Mainstream media outlets are systematically disregarding the hazardous health impacts of widespread U.S. military burn pits on civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby playing a direct role in “legitimating the environmental injustices of war,” a harrowing new scholarly report concludes.
“During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the US Department of Defense burned the majority of its solid waste in open-air pits or trenches, producing large amounts of potentially hazardous emissions,” noted Eric Bonds, assistant professor of sociology at University of Mary Washington, in his investigation, published in the journal Environmental Politics.
“It is well known that the uncontrolled burning of plastics, Styrofoam, electronics, unexploded weapons, and other manufactured and highly processed materials releases harmful toxins and particulate matter into the air,” Bonds continued.
“This echoes the other history of Agent Orange when the U.S. government turned its back on the people of Vietnam and walked away, cleaning up just a handful of contaminated places but never acknowledging harm done to Vietnamese civilians or compensating them for their suffering.”
—Eric Bonds, University of Mary Washington
However, when he surveyed major U.S. newspaper stories from 2007 to 2014, Bonds found that discussions of the negative health impacts of these burn pits overwhelmingly focused on the plight faced by U.S. military service members and veterans—but the actual civilians nearby were almost entirely missing from the picture.
“The search produced 49 distinct stories. While five of these stories made passing reference to civilian impacts, and one story mentioned potential impacts to civilians on par with impacts to soldiers, the vast majority of news stories made no mention that Iraqi and Afghan civilians might also have been harmed by the U.S. military’s burning of waste,” he wrote.
What’s more, Bonds noted, “When journalists describe the pollution itself, how it billowed over military bases and covered living quarters with ash and soot, such accounts never mention that this pollution would not have stopped at the cement barricades and concertina wire at base boundaries, but must have also settled over civilians’ homes and the surrounding landscapes.”
From Balad air base in Iraq to Shindad base in Afghanistan, these sites are in fact located in close proximity to “farmsteads, townships, cities, cropland, orchards, and rivers.”
As Common Dreams previously reported, Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, independent environmental toxicologist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, has identified a correlation between burn pits and spikes in birth defects among Iraqi communities nearby.
According to Bonds, by failing to tell the stories of the Iraqi and Afghan people impacted, the media has a hand in the injustices committed against them.
“This echoes the other history of Agent Orange when the U.S. government turned its back on the people of Vietnam and walked away, cleaning up just a handful of contaminated places but never acknowledging harm done to Vietnamese civilians or compensating them for their suffering,” Bonds told Common Dreams.
As in Vietnam, people in Iraq and Afghanistan are demanding acknowledgment of—and reparations for—the harm done by U.S. burn pits and toxic munitions.
Iraqi civil society groups including the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq have organized within their communities and levied international demands for the U.S. to clean up its burn pits, depleted uranium, white phosphorous, and other toxic waste which is creating an ongoing public health crisis in Iraq.