The sixth in a series of reports from the American Studies Association.
“War and/on the Environment: Critical Directions in American Studies”
H. Bruce Franklin, impassioned as ever, spoke on “Victory Culture and the U.S. Wars on the Environment 1945 – 1962.” Among the wars in question he includes collateral damage from the Cold War, notably the lunatic production and testing of nuclear weapons in the 1940s. The production contaminated sites across the country; Hanford still contains 53 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste and hires contractors to hunt down radioactive rodents, birds, snakes, and insects. Much graver were the effects of testing those weapons, which persist in the aquifer under the Nevada test site as well as in the Pacific Islands most associated with such tests. Fifty miles west of us is Fort Detrick, a main center for development of chemical and biological weapons. HBF visited Fort Detrick in 1954 and heard an enthusiastic description of a new type of nerve gas; his guide did not mention that the toxin in question was already being put into production in the lucrative pesticide business.
Silent Spring was published in 1962, the year the U.S. began its ten years of chemical warfare in Vietnam, aimed not only at the destruction of crops but of rain forests, “the lungs of the world.” Carson, of course, was chronicling the war against almost all insects, arachnids, undesirable birds, and undesirable plants, labeled with the highly contingent and subjective term “weeds.” In these years, U.S. culture defined many plants as enemies to be exterminated by unrestrained technowar, in the creation of the great postwar American dream, the suburban lawn. Nature itself was figured as the enemy. Cold War rhetoric labeled weeds — clover, honeysuckle, dandelions, daisies, violets, anything but the approved type of grass — as subversives, infiltrators, and foreigners: ads proliferated for herbicides such as the Weed Gun and the Weed-a-Bomb, advising “not infantry tactics but wholesale slaughter by chemical warfare.”
Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Alkali, and other corporations could saturate the U.S. market and still have the capacity to turn out tens of millions more gallons of toxins: Vietnam, with its insects and Reds, was the ideal place to turn to fulfill the cultural logic of environmental war, a form of which was articulated in Reagan’s 1965 “parking stripes” speech. The effects of this war appear in Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, in Le Guin’s The Word for World Is Forest, and in “Knowing,” a poem by Marilyn McMahon, who served as a nurse in Vietnam and decided not to have children, never to learn “If my eggs are/misshapen and withered/as the trees along the river/if snipers are hidden/in the coils of my DNA.”
Mike Hill spoke of what Defense Secretary Gates calls RMA, the Revolution in Military Affairs. The lines separating war and peace have blurred in the face of technological innovation, and the human being is disappearing under the aerial empire. Drone war has enabled extrajudicial assassination. They are just now starting to use drones in Texas. U.S. drone strikes have risen by two thousand percent in the past two years; traditional fighting tools are superseded. In this dangerous new Drone Imaginary, the military identifies high density sites as potential locations of insurgency and uses UAV imaging to identify “normal” and “anomalous” patters of movement. The system, in its engineers’ words, “compresses the kill chain,” condensing the time between confronting and killing the target. Under this pre-emptive technology, the enemy exists in an autogenic way: it blurs the friend-foe distinction as well as eliminating the time gap so that the target is not seen and then destroyed: compression marks and destroys simultaneously. It moves technology further into the human brain/computer interface. This weaponization of time and newly violent understanding of space go beyond what David Cole or Paul Virilio has analyzed: with the dronological revolution’s intensities of proximity and distance, of speed and latency, the aerial empire makes war ubiquitous and eternal.
DeLando [or possibly a project or document called “Delando”: my notes are ambiguous] asked in 1981 about the possibility of executive function being moved from the human to the robotic. Now we have to account for nonbiological factors of war, such as climate being used for purpose of war. Of course, Archimedes and Elizabeth I had some successes on that front, and Napoleon was very keen on weather. And the U.S. climatological work originated to facilitate war efforts. Other forms of environmental warfare include the buffalo wars of the late 19th century U.S. and 1960s efforts to affect the monsoon season and rain on the Ho Chi Minh trail. A 1977 treaty prohibits Environmental Modification as a weapon, but has loopholes: it only addresses “widespread or longstanding severe effects.” The caveats about temporality, geography, and economy are going to be seen very differently in undeveloped countries. Of course, the military currently uses Environmental Modification “by default,” using climate change as a weapon. We call the source of climate change “anthropogenesis,” but, ironically, the exploitation of this phenomenon will not engender but cancel out the human being
Liz DeLoughrey discussed the mutually constitutive relation between the rise of environmentalism and the nuclear economy. Think about the surveys that led Tansley in 1935 to popularize the term “ecosystem” and the new version of ecology this was part of. The development of that science included, for example, Atomic Energy Commission -funded research to study the Marshall Islands in 1955 after the serious of nuclear explosions the U.S. had perpetrated there: Operation Greenhouse in 1951, Operation Ivy in 1952, and Operation Castle, which began in 1954 with the unprecedented explosion codenamed Bravo. This ecological and political relations disaster, according to the experts, “gave us the first real clues” to environmental degradation, and was a catalyst and signifier for a global consciousness about a militarized and imperiled planet. The 1955 study is seen as a landmark in ecological research.
After researching Eniwetok, AEC scientists got permission to irradiate El Verde, a locale on another remote island, Puerto Rico. See, ecology was modeled on the concept of closed systems, an ideal of isolation that suppressed the realities of communication and transportation. Presenting aerial views of Eniwetok, educational filmstrips styled it “an outdoor laboratory.” Aerial subjectivity and surveillance films conditioned the conceptualization of the globe: the island is a distinct microcosm. The older horizontal view, looking at the island as your canoe approaches it, reveals a perspective that the aerial view conceals.
