Photograph by John Blair

Author and activist Barry Sanders says the Pentagon is the world's largest polluter, contributing to everything from climate change to human toxicity. Its use of depleted uranium in Iraq, for example, is producing "astronomical" numbers of deformed Iraqi fetuses.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee Barry Sanders told a Bloomington audience that one morning, as he awoke, two questions came to mind: How much pollution does the military produce? How much pollution does the U.S. military produce in a year, month or day? As an ordinary citizen, not a military expert, he set about trying to answer these questions.

Sanders said he felt complicit in the military’s pollution since it was taxpayers’ money that funds the military. What drove his quest was the assumption that “an informed citizenry is a much more powerful collection of people than those who care little or not at all.”

Sanders spoke Oct. 20 at the Universalist Unitarian Church on the ecological costs of militarism. A Ph.D. and author of The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism, he for many years was professor of English and the history of ideas at Pitzer College of the Claremont Colleges in California. He now lives in Portland, Ore., where he is writer in residence at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.


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U.S. military world's largest polluter

The Green Zone (2009) is Sanders’ latest book. His one-hour lecture was spiced with humorous observations and amusing digressions.

Seventy percent of those alive today can expect to be alive by 2050, but “the earth as a habitable place might not be alive,” according to Sanders. Scientists say the planet must decrease its output of greenhouse gases by 70 percent by 2020. If we quit polluting from this moment on, he said, “It would take 40 years for the gases to work themselves out of the atmosphere.”

Sanders quoted a famous line from the Pogo comic strip: “We have seen the enemy, and he be us.”

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Sanders extensively researched every outlet he could find to find answers to his questions. He discovered that “citizens cannot find answers to the most basic information about the military.” Most information about the military amounts to “military secrets.”
"The Pentagon’s use of fuel, Sanders said, amounts to a monumental daily spill of oil, larger than the BP oil spill."
“The best one can get is a rough outline, an approximation,” he said.

Sanders’ outline says the Pentagon is the single largest polluter in the world.

Sanders found some startling facts, vetted by military officers, in his search for information about the Pentagon’s pollution. All the world’s militaries together emit two-thirds of the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons released. The United States manufactures about 25 percent of the world’s goods and consumes 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuels.

In one year the U.S. military uses enough oil to power all our mass transit for 22 years. The Pentagon uses 25 percent of the world’s supply of jet fuel, and of all branches of the military, the Air Force is the largest consumer of oil. According to environmentalist Bill McKibben, Sanders said, jet fuel is 20 or 30 times more corrosive to the atmosphere than gasoline.

In the first three weeks of “Shock and Awe” in Iraq, the U.S. military used 40 million gallons of fuel, the amount used in the entire course of World War I. According to the Pentagon’s own Web site, in 1999 the U.S. military paid $3.5 billion for 110 million barrels of petroleum. As the Web site points out proudly, that’s enough petroleum to fuel 1,000 cars driving around the world 4,620 times, or 125 billion miles.
"Last year, Sanders noted, the military spent more than $8 billion for close to 400 million barrels of petroleum, enough for 1,000 cars to drive over 400 billion miles."
Last year, Sanders noted, the military spent more than $8 billion for close to 400 million barrels of petroleum, enough for 1,000 cars to drive over 400 trillion miles.

The Humvee gets four miles to a gallon. The M1 Abrams tank gets 0.2 miles per gallon; it requires 10 gallons just to fire up the tank.

Those figures are nothing compared with the F4 Phantom fighter jet, which uses over 1,500 gallons of fuel per hour. That doesn’t count the fuel needed to keep tankers aloft when refueling the jets in midair. The Air Force’s M15 uses 25 gallons per minute and 160 at peak thrust.

The M15 is outdone by the B52 Stratocruiser, which uses 3,340 gallons per hour. In a year’s worth of driving a car, the average American uses 5,000 gallons of gasoline. At the height of the Iraq war the Pentagon was using 1 million gallons of fuel per day.

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The Pentagon’s use of fuel, Sanders said, amounts to a monumental daily spill of oil, larger than the BP oil spill. Yet the Pentagon’s use of oil is off the record and exempt from official international discussions of solutions to climate change.
"All the world’s militaries together emit two-thirds of the ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons released."
The U.S. military pumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere not only because of its fuel usage but also because of its bombs and what the military calls its new, improved napalm, Sanders said.

The U.S. uses arms made with depleted uranium (DU), which has a half-life of 4 billion years and has contaminated much of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Sanders. DU is in the Iraqis’ bloodstreams and human milk.

A psychiatrist refugee working in a teaching hospital in Portland told Sanders the Iraqis are seeing an “astronomical” number of deformed fetuses. Iraq is the world’s worst or second worst environmental disaster ever, Sanders said.

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The military is a kind of “shadow country over which we have no control,” Sanders asserted, and the metaphors of war “have wrapped themselves like tentacles around our imaginations.” He would like to see all metaphors of war purged from our language.
"To take on the military ... is to take on corporate America. Both know only money, and withholding money from the Pentagon is a way to stop war."
Sanders said he used to be antiwar. Today he advocates no war because he’s “dedicated to life on this planet.”

To take on the military, Sanders pointed out, is to take on corporate America. Both know only money, and withholding money from the Pentagon is a way to stop war.

Sanders wants to see the creation of the largest coalition possible to bring war to an end. War is largely responsible for global warming, and we can’t separate global warming from the wars in the Middle East, he said. Thus, one can’t separate the peace movement from “the crisis we call global warming.”

It’s time, Sanders said, “to come together and put an end to our perpetration of craziness.” Those who “desperately want to see the continuation of the planet” must struggle to ban war. He went on to say, “We have to extricate ourselves from the profound desire to eradicate all life from the planet.”

“War is now obsolete. … The earth has had enough; listen to its cries,” Sanders said. Human beings hunger for “the ultimate thrill of joyous living, life without hate, without greed, without animosity and without the need for more and more.”

“The greenest you can get is to stop war and save the planet,” he concluded.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.