The New Agent Orange: Military Burn Pits in Afghanistan and Iraq
By H. Patricia Hynes (reviewer)
The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers
by Joseph Hickman
(Hot Books, 2016)
They are called this generation's Agent Orange—the open fire pits operated on more than 230 US military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan during our wars there. Every kind of waste—from plastics, batteries, old ordnance, asbestos, pesticide containers, and tires to biomedical, chemical, and nuclear waste; dead animals; and human waste, body parts, and corpses—was incinerated in them.
The word "incinerate" misleads, however, suggesting an enclosed burning facility with pollution controls. These barbaric burn pits were dug on military bases in the midst of housing, work, and dining facilities, without any pollution controls. Tons of waste—an average of 10 pounds daily per soldier—burned in them every day, all day, and all night, blackening the air; coating clothing, beds, desks, and dining halls with ash laden with hundreds of toxins and carcinogens. The burn pits recklessly violated the US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and Department of Defense (DOD) waste disposal regulations; and, predictably, base commanders temporarily shut them down when politician and high-ranking generals visited the bases.
Even more perilous, some of the US bases were built on the remnants of Iraqi military bases that had been bombed and flattened by US air strikes. A handful of these bases—at least five—had contained stockpiles of old chemical warfare weapons, among them the nerve agent sarin and the blistering agent mustard gas. The American military base burn pits were placed and dug within the chemical weapons residues, without a single soil sample taken.
In his no-holds-barred book, "The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America's Soldiers," former Marine and Army sergeant Joseph Hickman exposes the knowing contamination of thousands of soldiers stationed on bases with these lethal pits. After interviewing more than a thousand very sick veterans and military contractors about their exposures and investigating the non-response of the Pentagon, high-ranking military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the author concludes: "In my experience as a non-commissioned officer, and after serving twenty years in the military, I can honestly say I would believe the words of a private over a general any day of the week."
The tragic tale of burn pit victims replicates the bitter chronicles of Vietnam War veterans' exposure to Agent Orange, the ongoing "Gulf War Syndrome," and depleted uranium exposure, from which hundreds of thousands of veterans are injured and disabled. Further, some of these exposed veterans were likely victims of the epidemic military sexual assault in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet, those victimized by these crushing maladies have been ignored, disbelieved, blamed for their plight and refused help by their government. They tell an inconvenient truth that yields, at best, years of often inconsequential study by a reluctant government, a government that will spend hundreds of billions each fiscal year on defense industries and weapons of war but penny pinches its injured veterans.
A final word on the ultimate war victims. The people of Iraq have been multiply poisoned from our initial 1991 war there through the current war on ISIS. The arc of poisons begins with the oil fires in Kuwait set by fleeing Iraqi soldiers, which burned for 7 months, depleted uranium used by the US in the first Gulf War (1991) and in the Iraq War (2003-2011), and extends to the burn pit air toxins from US bases that wafted into nearby towns and cities and the recent oil conflagrations set by ISIS and ignited during US bombing of ISIS strongholds.
Once among the best health systems in the Middle East, Iraq's system of care has been decimated by war; its health facilities destroyed and not rebuilt; and doctors have fled the incessant violence. Massive civilian suffering is unrelieved, with severe shortages of medicines, unsafe drinking water, a broken government, millions dead or displaced by 25 years of war, and the surge of fundamentalist subjugation of women, especially since the Iraq War. The startling rise of birth defects and cancers in Iraq and high lead levels in baby teeth of Iraqi children are, in large part, the legacy of our war-created pollution in that country.
We, the United States, have never fixed what we have broken in war since World War II. Our imperial ambitions lie at the core of many now-ruined countries, millions of dead across the world, millions of living dead and displaced, toxic environments, and hundreds of thousands of disabled US veterans who fought for the war machine. In the words of economist Jeffrey Sachs: "It's time to abandon the reveries, burdens, and self-deceptions of empire and invest in development at home and in partnership with the rest of the world."
Pat Hynes directs the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice in western Massachusetts. She has directed two projects on the consequences of Agent Orange: The Peace Village Project (http://traprock.org/agent-orange/) and 10,000 Trees for Vietnam (http://traprock.org/10000-trees-for-vietnam/).