In the spring of 2016, Arnold Schwarzenegger flew in an oil-black helicopter over Kuwait’s dusty deserts to Camp Arifjan, a sprawling U.S. Army installation near the Persian Gulf. Schwarzenegger had previously visited troops abroad to screen his films and sign autographs. For this journey, however, the star of “The Expendables” was on a different mission: promoting renewables.
Schwarzenegger was then filming his short-lived reality television series “Years of Living Dangerously,” which focused on the threat of climate change. The concept was an uneasy fit. Conan the barbarian echoing the rhetoric of Greta Thunberg the activist could sound inharmonious. Schwarzenegger’s career, after all, was built on valorizing war and all the dirty military equipment that fuels it. During the 1990s, the action star dropped $20,000 to have the fifty-ton M-47 Patton tank he drove in the Austrian Army packed up and shipped to him. He also strong-armed the manufacturer of military Humvees, AM General, into creating a gas-guzzling civilian model, the Hummer. Then he obtained four of them.
Yet Schwarzenegger also holds a real appreciation for the environment, one that blossomed as a child growing up amid Austria’s flora and fauna. As California’s governor, he protected large swaths of the state’s natural beauty, introduced renewable energy requirements, and secured pathbreaking fuel emission standards. He converted his Hummers to run on hydrogen, electricity, and biofuel, respectively. And, in 2018, he made clear that, were time travel possible, he would blast to the past and terminate fossil fuels.
No single institution in the world produces as many greenhouse gases as the U.S. military.
In Kuwait, Schwarzenegger dug into the U.S. military’s chart-toppingly terrible environmental record. He also interrogated bold claims made by top brass that the Defense Department was cleaning up its act. During a pump session at the on-base gym, Chief Warrant Officer Cipriano Trujillo explains to Schwarzenegger that, in 2012, the army released policy asking commanders at every level to “start looking at ways to reduce their energy output.” At Arifjan, this edict led to solar-powered light carts and dreams of solar parking canopies.
These are positive developments but puny ones, part of a growing Pentagon PR offensive to distract from decades of environmental degradation. Defense contractors are hocking a similar story. Lockheed Martin wants you to know it designs its laser-guided missiles in Energy Star-certified buildings; Northrop Grumman plants trees while profiting from deadly drone technology. Even the Hummer is now being made over with a deceivingly green electric option.
To his credit, Schwarzenegger at the time saw through the military’s bogus smokescreen. At one point, as he drives off Arijfan, he passes endless rows of diesel generators and bulky military vehicles. “Green projects seem to barely exist,” he observes, sounding disappointed. Given that no single institution in the world produces as many greenhouse gases as the U.S. military, Schwarzenegger further wonders why their renewable energy goals are pegged to a “pretty low target.”
The answer is that dirty energy is inextricable from conflict. Oil is both a vital ingredient of warfare and a leading cause of it. As such, the fossil fuel industry benefits richly from our current era of armed conflict. These companies are perpetually tapped into the unquenchable gas tank that is the military-industrial complex. They’ve also enjoyed state-backed security that protects their market share and enables new drilling opportunities.
Generals may profess faith in neoliberal dreams of solar-powered fighter jets, but the truth is that they won’t ever let go of dirty energy. The military demands power at its most punishing, a carbon footprint so heavy it can break necks. A clean world, in other words, is incompatible with a heavily militarized one.
Conflict has always spoiled the environment and has long been waged over resources of one kind or another, but over the last three decades, these trends have accelerated in blatant and alarming ways. Since before I was born, American boots have been deployed almost exclusively to ground with black gold beneath it.
The Gulf War was birthed in 1990 from an oil dispute. Ahead of annexing Kuwait, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein alleged that the country was engaged in economic warfare through unfair drilling and production practices. America entered the fray largely to protect Kuwait’s oil assets and stave off a supply crisis. The U.S. government also wanted to uphold the security of our most important oil ally: Saudi Arabia.
The war was launched with an unprecedented act of environmental poisoning. As American troops prepared their invasion, Iraqi forces opened up the valves of the Sea Island pipeline, releasing 240 million gallons of oil in hopes that the spill would prevent soldiers from breaching the beaches. There were many other acts of mass pollution during the conflict, from the U.S. military’s use of depleted uranium in bullets and body armor to the scorching of hundreds of oil wells by retreating Iraqi soldiers.
Thanks to damning documents, as well as blunt admissions from retired military bigwigs, we now know that the Iraq War was also about little more than oil. A state tied closely to 9/11 was Saudi Arabia, which had long harbored the Bin Laden family and, according to newly declassified information, almost certainly helped fund the attacks. But because this country was and is America’s most reliable gas pump in the Arab world, it was untouchable. Instead, two captains of crude—George W. Bush and Dick Cheney—launched the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conflicts’ undeniable winners were petroleum companies, including Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton, which secured lucrative drilling contracts in the region.
