The Fire Last Time

As weapons and tactics evolve, war's toll on the environment is of increasing concern.

Last year, in the U.S. Air Force's Aerospace Power Chronicles, Col. Richard Fisher published what many of his peers would consider rank heresy. "As a general consideration," Fisher wrote, "the U.S. should include environmental effects as an issue of central value along with politics, economics, and social effects when deciding whether or not to wage war and, if so, in what manner. It may well be that the potential long-term environmental risk . . . outweighs the importance of other considerations."

Are we ready to weigh environmental impacts in the calculations of war?

We certainly notice them after the shooting stops. Farmers, elephants, and other creatures in Cambodia, Angola, and a score of other lands are still regularly killed by shells and land mines left from old wars. Children are still born crippled and deformed in Vietnam, three decades after U.S. planes stopped spraying Agent Orange and other herbicides. Forests leveled in Civil War battles have still not entirely recovered.

Such consequences may seem quite predictable in hindsight; in the heat of war, they tend not to be foreseen or even considered. Iraq, however, affords a rare chance to weigh environmental impacts beforehand, to try to prevent or mitigate them, and perhaps to choose not to risk them. The last war there gave a preview, and it's not a pretty picture.

In February 1991, the world watched in horror as Saddam Hussein's troops unleashed one final, spiteful assault. They opened the spigots on Kuwait's vast oil reserves and detonated its wells, releasing what was far and away the largest oil spill in history. About 60 million barrels—150 times as much as the Exxon Valdez spilled in Alaska—oozed onto the ground, inundating 49 square kilometers and forming 246 black, lifeless lakes. It took nine months to put out the 613 oil-well fires and raise the dark clouds that covered the region, lowering atmospheric temperatures an average of 10 degrees Celsius. Physicians now await the cancer toll in those who breathed this oily air.

Even before allied bombing began, Iraqi troops had begun releasing some 10 million barrels of oil into the shallow gulf waters, hoping to forestall a seaborne invasion—by far the largest marine spill in history. The slick coated nearly 1,000 miles of coastline. The Iraqis caused most but not all of the war's spills; the allies bombed oil installations in Iraq itself. American and Iraqi tanks chewed up the hard-packed desert, a particularly fragile ecosystem. Afterward, Kuwait's top environmental official reported that shifting dunes covered twice as much of the country as before, and dust storms rose to record levels.

In 1998, the Swiss-based Green Cross International assessed the extent of recovery and lingering environmental effects in Kuwait. (Iraq's another story.) The gulf's waters showed surprising resilience, at least in the short term; shrimp harvests were back to normal and coral reefs appeared healthy, unlike many reefs elsewhere. But in 1999, the Guardian reported a vast die-off of fish, apparently caused by surging nutrient levels that choked off oxygen. Kuwaitis blamed this surge on Iraq's draining the southern marshes to punish the Shiite marsh-dwellers who, at U.S. urging, rebelled against Saddam.

The land and the water beneath the spills proved more vulnerable. Green Cross reported that the Kuwaitis had collected a third of the pooled oil, but the rest was seeping through the sand. Oil had contaminated 40 percent of Kuwait's freshwater reserves, leaving less than a two-month supply—a thin margin if the next war knocks out desalination plants.

Back in this country, anguish and controversy continue to fester over the cryptic, chronic symptoms afflicting a reported 100,000 Gulf War veterans, despite $200 million spent on studies. Around Iraq, thousands of armor- piercing depleted-uranium shells—one suggested cause of Gulf War Syndrome—continue their slow nuclear decay.

Kuwait's postwar disaster is commonly described as unprecedented: "For the first time in the history of warfare," The Encyclopedia of the Gulf War intones, "a retreating army destroyed the environment." But the Iraqis merely practiced one of the oldest tactics in warfare. Like the Russians who burned their own capital as Napoleon approached, the Romans who (if legend's true) salted the ground where Carthage stood, and prehistoric hunters who slaughtered megafauna to starve rival bands, they scorched the earth, denying resources to their enemies. The difference is that today the means of scorching are vastly grander and more diverse. Saddam never employed the most feared—his chemical and biological arsenals—in 1991. But he was never cornered then and still had Kuwait's oil to spit at his attackers.

In any future Iraq war, the cleanup guys in white moonsuits may play a bigger part than the grunts in desert camo.

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