The real costs of War
“The environment has long been a silent casualty of war and armed conflict. From the contamination of land and the destruction of forests to the plunder of natural resources and the collapse of management systems, the environmental consequences of war are often widespread and devastating,”
“Let us reaffirm our commitment to protect the environment from the impacts of war, and to prevent future conflicts over natural resources.”
War changes the worlds. In the face of perceived threat, acts that would normally be abhorrent become acceptable and even routine. One of the first of our sensibilities to be discarded is the protection of the environment, says a professor on war and its impacts at the Watson Institute for International Studies.
According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, today only 11 countries in the world are not involved in any conflict – despite this being “the most peaceful century in human history”. Even in relatively peaceful countries the forces necessary to maintain security consume vast resources with relative impunity. But in war, the environment suffers from neglect, exploitation, human desperation and deliberate abuse on a terrible scale.
The History of war and its Environmental Impacts
The evolution of military technology through more efficient and innovative utilization of natural resources has helped shape the environment in a wide range of areas. Homo sapiens lacking its strong jaws, sharp teeth, and cutting claws have employed tools to better conquer the natural environment and each other for scarce resources. These scarce resources such as wood and metals have been harnessed to advance military technology. In doing so, military technology’s impact on the environment has increased steadily through time.
The incorporation of metals into military technology was a slow but steady process that gained steam through technological advancements. In earlier ages of metal use, a great majority of people were still confined to agricultural production and therefore the population of artisans remained small. Also, the raw resources used to produce suitable weapons and armor were not found everywhere. For example, the tin used to make bronze weapons was very rare contributing to its slow adaption by military institutions. Rulers had to either apply diplomatic tactics to trade for tin and other metals, or had to organize military campaigns to obtain these materials.
Copper was bought by Henry VII from a Belgian company to create guns. Military campaigns to obtain metals created much environmental degradation on many levels. The food necessary to feed soldiers would be stripped from the surrounding lands, while woodcutters gathering timber necessary for cooking fires and metal foundries would radiate out from the central army everyday.
The Iron Age around 1400 BC brought about another evolutionary step for metals in military technology. Metal for armaments and armor became much cheaper. Iron was more readily found in the environment, and the wood and charcoal used to melt it were easy to obtain. The proliferation of iron production polluted the atmosphere more than previous metal making, and lead to an expansion of mining. The introduction of guns and cannon required both bronze and iron to create them. This put an added pressure on these resources, and also created more foundries that required wood and charcoal.
The most direct way that metals contributed to environmental degradation was the issue of mining‘s impact on the natural environment. However, it is hard to decipher the real effects of mining in ancient times because it usually occurred in less densely populated areas and didn’t benefit from industrialization. From the industrial revolution to the present age, mining has been proven to cause huge contamination of the water table and affect the integrity of hill slopes causing a greater potential of mudslides. Either a limitation of the general knowledge of ancient mining, or a personal lack of knowledge on this issue makes it harder to discern the direct environmental impacts of mining before the era of industrialization beyond the need for wood, diplomacy, and military campaigns to harness and utilize metals successfully.
Another important resource that military technology exploited and contributed to ecological change was of course wood. Around 1800 BC improvements to wooden chariots greatly transformed warfare. Chariots improved the mobility of armies, and helped to establish a relatively small elite class that controlled chariot warriors. Beyond the necessity of finding timber to create chariots, the grass needed to keep horses fed contributed to the degradation of the land. It is hard to distinguish if this degradation of land by horses caused long-term environmental impact such as the loss of nutrient rich topsoil that would subsequently cause mature forest from being able to develop.
