(Editor’s note: This review comes from Ben Terrall, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, California, whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay View, In These Times, CounterPunch, and Noir City. Terrall last wrote for January Magazine about Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough.)
Out of the many ridiculous claims Donald Trump made on the campaign trail in 2016, perhaps his most absurd assertion was that the U.S. military is “in a shambles.” In fact, the insanely bloated annual Pentagon budget—which Trump now wants to boost by $54 billion—has been increasing for decades, stealing billions away from funding for social services, infrastructure upkeep, and other components of a healthy society.
Though official military outlays for fiscal year 2017 amount to approximately $600 billion, historian John Dower recently put the total of all defense-related expenditures at closer to $1 trillion. The new book The War and Environment Reader (Just World) looks at this monstrous U.S. military-industrial complex (with some additional material about the militaries of other countries) through a collection of short essays by writers and activists who critique our nation’s war machine and its impact on both humans and the natural world.
Editor Gar Smith frames the book as both an analysis and a series of suggestions for how to move beyond what he calls “permawar” (human nature and war) and “terracide” (the war on nature). Smith, a former editor of Earth Island Journal and Common Ground magazine, writes, “As the palace guard for the most expansive empire in world history, the Pentagon’s operations impose unparalleled environmental impacts on the planet.” An entry in this reader from the year 2000 notes that the U.S. military produces nearly a ton of toxic pollution each minute, so “unparalleled” is no exaggeration.
America’s military has long left a trail of deadly after-effects in the wake of its global conflicts. Among those are aerosolized particles released when depleted uranium-tipped missiles blow through tanks (depleted uranium’s half life is 4.5 billion years, and its presence has been linked to leukemia, blood and lung cancers, and birth defects); carcinogens in jet craft emissions; landmines left scattered around war zones, which the U.N. calculates “every year … kill 15,000 to 20,000 people—most of them women, children, and the elderly—and severely maim countless more.”
Not surprisingly, the Pentagon and its various tentacles are also major emitters of greenhouse gasses. In addition, through its development of new forms of amphibious warfare the U.S. military is speeding the destruction of marine life, including coral reefs. Given that the oceans supply up to 80 percent of atmospheric oxygen, it is hard to overstate the stupidity of treating them like disposable commodities.
In terms of sheer destructive force, including the aftermath of their use, nothing can compare to nuclear weapons. Now that our prevaricator-in-chief has expressed his desire for an expanded nuclear weapons arsenal, and a willingness to use those horrific weapons, it’s worth consulting longtime dissident Daniel Ellsberg’s contribution to the book, a 2009 piece called “Nuclear Doomsday.” Among other chilling estimates of the consequences of a potential nuclear war between the United States and Russia, Ellsberg describes calculations which “reveal that hemispheric and possibly global clouds of smoke and soot from the burning cities attacked by U.S. or Russian forces would block out sunlight for a prolonged period, lowering temperatures drastically during spring and summer, freezing lakes and rivers, and destroying crops world wide. This ‘nuclear winter’ could extinguish many forms of life and lead to the starvation deaths of billions of humans.” Ellsberg goes on to cite a peer-reviewed study which concluded that “the estimated quantities of smoke generated from attacks totaling little more than one megaton of nuclear explosives could lead to global climate anomalies exceeding any changes experienced in recorded history.”
Elsewhere in The War and Environment Reader, Darlene Keju-Johnson, who grew up on Bikini Island in the South Pacific, describes the widespread births of “jellyfish babies” among her fellow Marshallese after they were exposed to radioactive fallout from atomic testing. Keju-Johnson died of breast cancer at the age of 45.
Given the current U.S. president’s seeming inability to comprehend, among so many other things, the scale of the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the most pressing task for concerned Americans would appear to be to push like hell for regime change in Washington, D.C. Even if that can be accomplished, though, there will still be a huge need to advance the antiwar values espoused by Smith and his fellow contributors to this volume.
Considering the Pentagon’s ability to use its vast public-relations apparatus to normalize warfare (as journalist Ann Jones points out, in her essay “Recruiting America’s Child Soldiers,” is done partly through Junior ROTC programs), it’s hard to feel confident about the possibilities of moving beyond our current chilling status quo. Barely a soul in the U.S. Congress dares question the legitimacy of the military-industrial complex for fear of being driven from office (even Bernie Sanders avoided that issue during last year’s presidential campaign), and there hasn’t been much of an antiwar movement since the early days of George W. Bush’s Iraq War.
Nonetheless, Smith provides a concluding section called “Ecolibrium—Pathways to a Planet of Peace” and ends his book with a piece titled “Strategies for a More Peaceful World,” which describes a series of international civil-society campaigns that are challenging global militarism.
The War and Environment Reader compiles an impressive array of information to use in dismantling the persistent myth that our lives and our freedoms depend on the continued dominance of the U.S. military. It is a valuable resource which should be used to complement the curricula of college and high-school political science and history classes; it will also be useful as a reference book for journalists, activists, and general readers concerned about our future. ◊