As we are in the midst of a national conversation on military action on Syria, one important yet not often talked about impact that we must consider are the environmental costs of militarism. I’m not talking about trees and rivers here – though those are lovely and absolutely important. I am thinking of the environmental justice side of things: how environmental degradation caused by militarism impacts people, and who those people are and are not.
Over the past year, there have been reports of the toxic legacy of the United States’ military interventions in Iraq. Specifically, researchers have seen dramatic rises health complications in Fallujah:
Dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer and leukaemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which was bombarded by US Marines in 2004, exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, according to a new study.
Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents
One of the important tenets of environmental justice is looking critically at the ways environmental degradation affects people.
Specifically, it’s important to note that the burdens of environmental degradation and its consequences fall heavily on the poor, people of color, and people in the global south. This includes people who, as Teju Cole pointed out so brilliantly, we can actually imagine bombing (i.e., brown folks in the middle east and global south) and people who we cannot (white folks in European nations).
Militarism is a major cause of environmental degradation on multiple fronts, and from the toxins workers and those who live near factories are exposed to in the production of weapons to where they are disseminated, the consequences and ill effects on the environment are felt primarily by people of color, with consequences that far outlast the length of military intervention. While the chemical weapons Syria’s government has used on their people are indeed cruel and harmful to people’s health and their environments, additional military intervention does not present a viable solution to these concerns. From a reproductive justice point of view, this affects not only maternal and child health, but also cuts into folks’ ability to raise the children they already have with safety and dignity.
We seem to be hurtling into military intervention in Syria very quickly; this is one of many concerns. To learn more about militarism and the environment, check out PopDev, a program out of Hampshire College that serves as a center for critical thinking, learning and advocacy on population and the environment.