“Boots on the Ground” leave footprints: the Anthropogenic Legacy of the US Military in the Middle East

The consequences of American military interventions in the world are well known: destruction, civilian victims, overthrown or supported regimes... They also leave terrible environmental, ecological and sanitary traces for the populations, even when the American troops have withdrawn.

Looking for items to collect, a man rummages through the giant garbage dump left by the U.S. military near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul
Adek Berry/AFP

On 2 July 2021, Afghan security forces awoke to find that the US military had, overnight, pulled out of Bagram Airbase north of Kabul, the largest airfield in the country—and a virtual city with hospitals, classrooms, bunkers and shops—leaving behind piles of ammunition, bicycles, hospital waste, hundreds of trucks and vans, mine resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), furniture, piles of plastic water bottles, broken military equipment, and a $96m 2-mile long concrete runway. Before turning over the Camp Leatherneck—Camp Bastion town complex near Lashkar Gah, US troops lifted out the tanks, and transported back home 13,000 pieces of soldiers’ federal excess personal property’ and much of the 25,000 tons of food that the base had stored. The US Airforce has already “retrograded” (i.e., heavy-lifted) over 1,000 C-17 air freighter loads of equipment out of Afghanistan, and the 17,000 private contractors who had been in-country as of March have left. By 11 September, the US plans to be fully out of Afghanistan. At its height in 2011, the US had almost 200,000 troops and private contractors in-country.

On 26 July 2021, President Joe Biden and the Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi held a joint news conference, announcing the full withdrawal of US “combat troops” from Iraq, but a continuing “strategic alliance” with US support personnel remaining in-country to provide training and to facilitate intelligence-sharing. At the height of the “Surge” in 2007, there were over 300,000 US troops and private contractor personnel in Iraq, spread across more than 70 different types of bases and facilities.

In the Gulf, the US military has been reducing its “footprint” during 2021 by moving Patriot air-defence hardware out of its bases, redeploying fighter aircraft from the Prince Sultan Airbase, and transferring responsibility for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) hardware provision and control to allies.

Mountains of waste of all kinds

Since 1958, when 15,000 troops came ashore in Lebanon, millions of US “boots” have passed through the Middle East; today’s approximately 60,000 spread across the region are well reduced from the numbers in 2003 and 2007, with most having gone home or been redeployed “beyond the MENA horizon”. In the wake of their passing, however, the environment does not forget them, the land remembers, and its peoples are haunted by the toxic flotsam and jetsam the US military and its contractors have left behind. Mountains of discarded tennis shoes and football jerseys, forgotten plastic bags, depleted uranium littering the ground, polluted groundwater, thousands of “burn pits”, the toxic concrete rubble of destroyed buildings, abandoned weapons, heightened levels of air pollution, ammunition residue, and oil spills/toxic waste washing around in the seas of the region have not been “retrograded”.

No matter how far the US military moves back “over the horizon”, or components are redeployed to the Arctic or Africa, the anthropogenic legacy of its presence across the Middle East—as with Agent Orange in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—has a criminal “half-life” which may stretch hundreds of years into the future, risking the environment, health, and livelihoods of generations of those who dwell in the region. The US military has been “fly-tipping” conflict pollution across the Middle East for 80 years, abandoning its waste and failing to take responsibility for contributing to the production of thousands of environmental toxic sites or “local anthropocenes”.

The largest producer of greenhouse gases

There are several primary anthropogenic hazards which did not “go home” with the troops, a legacy of footprints left behind by those US “boots on the ground”. One is greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). This is an umbrella term for a cocktail of CO2, methane, nitrous oxide or fluorinated gases emitted by the wide range of operations (the “tooth”) and installations (the “tail”) that composed the US Central Command (CENTCOM) military presence in the region. Given that the US Department of Defense is the largest institutional producer of greenhouse gases in the world, its direct GHG in the Middle East arise from the combination of: the use of vehicles, vessels, aircraft and other equipment used in combat support (Humvees achieve about 4 miles to the diesel gallon “in the city”); combat service support; tactical or relief operations; training for such operations via wargames or exercises; law enforcement and prisons; emergency response; passenger movement for deployment or redeployment; the generation of electric or steam power produced directly or purchased from external contractors to run bases; landfills or solid waste disposal facilities; contractor air and ground travel; or wastewater treatment. The “black carbon” emissions of naval ships, with its combination of air and climate pollutant particulate matter, present considerable human and environmental risks, especially by degrading local coastal air quality, since ships, for example, often run their diesel engines while in port, producing significant NOX emissions. In the spring of 2020, the US Central Command was operating two carrier strike groups in the Arabian Sea on long deployment at the same time. Each carrier force includes the carrier, three cruisers, four destroyers, and nine air squadrons. There was also an amphibious ready group present in the area at the same time.

