The Unspoken Cost

In the last decade, we have seen a greater focus on natural and man-made disasters than has ever been accomplished in the American media. The fact that the world of the 21st century is vastly different from that of most of the 20th is only one factor in this new focus. The “Exxon Valdez” oil spill of the early 1990s and the oil well fires in Kuwait following the Gulf War in 1991 show how industrial and military environmental damage has been sensationalized for a hungry viewing public. The environmental conscience of the American public, especially in the case of the American military, is almost in direct proportion to the literature and news coverage of the time. One may think of this as the chicken and the egg problem: did media coverage some because the public clamored for environmental stories or did the public become interested because of media coverage? As will be demonstrated below, this black and white dichotomy is not totally applicable. The media and the political atmosphere combine to create a powerful force (or obstacle) to deal with, as has been proven since World War II.

The post-WWII environment was the farthest place from ideal for those who may have been concerned about the environment. News headlines of European and other world affairs along with relative prosperity in the United States through the 1950s made environmental concerns a backseat passenger. As can be seen by the literature of the time, people were interested in nature as a recreational tool and a point of fascination. Little was reported in the mainstream press about environmental damage done by DDT or industrial waste from the war mobilization process. As an example of this, we can view the amount of space dedicated to environmental topics in the New York Times as an example of the public’s interest in environmental concerns. In the 1940s, the average column space devoted to such topics were 40 column inches per year. The 1950s saw an increase to 110 column inches per year, mostly because of the calm down from the war process and the new devotion to public parks and sporting.

The 1960s saw a time of change in social and cultural concerns. The rise of protests about Vietnam, civil rights, and equal rights for women opened the door to a sea of change for the environmental movement. Talented writers like Paul Ehrlich (“The Population Bomb”) and Rachel Carson (“Silent Spring”) created works that broke open new ground for environmental studies in the mainstream. Studies had been done on overpopulation, military pollution, and insecticides through the 1940s and 1950s to lead up to these ground breaking works. The atmosphere for change across the board was ripe for the environmental movement’s picking and they had writers and scientists worthy of attention. The aforementioned authors, along with many others involved in the growth of environmentalism, started to point the blame at the Western powers. Ehrlich saw the myopic viewpoint of Western leaders in assuming their invulnerability to a downfall as the point where the downfall would take place. Carson felt that as insecticides were systemic killers of animals and people, so was Western culture a systemic killer of the environment. These writers were putting the power into the hands of the people and the media picked up on the power of these works. The New York Times published 284 column inches on environmental topics per year in the 1960s, with most taking place in the second half of the decade.

The 1970s saw the rise of environmentalism as an established concern in American polity. As the 1960s saw the infancy of the modern environmental movement, the following decade would witness the establishment for an infrastructure that would make the movement strong for future decades. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and celebrated to this day. Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle” (1971) was a stunning analysis of the connection between ecology and technological advances. The Environmental Protection Agency, though created in 1969, went into full swing in the 1970s trying to find its way. Despite national crises such as Nixon’s resignation, the oil crisis, and terrorist activity in the Middle East, there was increasing concern about the environment. An astronomical 945 column inches per year were devoted to environmental topics, showing the concern of the environment by the public and by the world community.

All of this highlights the environmental dialogue up to the 1980s where the wheels seemed to come off of national political concerns over the environment. This is important to understanding notions on the military effects on the environment because it shows what kind of atmosphere existed toward challenging the military. Rachel Carson highlighted the use of DDT as a delicing agent in the European Theatre in World War II. Barry Commoner’s analysis of technology and ecology includes discussion of nuclear and military technologies as a threat to the environment. Paul Ehrlich includes a discussion of war as a solution to population growth, partially tongue in cheek but certainly with an eye to the vast deaths between the World Wars.

The military has been forced to address environmental concerns at home bases and abroad in other people’s backyards as the environmental movement has grown. Retired Navy Captain Jack Ahart has written an analysis of the military’s need to take account of their environmental indiscretions. Captain Ahart has said that while the military’s need to defend our nation is important, it should be held accountable in the same way private industry should be. After all, the military is the largest industry in the country and is in every state of the nation. It is not beyond the ability of the military to control their environmental damage; it is, in fact, all too much in their hands because they choose their course of action and where they dispose of materials. They choose which lands to go into and what equipment to use. The military has a vast scientific apparatus as part of its research and development and needs to utilize it as a means to environmental stewardship. All of the cards for protecting the environment are in the military and private industries’ hands and they have not been played since World War II. If the military refuses to address its record of environmental destruction, it will risk further alienation from the mainstream.

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