Whatever its merits, Warren’s proposal ultimately fails to confront American imperialism’s foundational belief that the military exists to benefit the United States domestically. What’s more, those who live under the boot of the U.S. empire have been stripped of the self-determination and resources necessary to combat climate change themselves.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks to local residents during a meet and greet Ottumwa, Iowa, last week. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)
Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., introduced a plan to “green” the U.S. military. After cataloging some of the threats to our “readiness” posed by climate change—including floods and hurricanes compromising Air Force bases—the proposal quickly pivots to the “thousands of people [forced] to migrate from their homes,” conflating the fates of the most vulnerable people on Earth with that of the world’s largest military.
It goes on like this, arguing that by reducing its carbon emissions, the U.S. military can help “fight climate change.” The plan rightly acknowledges that America’s armed forces use a downright obscene amount of energy. (According to Common Dreams, “The Pentagon’s carbon footprint is 70 percent of total U.S. emissions … [using] more oil than 175 smaller countries combined.”) And after pitching the need to develop technologies capable of curbing this usage, Warren calls on the Pentagon to “produce an annual report evaluating the climate vulnerability of every U.S. military base at home and abroad.” This is her plan to eliminate its carbon emissions, to “harden the U.S. military against the threat posed by climate change.”
Although her plan’s introduction does shine a light on one of the most under-discussed causes of global warming, it neglects to acknowledge that U.S. foreign policy, past and present, is predicated on securing land and natural resources—namely oil—and that the need to do so will only intensify as the planet continues to deteriorate. These are resources that must stay in the ground to avoid exacerbating a climate emergency that is already wreaking havoc throughout the world. While Warren believes “accomplishing the mission depends on our ability to continue operations in the face of floods, drought [and] wildfires,” perhaps our “mission” must ultimately end—or at the very least be severely constrained.
Whatever its merits, Warren’s proposal ultimately fails to confront American imperialism’s foundational belief that the military exists to benefit the United States domestically. What’s more, those who live under the boot of the U.S. empire have been stripped of the self-determination and resources necessary to combat climate change themselves. The Massachusetts senator’s record has been far from progressive when it comes to issues of foreign policy and military spending, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that she has taken this tack.
This month, Warren introduced a separate plan to rein in Pentagon grift, threatening the more-than-cozy relationship between contractors—whose shareholders demand the pelf of endless war—and the federal government by closing the revolving door that separates the two. The proposal also demands a better paper trail for an institution that can’t account for $8.5 trillion. But it too refuses to grapple with America’s global hegemony, because while it would be naive to suggest all of its foreign policy commitments are rooted in the extraction of resources, it’s hardly a stretch to say the United States and the empire it has constructed are built on this very bedrock.
America owes its very existence to land theft and genocide. As historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz notes in “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment,” the first militia, founded by the Pilgrims in 1676 (a full century before the Declaration of Independence) sought to “discover, pursue, fight, surprise, destroy or subdue the enemy.” Scholars ranging from Aziz Rana to Greg Grandin to Daniel Immerwahr have argued that this colonial conquest via frontier settlements would ultimately guide the United States’ expansion beyond its borders.
In “How to Hide an Empire,” Immerwahr recalls that in the 1850s, due to an agricultural and economic crisis, Eastern farms desperately needed fertilizer. As luck would have it, uninhabited Pacific Islands were rich with guano, a natural manure, which led Congress to pass the Guano Islands Act of 1856. The law allowed any American citizen to claim its lands for the United States as long as they were unclaimed and uninhabited. After its passage, the bill helped create a legal precedent for future U.S. acquisitions.
Once the United States was mostly settled, President Theodore Roosevelt continued to look West in the hopes of extending the American frontier. Wars in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines followed, binding notions of citizenship to the empire by providing social rights like housing and education in exchange for military service. As the U.S. has grown, so has its influence in the world: America now “has approximately 800 formal military bases in 80 countries, a number that could exceed 1,000 if you count troops stationed at embassies and missions and so-called ‘lily-pond’ bases, with some 138,000 soldiers stationed around the globe,” according to The Nation.
With such vast influence, perhaps the most urgent question facing the country is not “how fast can we green the military,” as Warren’s plan suggests, but who is most threatened by climate change, America’s armed forces or the people subjugated by them? Many U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have already suffered humanitarian disasters in the age of climate catastrophe. But as Hurricane Maria so clearly demonstrated, these crises are born of limited access to resources rather than a lack of preparedness on the part of our military. (Today, Puerto Rico is saddled with a monstrous debt that threatens its ability to rebuild in the storm’s aftermath, to say nothing of its autonomy.)
Perhaps Warren’s biggest blind spot, however, is the United States’ plundering of fossil fuels, independent of their use by the U.S. military. I remember learning as a bewildered teen that the George W. Bush administration initially called the Iraq War “Operation Iraqi Liberation,” the acronym of which spells “oil,” before quickly rebranding to the more noble-seeming “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” FOIA requests soon revealed that Vice President Dick Cheney had targeted Iraqi oil assets in March 2001, a full six months before the attacks of 9/11. During the Obama administration, more records revealed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (with the assistance of Vice President Joe Biden) used her department to pitch fracking throughout the world on behalf of oil giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron. More recently, national security adviser John Bolton has admitted the Trump administration is “looking at the oil assets” of Venezuela. “We’re in conversation with major American companies now,” he told Fox News in January. “I think we’re trying to get to the same end result here.”
Warren is right to highlight the connection between militarism and climate change. But even if her plan were enacted tomorrow, and the world’s largest polluter rendered carbon neutral, the contradictions of such a policy would remain. If anything, they would only become more pronounced. Climate change demands that we dismantle the military industrial complex once and for all, and no amount of triangulating will suffice.
Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western…
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Excerpt: The plan rightly acknowledges that America’s armed forces use a downright obscene amount of energy. (According to Common Dreams, “The Pentagon’s carbon footprint is 70 percent of total U.S. emissions …