The recently expanded Duqum Naval Dockyard on the Arabian Sea has now become a major port of call for carrier strike groups; with its oil refinery, repair facilities and new construction, there are increased fears of a range of environmental harms being generated.

There are significant additional (indirect) GHG’s emergent from the military supply chain: the supply of meat, food, fuel (fossil fuel was the greatest import of the US into Afghanistan), clothing, etc. to keep the troops fed and clothed, but also the emissions of the military industrial complex or war-industry producing tanks, guns, ships, planes and ammunition—Lockheed Martin reported total GHG CO2e for 2020 of 33 m metric tons. Finally, there are the emissions produced by the targeting of petroleum supplies and oil wells during conflict, and from the extensive use of burn pits on US bases (see below).

Acceleration of global warming

The Global Warming Potential (GWP)1. Civilian doctors are often unaware of burn pits and the long-term health hazards of toxic exposure, or of the way exposure to burn pit emissions might heighten complications from contracting COVID-19.

“Forever chemicals” pollute the water

Groundwater pollution is now occurring near almost every US base and airfield around the world, arising from the use of highly concentrated toxic fluorinated chemicals in firefighting foam (Per and Poly Fluoroalkyl Substances or PFASs). Since the 1970s, the US military has used this fire fighting foam in its bases and naval ports to put out aircraft or vehicle flammable liquid fires, to fight fires on the base, and to train fire teams, allowing the residue to dissipate directly into the ground, the harbour or into drainage systems. US aircraft carriers and ships also use this foam, and then wash it off the decks into the sea while underway, where accumulated concentrations of PFASs have been found to be toxic to fish, shellfish, and those who eat them.

The leaching of these “forever chemicals”—which never degrade and are bioaccumulative”—over hectares of ground creates underground pools of PFASs, contaminates the drinking water and wells “down gradient” from the bases in communities kilometers away. PFASs also migrate, being highly environmentally mobile, through soil, dust, groundwater and the air into nearby agricultural production, and into rivers and the sea. Ingested or inhaled PFASs—designated a “hazardous substance” by the US EPA—builds up in the blood and organs causing cancer, liver or kidney damage, thyroid disease, birth defects and reproductive problems.

A major public health challenge

Studies have identified 641 military sites across the US which are probable source points for off-site pollution; one study of over 100 US bases in the US reported 87 bases evidenced over 100 times safe levels of PFAS concentration. Naval bases have for 50 years dumped thousands of gallons of PFAS contaminants into the harbours where they are located. Under increasing political and legal pressure from municipalities and veterans’ groups, US health experts have now labeled the concentration of PFASs in drinking water “one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decade” and are conducting studies around all US bases in the United States—and beginning mitigation strategies. The US government expects to spend close to $3b inside the United States across the next 30 years to clean up bases, airports and naval bases; support veterans experiencing health effects; dramatically tighten PFAS regulations; and to address legacy off-site groundwater contamination in nearby municipalities.

This is, however, a global environmental harm with site-specific consequences that the US military has yet to acknowledge. Communities around the Futenma and Kadenma Air Bases in Okinawa were found to have extremely high levels of PFAS pollution in groundwater and the air. Eleven kilometers away from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the concentration of PFASs in the river is 538 times the level the EU says is safe; German communities living around US bases across the country are seeking remedies to hold the US military accountable for these anthropogenic crimes. In the Middle East, however, there are few if any studies of the off-site groundwater contamination from US bases or ports as source points, or on the effects of PFASs on the health of local communities; authorities across the region have yet to discuss, study or seek to hold accountable the US military for this anthropogenic legacy. Certainly, the US military has yet to acknowledge any responsibility for off-site pollution of PFASs from its bases like Incirlik, Al Dhafra, Naval Support Activity Bahrain, Al Udeid or Camp Lemonier, or to admit to their contribution to the health harms of PFASs on local communities.

