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SPA's Durant on the Greening of the Military

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Robert Durant

War is a messy business, and so is preparing for it. The U.S. military produced nearly 20,000 toxic dump sites by the end of the Cold War, but they also helped protect us from nuclear annihilation. Today, however, nuclear annihilation isn’t the only thing we need protection from. Add terrorism, global warming, acid rain, ground water contamination, and ozone depletion to the list of looming threats, and you get a dilemma—How do you ask the military to run a messy business and keep it clean?

That head-scratcher lies at the heart of School of Public Affairs (SPA) professor Robert Durant’s book, The Greening of the U.S. Military: Environmental Policy, National Security, and Organizational Change. The more than decade-long study traces the struggle to raise environmental consciousness and responsibility within the U.S. military since the Cold War’s end.

The task, Durant says, was a daunting one, given the military’s history on the environment.

“During the Cold War they didn’t keep thorough records; they didn’t know a lot about what had been dumped and where it was dumped,” he says.“It was, ‘We make the rules. We decide how far we need to go without jeopardizing national security . . . They operated in what I call ‘a cocoon of sovereignty, secrecy, and sinecure.’”

Cracking that cocoon, Durant found, took a perfect storm of circumstances. First came the fall of the Soviet Union. As the U.S.S.R. crumbled, he explains, so did the argument that military waste should be shrouded as a matter of national security. This led to legislation like the 1992 Federal Facilities Compliance Act, which clarified that Congress intended the military to be subject to the same hazardous waste enforcement actions as private organizations.

Then came the Clinton White House. “With Clinton you had the first long-term effort to try to get the military to go beyond compliance and become a leader [on the environment] within the federal government,” says Durant. By elevating the status of the environmental office within the Pentagon and issuing executive orders requiring bases to release more information about toxic materials, Clinton, says Durant, “really began to put pressure on the military.”

But ironically pressure also came from the military’s own expansion and even urban development—normally a challenge rather than a boon for environmentalism. Training exercises with live explosives had always created air pollution and ground water concerns for military bases’ civilian neighbors, says Durant, but now there were suddenly more neighbors.

“Bigger, faster, more lethal kinds of weaponry required more land, more space,” he explains. “So you had military bases expanding as urban areas were expanding, and now you have them coming up against one another. That’s where the tensions really began to grow. County governments get involved. Mayors get involved. So it wasn’t just environmentalists who were out there pushing this.”

Even globalization played a role, says Durant, whose research for the book spanned more than 100 interviews within military and environmental organizations. As weapons contractors were increasingly asked to produce arms for joint operations in Europe, he notes, raising U.S. military environmental standards became a business concern. “Weapons contractors said, ‘Look we don’t want to meet one set of standards for you and then another set of standards—which were tougher—for Europe,” says Durant.

Even with all these pressures, he explains, the greening of the military throughout the 1990s was “halting, halfway, and patchworked.” His interviews revealed a growing sense of environmental awareness within the armed forces, but—though the military is quick to point to its progress on the issue—the real impact is tough to measure. “It’s the end of the Cold War,” Durant explains. “They’re shutting a lot of military bases down, so they can claim a lot of emissions savings . . . that they couldn’t get so easily before.” If you look at statistics, he explains, the progress was uneven. Compliance with the Clean Water Act, for instance, still hovered at a low 58 percent in 1998, while compliance with the Toxic Substances Control Act reached 100 percent.

The problem, Durant found, was that combining environmental protection with national defense makes an already thorny issue even thornier. “It’s not necessarily always a case that the environmentalists are right and that the military is wrong,” he says. “These are really incredibly complex issues. If you’re a base commander, you’re dealing with 20 national and international statements, standards, or laws. You’ve got 10,000 pages of regulations.”

Even if you acknowledge the presence of hazardous materials, he explains, you still have to decide how much time and effort to dedicate to cleaning them up, given that your core responsibility is defending the country. “Say you have some buried unexploded ordnance,” says Durant. “What’s the probability it’s going to be a problem? Can’t you just fence it off until you can get more advanced technology to clean up that area more easily? Those are tough questions.”

One thing that is clear from Durant’s research, however, is that once Clinton left the White House, much of the momentum towards a greener defense stalled. In the wake of 9-11, he explains, President Bush launched a multi-year effort to push Congress to pass the “Readiness and Range Preservation Initiative,” which aimed at exempting the military from the Clean Air Act and other public health and environmental laws. Though it never passed in its entirety, the initiative eased the pressure on the military and helped shift focus within the Pentagon away from environmental protection. As Durant puts it, “It was like the air went out of the balloon.”

The lesson then, Durant concludes, is that despite that confluence of circumstances in the early 1990s, the military still needs constant outside pressure to continue its greening effort. “My point in the book is after eight years of the Clinton administration you still didn’t have an institutional sense that this beyond-compliance ethic was integral,” he explains. “You still need that stick in the closet . . . because without that pressure what are they going to worry about? At the end of the day it’s whether or not they are successful militarily in Kosovo, or Bosnia, or Iraq, and you and I and most citizens aren’t going to be concerned how they do it, just as long as they get it done. So without that external pressure it’s tough to keep them focused on the environment.”

The Greening of the U.S. Military doesn’t take sides, says Durant, but he hopes that the book, by taking one of the first long, hard looks at this issue, will broaden the conversation over whether or not that external pressure should be renewed. “I want to raise the visibility of this issue,” he says. “We’re looking at spending anywhere from 330 to 750 billion dollars just cleaning up the environmental contamination from the Cold War . . . So let’s get the best minds in here, and let’s take a look at how we can defend America without compromising public health, safety, and the environment.”