Most Americans trust the military; a 2020 poll found 72 percent with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in that institution, edged out only by small business. Many were likely picturing enlisted persons, but their trust often extends to the leadership, both uniformed and civilian. However, those making life-and-death decisions for both U.S. troops and people of other countries — even in the absence of war — deserve our serious scrutiny.
A new book, Poisoning the Pacific, examines the military’s long role in the environmental degradation of East Asia and Pacific islands, severely impacting the health of the region’s people and U.S. personnel stationed there. Author Jon Mitchell is a Tokyo-based journalist, and much of his book focuses on Japan, especially its southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. But he also covers contamination in places like Vietnam, Guam and the Marshall Islands.
The hazards range from nuclear fallout, to the chemical weapons sarin and VX, to PFAS, a class of potentially carcinogenic “forever chemicals” — so called because once in the body or environment, they remain for a long time.
The military and supporting government agencies have long prioritized public relations over mitigating harm. When an accidental spill exposed Okinawan base workers to lead, cadmium and hexavalent chromium in 1975, the U.S. Consulate cabled the State Department, urging the U.S. to prepare the “best possible political posture in the event of future pollution accidents.” Handbooks issued to Marines from 2013 to 2015 barred them from informing Japanese officials of “politically sensitive incidents.”
While detailing the environmental catastrophes the U.S. military inflicts on these places, Mitchell also lays out its efforts to cover them up. Among its many techniques, the crudest is outright lying. In 1965, Marines training in Okinawa let CS gas — a key tear gas component — drift into a nearby middle school, causing students to suffer throat pain and difficulty breathing. The Marines, however, told teachers their pupils must have inhaled gun smoke.
Then there’s secrecy. In 1986, Congress’s General Accounting Office produced a report on hazardous waste management problems at overseas bases. Such reports are normally made public, but the Defense Department insisted that this one be classified.
In Japan, intergovernmental matters involving U.S. bases are handled by the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee, which acts, Mitchell writes, “in total secrecy with zero public oversight.” In 2000, the Committee collaborated on a “Joint Statement of Environmental Principles.” The final product declared that the U.S. would remedy any U.S. military-caused contamination posing “a known, imminent, and substantial threat to human health.” Here was one of the subtler deceptions, as all three conditions are vague and disputable. “Imminent,” for example, excludes toxins that accumulate in the body over time.
One of the U.S. military’s hoariest cover-up methods is smearing critics as “anti-American,” “anti-military” or “Communist.” In 1954, a U.S. nuclear test irradiated a Japanese fishing boat; crew members were sickened, and one died within months. Understandably, people were upset, but the U.S. ambassador to Japan called those who spoke out “neutralists, pacifists, feminists, and professional anti-Americans.” Ultimately, 32 million Japanese people signed a petition to ban thermonuclear weapons. That’s a lot of “professional anti-Americans.”
In 1990, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs spoke darkly of “anti-military” hidden agendas behind environmental policies. But the epithet “anti-military” might better apply to those who conceal the harm to U.S. personnel and deny them treatment.
For example, in the late 1970s, when the Pentagon sent service members to clean up Enewetak Atoll, severely contaminated from U.S. nuclear tests, it failed to provide them with hazmat suits or respirators — while assuring Congress otherwise. “To keep up the pretense, when journalists visited the cleanup site, soldiers were given full-body safety equipment and posed for the cameras — the only time most of the men saw such gear during their time on the island,” writes Mitchell.
And in 2013, when barrels containing dioxin — a contaminant produced in the manufacture of military herbicides — were unearthed on land formerly part of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, base leadership assured service members that aside from the skin disease chloracne, “no other human health effects have been proven.” The Environmental Protection Agency begs to differ: “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.” The barrels were found under a children’s soccer field, adjacent to schools attended by children of U.S. personnel.
Another weapon in the military’s armory is to site its bases and testing in U.S. territories and other places with limited sovereignty, enabling it to ignore the rights of the people there. After World War II, the United Nations granted the U.S. trusteeship of the Marshall Islands. Within months, the U.S. was using the territory as a nuclear weapons test site. Several years later, seeking locations for deploying those weapons, the U.S. chose Okinawa, which it ruled by fiat until 1972. Even now, U.S.-backed conservative governments in Tokyo routinely side with the Pentagon over their own citizens in Okinawa, effectively granting it vast sway over public health.
As a reporter, Mitchell has personally encountered obfuscation, having been spied on and blocked from accessing public U.S. military websites. In 2016, an American university’s Tokyo campus invited him to speak about Okinawa’s environmental degradation. The State Department talked the school’s U.S. headquarters into ordering the Tokyo branch to schedule a separate lecture for a U.S. Embassy official. In the end, however, the embassy cancelled its talk, claiming staff were too busy. Via a Freedom of Information Act request, Mitchell eventually learned the real reason for the cancellation: an embassy official had warned, “This sounds like a death trap.” That is, they realized that if U.S. personnel with health concerns showed up — as they had to Mitchell’s talk — it would be a PR disaster.
The U.S. military’s pattern of deceit extends beyond the period covered in the book. On April 10, 2020, a barbecue party held by U.S. Marines in a hangar on Futenma air base in Okinawa triggered the release of firefighting foam. No one present knew how to turn it off, and 38,000 gallons spilled outside of the base. The foam contained one of the PFAS “forever chemicals,” and contaminated such places as a children’s playground.
Okinawa Prefecture requested soil samples to check for contaminants, and on May 1, officials were finally allowed on base to receive some. A week earlier, though, the Marines had excavated the same area in order to remove all “possible contaminants.” Thus, they provided soil samples only after ensuring they would be useless.
When prefectural officials requested samples from other areas, the Marines initially refused, relenting only on May 11 — over a month after the incident — when they provided additional samples. But as usual, there were conditions: while Okinawa wished to analyze four constituents, it was allowed to analyze only two.
In sum, the U.S. military has exposed 600,000 people — including Americans — to toxins in Japan and Micronesia, according to Mitchell’s very conservative estimate.
The final chapter of Poisoning the Pacific is entitled, “Toward Environmental Justice.” American champions of environmental justice would do well to expand their activism’s scope to embrace solidarity with people who, for generations, have fought for it in Okinawa, Guam, and elsewhere in the Pacific. The possibilities for such connections abound, as toxic exposure continues — and the cover-ups do, too.