Environmental consequences of the massacre of the cities

Anthropogenic harms for communities across the Middle East also arise from “conflict pollution”. This is the toxic afterlife of urbicide, defined as the violent intentional destruction of large swathes of city infrastructure, buildings, industrial sites and energy sources in pursuit of military victory and urban control: city killing resulting from what US Marines call “military operations on urbanized terrain” (MOUT). Buildings explode from the inside by munitions producing huge force and high temperatures dropped in populated areas. The pulverized building materials (PBMs) spread as huge clouds of dust which—like the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 Twin Towers attack—is then inhaled by emergency responders and families continuing to live in the neighbourhood, leaving a legacy of lung diseases such as asbestosis and silicosis, cardiovascular complications, and premature mortality. The rubble, often left for years where it fell, contaminates the children who play among the ruins, and leaches toxic waste into the groundwater and river systems. In addition, the clearing out and management post-conflict of city-blocks of solid and hazardous rubble—concrete, cement with all its impurities, asbestos, metals, chemical products—to enable rebuilding creates additional human health vulnerability at site, and off-site landfill toxicity through environmental contamination and scavenging where it is subsequently deposited.

Ramadi, site of three major fierce battles for US-coalition control of the city (2004, 2006, 2015), lost whole neighbourhoods in the successive battles and all its bridges across the Euphrates, and suffered considerable conflict PBM pollution. The city was 80% destroyed by the time of its recapture in December 2015, leaving this city of a quarter of a million virtually uninhabitable and flattened; one assessment counted 615 bomb craters in the centre of the city and over 3,000 homes destroyed after the 2015 battle. Soon after, the UN called the destruction of the city “staggering”, worse than any other city in Iraq, with an estimated seven million tons of debris, and reconstruction costs around $10b. It has taken years for substantial cleanup to occur, particularly to safely remove unexploded ordnance and booby traps; the US donated $5m to help clear explosives from Ramadi. Long-term, the challenges remain to adequately manage uncoordinated debris dumping, the rising local pollution levels in soil, air and water, and to address health risks of the city’s citizens. In addition, at Ramadi, the Euphrates evidences extremely high levels of heavy metal contamination, and marginal to poor on the Water Quality Index (WQI); the irrigation canals share a similar fate. Post-liberation of Mosul in 2017, UN experts estimated that the city had over eleven million tons of conflict debris to manage, and it would cost well over $100 million just to truck it out of the city: most of the rubble has ended up piled on the edge of the Tigris or dumped into it.

“Stuff happens! And it’s untidy”

Sometimes urbicide takes the form of “shock and awe”, where overwhelming massive force is delivered on a “scale never before seen” against key transport, water and electric infrastructures, or communication links, hoping to immediately stun and destabilize opponents in order to achieve rapid dominance. The US dropped 2,000 precision guided munitions (PGM), designed for targeted point destruction, in the first four days of its 2003 invasion of Iraq; almost 20,000 overall during the “war” phase. Sec. Rumsfeld, commenting on the urban destruction resulting from the US attacks on population centres, shrugged his shoulders and commented that “Stuff happens! And it’s untidy”.

Unexploded munitions and exploded weapon residue, including white phosphorus and unreliable submunitions from cluster bombs, litter the urban conflict landscape, also constituting long-term health risks to urban inhabitants. A few studies exist of how such remnants of war impact local communities; some link a sharp increase in congenital birth defects and premature births due to high lead and mercury poisoning of the environment. In addition, there has long been awareness of the role of depleted uranium ammunition (DU) left from both the first Gulf War and 2003 on the reproductive health of southern Iraqi communities.

It is in the most heavily bombed cities like Basrah, Ramadi and Fallujah where citizens have particularly experienced significant health complications due to the bioaccumulation of these three pollutants in air, soil and food.

All guilty, all condemned

In sum, the anthropogenic legacies of the US military’s presence across the Middle East are complicated, vary with time and location, and are difficult to disentangle from other contributions or to attribute primary causal responsibility. Anthropogenic harms are “wicked problems”, known unknowns for which accountability is hard to prove. Ramadi and Mosul’s conflict PBM contamination arises not just from US actions, but also those of Daesh and of Iraqi forces; GHG emissions from Humvees and F-35s mix with thousands of other sources across the region. There is so little data, targeted studies, analysis or political focus on the US military’s specific contributions to creating toxic hot-spots across the Middle East that it is hard to capture a full picture of the short or long-term health and environmental risks to particular communities arising from specific US military practices in specific sites at specific times.

