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Report: Ecoconsciousness can help win wars

By being sensitive to environmental concerns, US Army can win hearts and minds of populace, but its record is spotty so far.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 2008

Capt. Jeff Stevenson (l.) shares a laugh about being honest before God with headman Abbas Aswad (r.) as marines pay compensation for breaking water lines in Mukhtar Village in May 2004. The bloodiest fighting still lay ahead; the turning point was when tribal leaders turned against Al Qaeda.

Scott Peterson / Getty Images / File


Amid rampant attacks from insurgents in 2004, some US commanders in Iraq began to shift strategy to include fixing environmental problems like clogged sewer lines, growing trash piles, and polluted drinking water.

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That green-warrior approach to winning “hearts and minds” seemed to help. Attacks fell dramatically in Baghdad neighborhoods when troops restored clean water. “Fence sitters” in the conflict sided with US forces.

Yet despite several such successes and a strong environmental ethic on bases in the United States, US Army commanders typically overlook environmental concerns in plans for operations overseas, says a new RAND Corporation study.

Commissioned by the Army Environ­mental Policy Institute (AEPI), the study examined the role environmental considerations and issues play in the Army’s “contingency operations” – long-term missions abroad that may involve conflict.

The conclusion: The US Army succeeds better when it’s a deeper shade of green.

“Although environmental considerations are integral to the Army’s ability to meet national objectives ... they are often underrepresented in the competition for attention, investments, and manpower,” the report states. While the Army does have some environmental policy guidelines for such operations, it “has no comprehensive approach to environmental considerations in contingencies, especially in the post-conflict phase.”

As a result, fuel and other hazardous-waste spills, raw sewage gushing into local waters (from bases that were supposed to be temporary but grew to be permanent), and gargantuan garbage piles have plagued Army operations – and irritated local populations – from Haiti and Bosnia to Afghanistan and Iraq, the report found.

Does that mean soldiers must become tree-huggers? Not exactly. Depar­tment of Defense directives exempt combat operations from environmental requirements. But in one of its most striking findings, RAND says incorporating environmental concerns into planning contingency operations “can have a significant impact ... and be particularly important for success in the post-conflict phase.”
Army officials interviewed by the Monitor say ecoawareness is already high – but could be improved.

“I think we have a better appreciation for environmental considerations during contingency operations than we have ever had at any point in time in the past,” says Tad Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for environment, safety, and occupational health and a proponent of the RAND study. “We’re seeing commanders that really – they get it.... They have a thorough understanding of the impact, the second- and third-order effects in many cases, that environmental considerations have.”

A key benefit from wrapping the environment into military planning is that it protects US troops as well as civilians. In many nations that US troops enter, environmental conditions are already poor, and further degradation can alienate local populations. The Army got it right, the report says, when it put environmental monitors at the Iraqi port of Ash Shuaiba, where air pollution – including chemical releases and dust – was considered a major health threat. (Despite efforts to deal with dust and other pollution, releases of ammonia and sulfur dioxide sickened soldiers in April 2004.)

While US military doctrine calls for environmental baseline assessments when a base is established, that wasn’t done in Iraq until much later. Such failures can lead to dangerous situations. In June, congressional hearings examined whether some 250 US soldiers had been exposed to toxic sodium dichromate while guarding an Iraqi oil installation.

In more than half of the 111 cases documented by RAND, the report concludes that US military actions directly or indirectly caused, or could have caused, additional environmental harm.