Army Green

A new study ties environmental concern to military success

Green Army
A U.S. private plants spartina marsh grass on a beach near Newport News, Va., on Earth Day 2008.
Photograph by Lyna Tucker/U.S. Army

At an unspecified foreign airfield, U.S. soldiers buried several drums containing hazardous liquids that eventually contaminated soil and groundwater. In Iraq, U.S. military trucks leaked fuel and dirty dish, laundry and bath water. Instead of cleaning it up, soldiers referred to the spills as “replenishing the oil wells.”

These are examples of the Army’s environmental footprint during long-term foreign deployments uncovered by a RAND Corp. study, “Green Warriors: Environmental Considerations in Army Contingency Operations.” It’s a footprint that can be the difference between winning local support and escalating an insurgency.

The study, which analyzed Army deployments from 1991 to 2006, suggests the Army could gain tactical advantages by better managing environmental issues during and after combat.

“The Army found itself in longer deployments and more post-conflict and reconstruction activities [which] elevated the importance of environmental considerations,” said Beth Lachman, a RAND Corp. senior analyst who helped write the report.

The Army-commissioned study is part of an effort to improve an often ugly environmental record that includes spraying Agent Orange herbicide during the Vietnam War to remove leaves from trees to uncover enemy positions. It resulted in untold environmental costs and devastating health problems for exposed Vietnamese citizens and for U.S. Vietnam veterans who have suffered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, respiratory cancers and chronic lymphocytic leukemia and other debilitating conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The environment is rarely considered during conflicts,” said Andrew Morton, Sudan project coordinator at the United Nations Environmental Program’s post-conflict branch. EJ reached him by phone in Vienna, Austria. “There have been a lot of examples of a lack of awareness about the connections between the environment or natural resources and conflict.”

The study said eight years of war and political instability have left poor environmental conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan, including unexploded land mines and hazardous wastes. Conflicts have also damaged “key water, agricultural and natural-resource infrastructures,” the study said.

War often damages or destroys basic services for a country’s citizens, said David Mosher, another RAND senior analyst who helped write the report. That can increase support for an insurgency.

“Clean water and sanitation services and life-sustaining infrastructure are very important to the locals,” he said.

Renewable energy, including a biomass research project called Tactical Garbage to Energy Refineries (TGER), can help soldiers generate energy on the battlefield, said Center for Naval Analysis researcher David Catarious. The Army sent two of the units to Iraq in April 2008 for a 60-day trial. The U-Haul-sized prototypes convert waste like paper, plastic, cardboard and food into synthetic gas or hydrous ethanol. Either can power a standard 60-kilowatt generator.

“Instead of running fuel convoys out to these remote areas, which are vulnerable to enemy attack and IEDs [improvised explosive devices], you [could have] the ability to self-sustain your electrical operations,” he said.

Renewable energy could also serve local residents.

“That’s when you can really use it to build engagement opportunities and to build relationships with the people you are operating around,” Catarious said

The Defense Department began studying the military’s environment impact in the 1970s after Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The Army began dedicating more resources to public works and engineering to deal with hazardous waste and clean water supplies, said Michael Cain, director of the Army Environmental Policy Institute. The Army’s environmental strategy in the 1990s focused on natural resources, stewardship and pollution prevention.

Cain said the Army is training soldiers in environmental awareness.

Army engineers designed and implemented a recycling and waste-disposal system at Afghanistan’s Kandahar International Airport in 2002, according to RAND.

The military can win over local citizens by planning ahead to address environmental and public service issues, leaving them a more sustainable situation, said Steve Hearne, a senior fellow at the Army’s environmental arm. The Army’s 2007 sustainability report and its newest field manual address the environmental concerns of long-term deployments.

RAND analyst Beth Lachman said the Army should consider the environmental effects of its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“When you go into an operation, you make sure environmental issues become prominent in planning,” Lachman said. “It may be that from a hard-headed view certain environmental issues aren’t that important. But [if] you want the support of the population, you really need to incorporate those things the locals care about.”

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