Yet. It is clear, as one review acknowledged, that “there is an epidemic of toxic contamination at and from US military bases”; this is a known-known, becoming clear, at last, for bases located within US boundaries and for communities nestled just beyond their gates. What is also clear is that certain anthropogenic harms—such as groundwater PFAS pollution, or burn pits—have now been, grudgingly—acknowledged by the Pentagon as of significant harm to US veterans deployed in the region, accompanied by—maybe, perhaps, a little, some—acceptance of responsibility, along with the implementation of limited redress for harms. Both victories have been exceedingly difficult to unlock, taking decades. Veterans and their families are frustrated, as are US municipalities finding themselves downstream/downwind of naval bases and air stations, at the foot-dragging and obstinance of the military bureaucracy: this drama will run in the courts and Congress for decades to come.

“Crap in your mess kit”

But what about the fly-tipping the US military has carried out across the Middle East, and the collateral damage to families and communities living with the detritus? The intergenerational anthropogenic legacy of the well over two million “boots on the ground” and “sailors at sea” deployed to the region since 1958 has neither been acknowledged or calculated: it is the known-unknown of US CENTCOM’s approach to the Middle East as a “battlespace” rather than as a community of peoples. The US focus has been on the experiences and health of returning or serving veterans: their increased rates of respiratory illnesses, debilitating physical ailments, and rare forms of diseases, rather than on the people they were supposedly protecting. US analysts who have evaluated the anthropogenic harms emanating from US bases outside the US consistently observe that “you couldn’t get away with this kind of waste disposal in the US”, or that the EPA would shut them down if it was at home”. The US has polluted someone else’s backyard, putting at risk subsequent generations and narrowed their possible futures as it trampled the flower beds. No matter how far one disappears “over the horizon”, culpability for creating thousands of local toxic source points—local anthropocenes—will long remain.

Each toxic site is particular, not peculiar, with its own evolving anthropogenic legacy being shaped by the vulnerability of the local natural environment, population practices, management tactics, resource commitments, and subsequent climate crises. The US military has helped to create, expand, complicate or hasten these local anthropocenes, and the subsequent health and environmental risks faced by millions of people and communities across the Middle East. It is time to acknowledge that, as US veterans often repeat, one should not “crap in your mess kit”, time to take responsibility, and time to contribute to redressing these environmental crimes. US boots across the region have left terrible footprints; pictures and memories may fade, but not forever chemicals.

1The Global Warming Potential (GWP) provides a common scale for comparison of emissions of different types of gases from different activities. The GWP of a greenhouse gas is its ability to trap extra heat in the atmosphere over time relative to carbon dioxide (CO2) expressed as the CO2e equivalent. This is most often calculated over 100 years, and is known as the 100 year GWP.] ] of different types of greenhouse gases vary significantly, and persist for different lengths of time. Methane—approximately GWP30 compared to CO2 at a GWP of 1—contributes 80 times more to global warming than CO2 over its twelve-year lifetime in the atmosphere, while CO2 lasts in the atmosphere at least 300 years. Numerous small-scale methane release sites—oil pipelines, bunker stocks, naval ports, destroyed petroleum sites, burn pits—are significant short-term anthropogenic hazards.

The overall GWP threat of military emissions over both the shorter and century time horizons emerges from the mix of fuels in use —whether diesel, gasoline, LPG/propane, aviation gas, or Navy special (bunker) fuel; the vast amounts used; and the lifespan of the equipment; Navy ships running on diesel bunker fuel will be in service for at least another 30 years, and already contribute over half of the GHG emissions in the naval ports in which they sit in berth, significantly degrading local air quality. Jet fuel and the various additives used for combat aircraft are by far the major source of military greenhouse gas emissions—the F-35 gets 0.6 mpg while producing over 27 metric tons of CO2e per mission. One recent estimate argues for a Middle East “major war zones” greenhouse gas emissions by the US military for 2001–2018 of more than 440 million metric tons; this compares to Iraq’s estimated total greenhouse gas emissions for 2013 of 282 million metric tons. Local communities downwind of US air bases suffered from localized pollutant emissions produced by flight-line operations.

The per capita GHG for Lebanon in 2018 was 4 metric tons; the war-related operations GHG boot-print for each US service member in the region that same year was perhaps far in excess of 50 metric tons, and this does not include whole life environmental costs of military technology and military provision.

The plume crud of the Balad base

Toxic waste dumps, left behind as the “boots” move somewhere else, are another major anthropogenic hazard for the health and economic future of local communities across Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf. Since Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990–1991, the US Central Command has operated a key type of toxic waste dump, known as on-sight, open-air burn pits—on formal bases, in temporary camps, and at primitive outposts—where waste produced by the personnel and processes of that camp—approximately 4.5 kg of solid waste per soldier per day—is thrown into constructed large holes in the ground located within the parameter of the camp, and burned, often constantly 24-hours a day. Rationalized on the basis of expediency and security, vast amounts of environmental garbage and military waste are dumped into the burn pit as the primary method of disposal, then set alight using jet fuel or gasoline as accelerant, producing toxic air, and toxic earth and water.