In startling ways, the Iraq War was a near carbon copy of America’s previous Gulf conflict. There were, of course, some of the same central characters, including Hussein, Cheney, the Bush family, and the Humvee. This new war also saw the Iraqi Army, then ISIS, burn hundreds more oil wells, brutal but desperate measures to deny America the energy it wanted. But one major difference between the two wars was duration. The Gulf War was just a year-long affair, while Iraq technically lasted between 2003 and 2011, though American troops remain there today. A long war meant more military infrastructure, as well as the requisite fuel to keep it going. This insatiable need made the United States vulnerable. A 2009 report found that casualties associated with fuel convoys accounted for nearly half of American deaths in Iraq, and almost 40 percent of American deaths in Afghanistan.
The fact that the War on Terror was so nakedly driven by oil may be why the Pentagon has since scrambled to project a green image. As early as 2005, the Navy proudly announced it had set up four wind turbines to spin over America’s torture palace at Guantánamo Bay. In 2007, the Army insulated a chapel at Arifjan with spray foam, work that promised to cut down on air-conditioning costs. The service also advised soldiers to think twice before printing, and to carpool when possible.
In a bizarre extension of this philosophy, the military also decided to green up Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008 and 2009, officers touted new solar and wind projects in both countries, an initiative explained by one Lt. Colonel as enabling Iraqi and Afghani citizens to “reduce their fuel consumption, pollute less and achieve higher energy efficiencies.” The move was perfectly indicative of the military’s greenwashing program: grossly inauthentic, essentially inadequate, and wholly deflective. For an institution that regularly releases tens of thousands of kilotons of carbon dioxide a year, lecturing poor civilians living under occupation about their conservation habits was also hypocritical and cruel. Clearly, residents of the Middle East have far more legitimate concerns than their carbon footprint, namely staying alive and rebuilding basic infrastructure leveled by American bombs.
Like other actors, the Pentagon has publicly cast climate change as a problem to be solved by the individual soldier and civilian, all the while fighting quietly against institutional accountability. Take the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when the United States and every other signatory exempted themselves from counting military emissions towards overall carbon output. Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department obtained a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency to keep deploying trucks that violated emissions standards. (Under Rummy, the Army also nixed plans for hybrid-diesel Humvees and new, more efficient engines for the Abrams tank.) In 2014, then-United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon offered a scathing indictment of war’s “widespread and devastating” environmental costs. Yet a few short months later, as the world gathered to ratify the Paris climate accords, lowering military emissions were again not a requirement.
The climate apocalypse will make the military-industrial complex busier, and more profitable, than ever.
The military has similarly avoided much liability for other forms of environmental contamination. The list of military substances that have soured the earth is long, but includes Agent Orange, burn pits, rocket fuel, and toxic firefighting foam. (Roughly 900 of the EPA’s 1,200 superfund sites are former military bases or military-related sites.)
Today, generals continue to distract from this destructive record through meaningless promises and novelty proposals, like biodegradable bullets and green explosives. In June, NATO made a big show of reducing emissions while only looking to “assess the feasibility” of reaching net zero carbon output by 2050. Months earlier, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin established a climate working group—and requested a paltry $617 million for green investments.
Despite this, the Pentagon still refuses to report its total energy consumption to Congress, a surely mammoth number spread over a worldwide network of planes, cars, tanks, boats, and buildings. At the same time, the military insists it believes climate change is an urgent threat. Officials are quick to note that 1,700 of their own installations across the globe are vulnerable to rising seas. In a move that made some Democrats swoon, the Pentagon this year made climate change a “national security priority.” In addition to being dishonest, this designation is dangerous, for it puts existential environmental issues under the purview of an inherently violent agency—one that, during the Vietnam War, secretly engaged in a form of weather warfare that involved seeding rain clouds in order to slow movements of North Vietnamese troops.
Thanks to a subsequent UN treaty banning such behavior, it’s unlikely that the Pentagon will again try to modify weather for a military edge. But it’ll keep getting more extreme anyway, thanks, in part, to thousands of chugging death machines. The violent ramifications of this warming world is made clear in a once-secret Pentagon report that forecasts American skirmishes with Mexico over water and Europe over fish. Similar conflicts are likely to erupt between many other nations, reverting human life to what the report describes as a “norm of constant battles for diminishing resources.” This climate apocalypse, while bleak, will make the military-industrial complex busier, and more profitable, than ever. As the warmongers of tomorrow draw up and execute their battle plans, the Pentagon’s 16,250 lights will scarcely be turned off. But at least their bulbs will be compact fluorescents powered by the sun.