With Kyoto in shambles and environmental laws under assault, Earth Day 2003 hardly possesses the feel-good air that hovered over the celebrations of the 1990s. More than ever, honoring the natural world impels us to resist those in power. With festivities taking place in the shadow of war, this Earth Day must also be a call for peace.

The environment has long been a silent casualty of war, suffering before, during, and after actual combat takes place. And, from assaults on ecosystems in the Persian Gulf to regulatory exemptions for U.S. military activities here at home, the current war provides fresh lessons about how militarism goes hand in hand with ecological destruction.

Historically, the environmental impacts of military actions have drawn little attention. Self-proclaimed pragmatists like to shrug off the complaints of tree huggers as irrelevant next to grave matters of state. But while their reasoning may carry some weight in a case of obvious genocide, it is dishonest not to weigh often crushing environmental damage in the same balance with international interests and the human toll of war.

Even as the shooting in Baghdad dies down, past and future wars continue to claim victims on the environmental front worldwide. For example, the military industry’s development and testing of weaponry produces an endless stream of hazardous waste. Such activity has contaminated over 11,000 “hot spots” on 1,855 military facilities in the United States, according to the Defense Department’s own documents.

New data on the poisonous herbicides used to kill off Vietnam’s jungles and crops paint a grim portrait of how war devastates ecosystems and poses persistent threats to human health. Just this month, a story broke indicating that Agent Orange was applied far more recklessly than originally estimated — meaning citizens and soldiers alike suffered far graver exposures to dioxin.

Even after active conflicts end, military waste wages a lingering cold war on the natural world. A 1993 State Department report identifies landmines and other unexploded ordnance as “the most toxic and widespread pollution facing mankind.”

Operation Desert Storm perpetuated this sad history. The Gulf War of 1991 resulted in some 65 million barrels of spilled oil, which killed tens of thousands of marine birds in the Persian Gulf and seeped through the desert into sensitive water sources. Meanwhile, in Iraq’s cities, bombing devastated sewage and water treatment facilities.

Most significantly, the 600 oil fires set by the Iraqi army burned for up to nine months, releasing millions of tons of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This pollution caused dark, greasy rains to fall as far as 1,500 miles away.

“The first Gulf War was the biggest environmental disaster in recent history,” former Earth Island Journal editor Gar Smith recently told The Washington Post.

Lacking the massive oil fires and extreme infrastructural damage that marked the first Gulf War, the current clash may not prove as environmentally disastrous as some feared. Nevertheless, with controversial depleted-uranium weaponry in use and with ecosystems still reeling from the last conflict, revelations of environmental damage may emerge, as they have with past wars, for years to come.

Two years ago the World Health Organization began exploring whether the depleted uranium from munitions used in Desert Storm were causing spikes in cancer, kidney diseases and other congenital disorders among Iraqis. The Pentagon says the weapons are safe — but just this month the Royal Society issued a scathing indictment of these claims and called for the United States and Britain to remove hundreds of tons of the substance to protect Iraqi citizens. If such suspicions prove correct, these civilians must be considered casualties of war and counted along with those who died in air strikes. This would mean, of course, that the true body count from the current war will take years to assess.

Even relatively minor environmental disruptions in Iraq can have wide-ranging impacts, especially on biodiversity. The Persian Gulf harbors more than half of the marine turtle species in the world, all of which are listed as “endangered” or “threatened.” Sixty species of waterfowl and nine different birds of prey spend their winters in Iraq’s delicate wetlands. “From a biodiversity point of view,” the noted ornithologist Phil Hockey told Grist Magazine, “this is the worst possible time of the year to have a war there.”

The U.S. occupation of Iraq could itself invite despoliation. Global oil companies are eager to develop virgin oil fields in Iraq, aiming to double the country’s production to around six million barrels a day by 2010. Conservation and renewable energy are unlikely to rank high in the agenda as they undertake this massive new extraction. And progressives, while they push for Iraqi self-determination and support the country’s control of its own profitable resources, should feel ambivalent about Iraq’s stable economy coming at the cost of lowered oil prices and continued U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

Putting aside its impacts abroad, the war in Iraq may deal a cruel blow to environmental protections in the United States. Never one to miss a moment of political opportunism, the Bush administration now argues that requiring the Department of Defense to comply with environmental laws will hurt the troops’ “training readiness.” The White House has therefore asked Congress to exempt the armed forces from a wide swath of regulations — a goal generals have pursued for years.

Given the ease with which the Marines rolled across the Iraqi desert, it’s hard to see how our environmental laws have hampered the military’s ability to face current threats. Nevertheless, the legislation puts the screws into the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Superfund, to name a few. In fact, it’s “a rollback of almost every major environmental law on the books,” says Michael Jasney, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Of course, many environmentalists already opposed the president’s overseas adventurism. To them, the inevitable human costs seemed as unjustifiable as the conflict’s toll on the natural world. Yet, in the end, bringing an ecological perspective to the military debate may prove necessary. Only by challenging America’s enormous appetite for oil, along with its imperial ambitions, can we preempt a war — both human and ecological — without end.
* Mark Engler is a writer based in New York City. Research assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.