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From Draft NOtices, April-June 2015

Why Environmental Justice Requires Opposing Militarism

— Karen Guzman

More often than not, history classes teach our children that the attack on Pearl Harbor is what triggered and awoke the “sleeping giant” and led the United States to enter WWII. Most history classes also teach that it was the United States who ended WWII with the dropping of two atomic bombs on (the already weak) Japan, killing an estimated 200,000 innocent civilians. Regardless of whether or not you defend the use of such weapons, the fact is that the U.S. let the entire world know of the terrifying new weapons it had built, possessed, and was very much capable of using against anyone who stood in its way. One can then wonder whether this sleeping giant was ever really asleep, especially considering that extensive testing, engineering, funding, research, and taxpayer money went into creating such weapons in the first place. One can also wonder what legacy this giant has left.

The United States marched into the Nuclear Age in July of 1945 in Alamogordo, New Mexico, when it detonated the 20-kiloton atomic bomb “Trinity.” The Manhattan Project sanctioned tests to confirm that such a weapon was feasible, to learn the actual size and effects of the explosions, and to develop an understanding of radioactive nuclear fallout. Nuclear fallout, however, was not actually fully understood until years later. After WWII, scientists continued to study the consequences of nuclear weapons, since the U.S. had dropped its first bomb on Hiroshima only a month after creating it and still did not comprehend the full effects of radiation.

In the mid-1950s the U.S. chose the Marshall Islands as a testing site for its atomic and hydrogen weapons programs due to their geographical location. The people residing in this area suffered from the 67 nuclear tests above, on, and in the seas surrounding the islands. Among these tests was the Bravo shot, which equated to more than 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, and was conducted with the intent of producing as much local fallout as possible so scientists could study the effects of radiation on human beings and the environment. While the media covered this story at the time, it soon lost mainstream attention. The fact that the Marshall Islands were so isolated allowed the public to ignore how these people were exposed to radiation and the effects they still suffer from today. This worked to the advantage of the U.S. military, considering that testing had begun losing support when Americans began complaining about the test zones set up in their own backyards.

Only years later has nuclear fallout been understood to have global effects. After a nuclear weapon has exploded, a dust cloud of radioactive particles forms, which is easy for the wind to carry. Gamma particles and radiation are deposited into the ground, easily affecting humans. So if you believed that only people residing in the Marshall Islands were exposed to fallout, you are sadly mistaken. The fallout produced in the Marshall Islands reached San Francisco in about a week, eventually traveling across the entire planet. By 1962, every person on the Earth was exposed to radiation. Nuclear fallout has even greater impacts on other species and the environment. Observable and ethnographic evidence shows that animals and children exposed to radiation have birth defects, such as being born with two heads or missing limbs. Nuclear fallout also exposes the soil to Iodine-131, or radioiodine, which is consumed by grazing animals like cows, who then produce contaminated milk that humans drink. Trees and food crops were also noted to have been affected by radiation.

So what can we learn? Well, for starters it is important to acknowledge that environmental justice also intersects with the anti- militarization movement. Why? Warfare affects the environment. Water supply, air quality, land use, and entire ecosystems are disrupted by war. Such military impacts are global, ongoing, and persistent in the lives of generations to come. The weapons developed, sold, and used during and in preparation for combat harm the health of all species and of the planet itself. It speaks volumes about our governments when we take a step back to analyze how we’ve created methods of profit from war and selling weapons. This only means we have more money going to destroying the planet than we do to sustaining and protecting it.

This sleeping giant, the one responsible for the development and use of nuclear weapons, has left behind a lasting legacy of weapons and militaries that harm and endanger the planet, including every living thing on it. This legacy exists every day wherever nuclear fallout travels to, and in every place where chemical and biological warfare is conducted. It’s in the lives of those residing in the Marshall Islands, in the hundreds of landmines in Cambodia and Bosnia, and in the tears of mothers from Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from the severe health catastrophes the U.S. created. This legacy torments the wildlife populations in Angola, the Iraqi children born with birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders, and the remaining habitats of Vietnam and Afghanistan left in poor conditions. Undoubtedly, this legacy of a monster lives in apathetic politics, western capitalism, and all of us who choose to accept the ways in which we destroy our planet as normal and inevitable.


“U.S. Military Accountability For Extraterritorial Environmental Impacts: An Examination Of Okinawa, Environmental Justice, And Judicial Militarism”,

“Almost Everything You Need to Know about Environmental Justice,” United Church of Christ,

“Nuclear Weapons Testing in the United States: Sacrificing Health for National Defense,”

“Nuclear Testing 1945-Today,” Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization,

U.S. practices in Iraq questioned by public health researchers,” and “Viewpoint: The environmental poisoning of Iraq -- UMSPH students deserve to hear our voices,”

“The Environmental Consequences of War,” Environmentalists Against War,


This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (



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