The AEC experiments were at the time against international law. As if the fact that American soldiers and scientists were evacuated from the islands prior to the experiments was not enough, there’s new evidence of the deliberateness of radiation exposure and of the illegal collection of biomaterials, with researchers writing that such exposure “will afford most valuable ecological data on the effects of radiation on human beings.” Merril Eisenbud noted in his research the discovery that “While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless true that they are more like us than mice.” Nonetheless they were not given pain medication for their ailments. Seeing the horrific teratogenesis and miscarriages that have occurred since the nuclear tests, scientists explained to the islanders that such difficulties “were to be expected in small island populations,” notwithstanding the fact that they had not occurred prior to 1951. Islanders were also injected with radioactive isotopes.
To this day, the islanders have been refused access to medical records. A 1995 investigation concluded that “The AEC had a moral imperative to use the data gained from radiation exposure.” It was in 1975 that the Rongelap Magistrate wrote to Robert Conard, “You have never really cared about us as people -- only as a group of guinea pigs for your government's bomb research effort. For me and for other people on Rongelap, it is life which matters most. For you it is facts and figures. There is no question about your technical competence, but we often wonder about your humanity. We don't need you and your technological machinery. We want our life and our health. We want to be free.” Elsewhere, scientists were experimenting on Alaskans and Amazonians, because both were believed, ecologically, to be “discrete populations.”
Edwin Martini asked that we keep in mind our interdisciplinarity, our environmental history and our military history. Look at the rainbow herbicides — Agents Orange, Purple, Pink, Blue, and White. The weaponizing of herbicides required a global apparatus; hence, years after their use, millions who’d never set foot in Southeast Asia would find their lives altered by it. Martini showed a series of great slides illustrating the trajectory of a barrel of Agent Orange, from its manufacture in, say, Midland, MI to its shipping in Mobile to its storage in Saigon to one of the various military sites that supported Operation Ranch Hand to the trailer tanks that transported it to airplanes. There were always from two to five liters left in each barrel after it was emptied; there were “procedures in place” (never followed) to dispose of that residue. Lots of leakage occurred, and many barrels were recycled for fuel storage, leading to motorcycle exhaust full of dioxin. For all of the concern about the forests sprayed with Agent Orange, the greatest problem now is in the areas where the barrels were stored.
Prior to 1964, most herbicides were manufactured for domestic use. Subsequently, over seventy-five million pounds were annually produced, distributed, and tested around the United States and the world. Hence a lot of places have their own dioxin narratives. Vietnam is the best-known laboratory, but New Plymouth is also important: New Zealand produced and consumed more 2,4,5-T than any other country, continuing up to 1987. New Zealand and Australia were very supportive of the U.S. effort. So total global demand for 2,4,5-T was driven by the Vietnam War, creating a global commodity chain for weaponized products that have significant long-term effects. Dow tried to make a less destructive manufacture and storage process available to the other chemical companies, but they were not interested. The global scale of these activities’ legacies can be grasped by the interdisciplinarity of American Studies.
A questioner asked about the competing discourse of South Pacific-as-paradise with propaganda films on the island laboratory. Bruce cited a scene in Atomic Café and then said there are similar contradictions in our cultural conceptions of American Indians. De Loughrey noted that the language of the AEC films characterize Eniwetok as wonderfully “primitive” and remarked on the recuperation of indigenous symbols to name military operations. Another audience member reminisced about soldiers putting Agent Orange into their water supply, specifically one soldier who drank Agent Orange, thinking it purified the water, and said that the cohort of veterans he’s describing is still enthusiastic about the war. Franklin reminded us that the plaintiffs in the Agent Orange case, by and large not enthusiastic about the war, sued the chemical companies because they couldn’t sue the government, and were ultimately sold out by their lawyers, notwithstanding the high incidence of spina bifida and other characteristic ailments. We know when we see evidence of genetic effects in male vets that it’s not just ova that are affected.
A question emerged about the laboratory mentality, and the Closed System conceived by ecologists and nuclear scientists — were the two demonstrably connected? De Loughrey said, well, as with other human experimentation traditions, they took advantage of it: the ecologists and environmental studies scholars applied to the AEC for permission to do this work, and their labors ended up establishing the field of ecosystem study. Robert Marzec noted, in that context, that there’s an incapacity at a science level to think of the environment as a set of complex relations.
Martini said that the U.S. has ended up giving some support to all its affected Vietnam War veterans, and that we have the capacity to clean up all of the horribly toxic dioxin hotspots in Vietnam, but we lack the will. One auditor opined that the bad guy ends up being a certain structured technology of knowledge. So from a world view side of it, is there anything reparative in science that rejects seeing systems as closed: is there a potential Other in science? De Loughrey explained that ecosystems theory has been supplanted, but the Odoms’ models are still used in the classroom. Franklin explained that science isn’t something abstract. Scientists come out of a culture and they operate in a social structure. For example, he’s been finding in his environmental activism that the scientists in ecosystem work operate under NOAA’s fishery management, which frames its mission as supporting a profit model for the companies. Their whole set of assumptions is so ahistorical that they are impenetrable to Franklin’s plea that they consider history. Similarly, Martini pointed out, medicine is not used to thinking of a human body as part of a larger system but as an autonomous entity moving through nature.