Rockets and Bombs and Chemicals — The Environmental Horrors of War

January 31, 2024
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The U.S. military’s use of the highly toxic herbicide Agent Orange as a defoliant during the Vietnam War is one of the most notorious examples of the human and environmental toll of war. Above, a UH-1D helicopter sprays a jungle area in the Mekong Delta in 1969. Photo: National Archives.

Issue Backgrounder: Rockets and Bombs and Chemicals — The Environmental Horrors of War

Analysis by Joseph A. Davis

War brings many horrors, disasters so awful that they often make environmental issues seem trivial by comparison. And of course, what will kill you today is more urgent than what might kill you 10 years from now.

These are among the reasons environmental journalists don’t report about it very much. But in today’s apocalyptic world, we probably should. With so many wars being fought right now, it is a useful time to look more deeply at the connections between war and the environment.

It’s worth looking at how environmental forces can be a cause of war — and can affect a nation’s war-fighting ability. It’s also important to explore the environmental damage that is part of the human destruction wars bring. And finally, it’s useful to examine some of history’s many examples of the environment being used as a weapon of war.

By the way, in this backgrounder, we will use the term “environment” in a broad sense: meaning not just nature and natural resources, but human health, human survival and the things that make human survival possible. Or impossible.


The U.S. military is sharp enough

to spend some talent worrying

about how the environment

will affect its mission.


And one more thing: Thank goodness the U.S. military is steely-eyed and sharp enough to spend some talent worrying about how the environment, especially climate change, will affect its mission.

It takes no genius, for instance, to know that sea level rise will challenge one of the biggest U.S. Navy bases, Norfolk, with too much water. And it’s the Pentagon’s job to anticipate that a Category 5 Hurricane could devastate a huge major air base. That happened to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida in 2018; today, the Pentagon is rebuilding that base in resilient form in a $5 billion project.

And the military is also worrying about whether climate refugees somewhere will trigger some new world war. The strategists at the National War College, the U.S. Naval War College and other military think tanks spend time thinking about it. Jack Ryan would approve. As a bonus, it gives Republicans something to hold hearings about.


Environment as a cause of war

At bottom, many wars are about territory — turf. And in many cases, what’s beneath those conflicting claims to territory is the human value of natural resources.

Of course, war is often about still more than that: the greed for riches and the lust for power and other dark parts of the human soul. But often it is really land and the environment itself that people are fighting for, even if they call it something else, and even though there are many complicating factors.

For an example close to home for U.S. journalists, look at the “Range Wars” that beset U.S. western states in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was a conflict over grazing resources between cattle ranchers and sheep herders, probably fatal to more sheep than humans.

Some thought the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 could end that conflict. But it didn’t, as the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 demonstrated. Sure, it was about ideology and retribution and government power. But it was mainly about natural resources.


Conflict over water resources

is another reason for war.

Records of this go back almost

to the beginning of recorded history.


Conflict over water resources is another reason for war. Records of this go back almost to the beginning of recorded history. Around 2500 B.C.E, two Sumerian city-states warred for almost a century over water and irrigated lands.

Flash forward to today, when tens of thousands of people are dying of starvation in the Horn of Africa. This multinational situation is complex and ongoing — but both climate heating and military conflict play roles. Climate heating worsens drought, which destroys the livelihood of both farmers and herders.

That complex of civil and ethnic wars has ravaged parts of Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti, displacing many people and spilling into nearby nations. Displacement of people who are already impoverished has caused huge suffering and death. When armed groups restrict people’s movements, starvation becomes, in effect, a weapon of war.

In another recent example, the ongoing civil war in Syria that began in 2011 has killed or displaced millions. Some experts have asserted that climate change was one of the causes, that deepening drought induced migration of stricken farmers from country to city, worsening the political conflict that became civil war. But other experts dismiss this theory. Greater understanding is difficult because the conflict had so many causes and parties.