Joint Base Balad (JBB), the second largest US base in Iraq, housed upwards of 25,000 military personnel and 8,000 contractors, and reportedly burned over 140 tons of waste per day, at least three times as much waste as that produced by the 40,000 people in the city of Balad, just northwest of the base. The largest burn pit at JBB covered 4 hectares and burned continuously for years after 2003; an environmental health assessment team visiting in 2006 called it the “worst environmental site” they had ever visited, and most soldiers at the base constantly experienced headaches, coughing and black phlegm they termed “plume crud”.

Into burn pits went batteries, plastics, destroyed vehicles, dead dogs, MK-19 rounds, over 80,000 aluminum cans per day, medical waste and body parts from hospitals, electronics, asbestos, food packaging (JBB housed a Subway, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Burger King), metals, and bloody uniforms, tires, mattresses, appliances and human excrement. Civilian contractors such as KBR and Halliburton were often contracted to operate the burn pits.

Storms spread pollutants

CENTCOM— the only US regional command which uses burn pits—estimated in 2010 that there were 22 burn pits in Iraq—including at Abu Ghraib Prison, in the Green Zone, and Fallujah—and over 220 in Afghanistan; a recent audit by veterans’ groups of historic use across the region since 1990 suggests over 152 existed during the occupation of Iraq, 14 had existed in Kuwait, 4 in Somalia, as well as in the Sinai. Such burn pits were also common practice in posts in Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Doha, Bahrain, Kuwait, Batman and Incirlik in Turkey, Djibouti, Diego Garcia, Jordan, Syria and Uzbekistan. The US Veterans Affairs department created in 2014 an Airborne Hazards and Open-Pit Registry to catalogue the pits, research the effects, and register all US veterans who experience symptoms; there remain serious concerns that the Registry does not document all the burn pits that existed. As of 2019, the US military admitted it still had nine active burn pits in the region, including five US-operated and two contract-operated in Syria; and one US-forces operated in Egypt.

Burn pits produce both airborne toxins and pollutants—particulate matter (PM), solid particles and liquid droplets—as well as remnant toxic waste in the ground, which contaminates the groundwater and soil. Hexachlorobenzene is one such carcinogenic emission that remains in the environment since it has a long half life and sticks strongly to soil and vegetation. Beyond constant large plumes of toxic smoke drifting over long distances and leaving toxic ash on tables and clothes of nearby residents, dust and sandstorms spread the pollutants downwind into other communities, and the groundwater and rivers can become polluted with heavy metals.

A 1999 study of carcinogens evident in the air and water at the Prince Sultan Air Base outside of Riyadh found over 9 types, including arsenic and benzene; Taif Air Force Base and King Abdulaziz Air Base in Dhahran also ran burn pits. The air pollution in Baghdad, the second largest city in the Middle East—and 40 miles downwind of JBB—has long been rated “unsafe”, with the daily Air Quality Index (AQI) regularly rated “unhealthy” or “hazardous”, with very high concentrations of toxic particulate matter (PM 2.5 in particular) significantly well above WHO guidelines. The long-term exposure relative risk (RR) of mortality from lung cancer in Baghdad is the highest among Iraqi cities.

Dramatic effects on health

Illness associated with burn pit exposure include asthma, breathing restrictions, cancers, chronic bronchitis, recurring infections, cramps and severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, leukemia, lung cancer, nose bleeds, pulmonary injuries, bronchiolitis, severe heart conditions, severe headache, skin infection, sleep apnea, throat infections, ulcers, unexpected weight loss, vomiting, and weeping lesions on extremities.

The legacy acute and chronic health effects for civilians beyond the camp’s perimeter range from respiratory clinical symptoms to liver, lung, leukemia, autoimmune, reproductive health and skin cancers. Eyes, the cardiovascular system, and the gastrointestinal tract may also be affected, not evidencing until years later. President Biden believes his son Beau Biden, who was stationed at Balad Airbase, died of brain cancer in 2015 due to burn pit exposure [[Dan Sagalyn, « Biden addresses possible link between son’s fatal brain cancer and toxic military burn pits », PBS, 10 janvier 2018 ; Bo Erickson, « Motivated by his son Beau, Joe Biden pledges help for veterans with burn pit health issues », CBS News, 24 mai 2020.