do it peacefully,” Knox said.
Our Mission Is Clear
In keeping with its slogan, “Stewards of the Sea: Defending Freedom. Protecting the Environment,” Rear Admiral John W. Korka said the Navy’s mission is clear: “We have a global presence to project power from the sea and at sea, to preserve our freedom of the United States. But we also value trust and have a responsibility to preserve our environment through good stewardship.”
That mission includes training exercises in over 4.4 million square miles of sea and along 500 miles of coastline where 70 global naval installations serve as launching platforms to deploy military forces. Korka said the Navy spends some $30 million a year for marine mammal protection programs.
He described monitoring marine mammals, turtles, seabirds and invertebrates using sophisticated underwater acoustic technology and satellite tracking systems to determine the impacts of naval activities. In July 2016, the Ninth Circuit court ordered the Navy to limit its use of long-range sonar, which could severely harm marine mammals.
Korka also spoke of a program to relocate Laysan albatrosses and their eggs from their chosen nesting site near a runway at Kauai’s Pacific Missile Range Facility with the goal of protecting the birds and preventing aircraft bird strikes.
Meanwhile, far to the west, in the Northern Mariana Islands, environmental defenders — Indigenous Chamorro and others — are fighting to prevent small islands, identified by the IUCN as hotspots of biodiversity, from becoming live fire test ranges.
Speaking specifically about Guam, Pågan and Tinian islands, Korka talked about inviting public comment, adding, “I do think [the Navy’s] transparency and commitment to the environment is pretty sincere and pretty honest and open.”
Dr. Michael Bevacqua, an assistant professor of Chamorro studies at the University of Guam, called statements like Korka’s “a perfect example of greenwashing;” portraying them as an attempt by the military to distract onlookers from the deeper reality of environments poisoned by the military.
“If these military activities are so good for the environment, why don’t they do them in Yellowstone or near Mt. Rushmore?” Bevacqua asked.
A Toxic Legacy
Speaking about the Navy’s environmental legacy on Guam, Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, co-chair of the Independence for Guam Task Force said, “A significant portion of over 10,000 comments on the Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement expressed serious concerns about continued environmental injustice and land taking.”
“Our community is burned out from continuously being asked to give what are essentially powerless comments. The Navy has proven time and again that our people and environment are not their priorities.”
Leon Guerrero’s family land was contaminated by the US military after World War II when she said it was used to bury war waste. In 2008, the Army Corps of Engineers assessed the property and, three years later, told her family they found total petroleum hydrocarbons as oil, benzo(a)pyrene, arsenic, lead, mercury, pesticides and PCBs in the surface soil and metals and pesticides in the subsurface soil.
“They unearthed drums of chemicals but ran out of money midway through the project and abandoned it,” Leon Guerrero said. Today, her family still doesn’t know the specific levels or amounts of contamination, the volumes of toxicity or the associated health risks.
But Ballentine said, “very precision weaponry” meant that on Air Force ranges “we actually damage, when we’re testing bombs, less than 10 percent of the range which is why ranges have become some of the most pristine natural habitat left in the United States.”
Today, US military presence is expanding across the Asia-Pacific region, an area already drastically altered by war. From Subic Bay in the Philippines to the Korean Peninsula, Okinawa, Japan, Guam, the Marshall Islands and Hawaii, the United States military has created countless opportunities to clean up and restore damaged landscapes.
As recently as 2015, civilians were injured in Oahu’s Makua Valley, where unexploded ordnance from military testing remains. Last May, in the Marshall Islands, a nation used by the US for nuclear testing, a woman was killed by a World War II-era munition on Mili Atoll. During President Obama’s August visit to Laos, he committed to contribute to that country’s ongoing efforts to clear cluster bombs dropped by the US, which still cover roughly one-quarter of the entire nation — the same percentage that cover the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe, formerly used by the Navy for testing bombs.
But even as the US military invests billions of dollars in environmental conservation, their efforts are met with skepticism by those who wonder if protecting the environment in order to more effectively wage war is true conservation.
The Air Force’s Ballentine said the bottom line is: “It’s absolutely essential that your United States military has the opportunity to test and train in real-world situations and hopefully that’s all we do and we never actually have to take that into a real-world war situation.”