Environment as a victim of war

Of course, we see our fellow humans as the most important war victims. But damage to the environment itself is common and usually inevitable in war. War’s great human toll often obscures what it does to the landscape and to ecosystems. At bottom, though, war’s environmental toll is usually part of its human toll.

And it’s certainly about more than abandoned zoo animals or the carbon emissions of bombs. Look, for starters, at the piles of rubble in the Gaza Strip where housing used to be. Numbers are hard to verify, and are changing every day — but some estimate that between one-fifth and 70% of homes in Gaza have been destroyed. Is that environmental damage or human damage? Or is it both?

Concrete dust is itself a pollutant that harms human health. That was a big part of what made people cough (and later to sicken) after the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. But there was a lot more than concrete in the dust that covered much of lower Manhattan: asbestos, heavy metals, dioxins and other toxic organic compounds, to name a few. It wasn’t just that people coughed after they worked on “the pile”; they got cancer and died.

Another example is depleted uranium. Because it is extremely heavy, depleted uranium is used in some shells to penetrate tank armor. It’s less radioactive than natural uranium, but any uranium is highly toxic to humans. In the Iraq wars, there was concern that debris from depleted uranium shells would poison soldiers and civilians.


One of the most notorious

examples of the human and

environmental toll of war

is Agent Orange.


One of the most notorious examples of the human and environmental toll of war is Agent Orange and its effects in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t meant to poison people. It is a herbicide that was meant to defoliate jungle so that U.S. troops could see and bomb Viet Cong supply lines. But it was also toxic to humans.

Agent Orange was a mixture of two herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. It was contaminated by small amounts of a dioxin. The U.S. military sprayed some 20 million gallons of it on Vietnam, causing sickness and death among the Vietnamese on whom it was sprayed. 2,4,5-T is no longer legal in the U.S. But U.S. residents are still spraying 2,4-D on their lawns.

Then there are burn pits, used by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of all kinds of miscellaneous junk. That waste included clothes, plastics, cans, food and medical waste. It also included unexploded munitions, which the military wanted to deny to the enemy. Smoke from burned waste was breathed in by many on U.S. bases.

The environmental effects of war are not always clear or intentional. But today, the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes the health harms experienced by those exposed to burn pits.


Environment as a weapon of war

Although it makes a fine legend, scholars today think it was not true that the Roman army plowed salt into the fields of defeated Carthage after the end of the Punic wars. But the idea of “scorched earth” is a commonly recognized military tactic in all kinds of situations, both offensive and defensive — the environment is used as a weapon of war.

Most recently, we saw the Russian army blow up the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam in southern Ukraine in June 2023. Exactly what happened and why may still be under dispute. But The New York Times did a very good job of explaining it (may require subscription), using hard evidence. And The Associated Press did a solid investigation of the Russian effort to cover up what it did and the extent of damage and the hundreds of casualties.


His brutal regime drained

the swamps of southern Iraq as

an act of war. Not once, but twice.


Earlier, during the reign of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, his brutal regime drained the swamps of southern Iraq as an act of war. Not once, but twice. They were the home of the “marsh Arabs,” a cultural and ethnic group that had lived there for (some say) 5,000 years. Sunni Saddam considered the Shiite marsh Arabs to be his enemy. Their marsh was inaccessible, and Saddam believed they were harboring his military and political enemies.

Draining the marsh almost destroyed their culture and livelihood, with their numbers shrunk as their home disappeared. The return of the water allowed some to come back, but today it is climate change that is drying up the marshes.

In the end, whether the environment is a cause, casualty or weapon of war, the connections will continue to be worth public — and reporters’ — attention. As climate change and sea level rise continue to create more environmental migrants, the resulting conflicts may simply make it impossible for journalists to ignore.

[Editor's Note: For more reporting from SEJournal on the military and war in an environmental context, see a Backgrounder on climate-related national security threats, TipSheets on the Army's climate strategy and toxic substances near military sites, an FEJ StoryLog on unexploded ordnance, a BookShelf review on militarization, conservation and ecological restoration and a Freelance Files on reporting from conflict zones.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 5. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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