Wood was also used extensively for building and maintaining fortifications. After the Romans invaded Britain, they built hundreds to maintain control. The timber necessary to build one of these forts required felling eight to twelve hectares of forest. Even though there were short-term effects of wood shortages around forts; the dense forests of Europe checked the proportionally small deforestation created by the Romans. However, in 15th and 16th century Japans over-exploitation of timber created a greater environmental impact. Provincial magnates called “daimyo” built large forts to maintain independence. By the 1550s Daimyos began to regulate forests to preserve adequate timber supply. This might have contributed to the Daimyos being overrun and consolidated into the nation-state of Japan which consequently created a boom for the construction of fortresses, temples, and castles. This boom contributed to the problem of deforestation and subsequent scarcity of a vital resource. This led to policies of conservation and restoration in the mid-seventeenth century.
Another dimension of warfare that timber was used extensively was of course shipbuilding. Naval timber was of utmost importance in the ancient world which can be traced back over 2,800 years ago. For example, in the Peloponnesian War the Athenian commander Thucydides was exiled for losing an important port where Athens gathered huge parts of its timber. Due to both – agricultural and shipbuilding expansion, Europe’s forests were considerably depleted. To combat this potentially devastating shortage of timber, Venetians for example conserved and counted the tress in their forests to maintain adequate supplies. During the colonial period, there was added impetus to conserve forests due to the evolution of ships from light, fast ships to large, heavy cannon platforms that could use up to twenty-two hectares of mature European forest.
To protect these scarce resources colonial powers implemented many policies to protect forests. For example, Elizabeth I of Great Britain tried to protect ship timber within fourteen miles of navigable waterways. Colonial powers dealing with scarce timber resources at home turned to their colonies. Spain used Philippine forests extensively to both defend the colony from other European powers and religious rivals. The scarcity of some species of naval timber started to become apparent in the 1600s.
The Impact of war today
“There is this notion that it is life or death for a nation so you don’t worry about niceties. We have this idea that human beings are separate from their environment and that you could save a human life through military means and military preparation and then worry about these secondary things later,” she says.
During the 1st Gulf War, the US bombed Iraq with 350 tons of missiles containing depleted uranium. Researchers suggest the radiation from these weapons have poisoned the soil and water of Iraq, making the environment carcinogenic. The UK government says these accusations are false. No comprehensive study has been done to establish or disprove the link between cancer and depleted uranium weapons.
The most serious environmental damage caused to Iraq over the past 24 years of war has been the systematic destruction of Iraq’s infrastructure. The bombing campaign during 1991 destroyed the apparatus of society, including the systems that supported the environment.
Even the maintenance of standing armies just to counter the threat of war, exerts an enormous strain on environmental resources.
The US Department of Defence is the country’s largest consumer of fossil fuels. Research from 2008 did show the military used 21bn liters of fuel each year. This results in similar CO2 emissions to a mid-sized European country such as Denmark.
And that is before they go to war. The carbon footprint of a deployed modern army is enormous. One report suggested the US military used 200 million liters of oil every month during the invasion of Iraq.
During the Rwandan civil war almost a million people lived in camps on the edge of Virunga national park. According to the Worldwatch Institute around 1,000 tonnes of wood was removed from the park every day for two years in a row – in order to build shelters, feed the cooking fires and to create charcoal for sale. By the time the conflict ended – 110 sq/km of forest had been damaged and 40 sq/km stripped bare
“War is bad for wildlife in as many ways as for people. Conservation suffers because rangers often have to flee the fighting, and may be attacked because rebel armies covet their vehicles, radios and guns. Moreover, rebels often feed their troops on bushmeat and finance their ops with ivory, timber, charcoal and minerals from protected areas.”
In Afghanistan wildlife and habitats have disappeared as well. The past 30 years of war has stripped the country of its trees, including precious native pistachio woodlands. The Costs of War Project says illegal logging by US-backed warlords and wood harvesting by refugees caused more than a third of Afghanistan’s forests to vanish between 1990 and 2008. Drought, desertification and species loss is the result. The number of migratory birds passing through Afghanistan has fallen by 87%.
According to the UN Environment Programme, over the last 60 years, at least 40% of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources.
The real cost of war, is our all future, its our food, our water and with that our base of life.