Iraqi father and children walk past a destroyed house

Iraqi father-of-five Issa al-Zamzoum walks past a destroyed house in the war-ravaged village of Habash on April 25, 2022.

(Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images)

Framing the Environmental Case Against War and Militarism

We have to “save” everyone to save ourselves.

The enemy, as someone once wrote, is not this or that country, but war itself. It’s almost counterproductive then, to focus efforts and attention exclusively on one particular war or the suffering of one particular group of people. The issue is war; the goal is to put an end to war. That should be the focus, especially now, with massive suffering caused by wars of one kind and another raging around the world.

Sebastian Malo’s article, “There’s a Battle Over Carbon Emerging from the War in Ukraine,” published in Politico last week, is an effort to “help people outside of Ukraine understand the massive stakes of the conflict and care more about it.” His earnest attempt—getting people to care—is something I’m all too familiar with after decades of advocacy on behalf of Iraq and Iraqis. When wars rage on, as this one does, when what was once a crisis becomes the new normal of world politics, it’s hard to keep the public’s attention.

“Who cares about Iraq?” my Iraqi friends asked back in the 2000s and continue to ask today. Who indeed. Sebastian Malo? The Dutch scientist Leonard de Klerk and others featured in the article, who are studying carbon emissions resulting from the ongoing war with Russia? It doesn’t seem so. Their goal—to gather data that would enable Ukraine to bring suit against Russia on the basis that the invasion was illegal under the U.N. charter and that Russia has failed to prevent significant transboundary environmental damage in contradiction to international law—is narrowly focused. They want to punish Russia and “save” Ukraine and Ukrainians. They aren’t thinking about Iraqis.

Why isolate Ukraine and Russia when there’s, potentially, so much to be gained through international solidarity, by aggregating information, by connecting this and previous as well as other ongoing wars with the current climate crisis?

If Malo, de Klerk, and his team care about the negative impact of war, about international law and planetary health, about accountability and crimes against humanity, they should expand the scope and range of their investigation to include already available data from other countries, invaded illegally, and also suffering through the human and environmental catastrophe of war. Theirs should be a class-action suit that includes other perpetrators of wars; other militaries, especially the U.S. military, and the illegal invasion and occupation wars in Iraq. De Klerk’s team seems to be ignoring decades of compelling narratives and scientific work linking militarism, war, health, and climate catastrophe. Indeed Malo gives only a dismissive nod to efforts—significant and still ongoing—to shed light on the environmental impact of depleted uranium and other toxic substances released in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and again in the 2003 invasion. Why isolate Ukraine and Russia when there’s, potentially, so much to be gained through international solidarity, by aggregating information, by connecting this and previous as well as other ongoing wars with the current climate crisis?

I find Malo’s article, narrowly focused on Ukraine and Ukrainians, upsetting, a pseudo anti-war narrative. A racist one that values white, Christian lives over others. Over Muslim lives for instance; or Black lives. Tara Sonenshine, professor of practice at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, is quoted saying, “Ukraine’s emphasis on throwing light on the conflict’s emissions... serves a second purpose: It ties Ukraine’s battle for survival to a major issue also threatening Western societies.” Noticeably she doesn’t say it’s threatening the world. Rather she calls it a threat to “Western societies,” where climate change is “at the top of the list, right now”

Sonenshine calls this strategy ‘Western values alignment.’ It’s a winning strategy for Ukraine, and a losing one for humanity, for everyone and every other country suffering from the devastation of war. A losing strategy for the anti-war movement and for the planet. And this is what’s insidious about so much Ukraine-focused work and reporting. It perpetuates a certain kind of white privilege that prioritizes even the suffering of white people over that of “others”: Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnamese, and people of color around the world. It makes it easier, even “normal” for a white Christian world, to love Ukrainians while denying the humanity of nonwhite, non-Western “others.”

Malo, de Klerk, and his team would benefit by reading Barry Sanders’ book, published years ago but still relevant. The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism, published in 2009 by AK Press, takes a completely different approach. Written with a primary focus on Iraq, Sanders—professor and author of some dozen books, twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—uses the war in Iraq to frame a broader argument against war and militarism by connecting it to the climate catastrophe. Why, with all the attention given to ways we can “save/green” the environment, he wonders, have environmentalists failed to address “the largest single source of pollution in this country and in the world: the United States military—in particular the military in its most ferocious and stepped-up mode—namely, the military at war.”

The book lays out an enormous amount of data about the unbelievable volumes of resources needed to maintain and operate a vast number of U.S. military bases (800+), troops, and land, sea, and air vehicles. It details the kinds of fuel. Some are more polluting and toxic than others but they all contribute heavily to global warming and are consumed at staggering levels. The irony, the absurdity of the situation: the U.S. quest for control over fuel drives us to war; and in the course of waging war, the military uses—Sanders might say wastes—extraordinary amounts of the world’s dwindling fuel resources.

Fact by fact, chapter by chapter, Sanders connects the dots so we see and can practically feel—in the pit of our stomachs—the enormity of the problem. Sanders does what Malo and the Ukraine-focused scientists/activists fail to do: sound a clear alarm about the dangers facing all of humanity in such a way that individuals—activists, concerned scientists, ordinary citizens, mothers, fathers, and grandparents—see ourselves and those we care about, not only caught without consent in this narrative of pending environmental disaster, but also inextricably tied to the fate of others around the globe. We want out; we want to save ourselves and those we love. The way out is obvious. We have to “save” everyone to save ourselves.

The questions we’ve been asking—who cares about Iraq and Iraqis, or how to get people to care about Ukraine and Ukrainians—are no longer relevant. They have to be replaced with real, pressing, and urgent questions about the global environmental impact of war and militarism. About the U.S. military and all militaries. About the impact of any and all wars on life itself on the planet. On Mother Earth.

The answer is clear. We don’t need to wait for more studies and some sort of exact science. It’s clear. We have to stop waging war and demilitarize the planet. There’s no other choice.

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