Columnist Claudia Lefko: Connecting war, climate and health 


Published: 10/29/2017 10:27:20 PM

The story is all too familiar. Electricity is out, houses are flattened and hospitals damaged. Roads are impassable, there is a shortage of food, water, medicines and other necessities.

Many are feared dead and many more injured. Are they talking about Syria or Hurricane Maria? Harvey or the Battle for Mosul? Yemen or Irma?

Recovery efforts are underway in Houston, but did we rebuild New Orleans? Where will we find the resources for the Florida coast. And Puerto Rico?

There’s tough talk about war with North Korea. But have we finished the fight in Afghanistan, or Iraq or Syria? Can we afford to fight on, throwing more human and financial fuel, more bombs on these fires? What will be left if we continue endlessly on?

What are the odds, after so many years of demonizing an “enemy,” that we will find hearts and minds committed to reconciliation, find people willing to work to achieve it? And, the money, where will we find the vast amounts of money needed to rebuild cities and towns — islands and whole portions of countries — so people can return to their homes, adults to their work and children to their childhoods and to schools.

I am trying to raise money for Iraqi Pediatric Oncology Nursing Education and Training, a project to train nurses on a pediatric cancer ward in Baghdad. As I think about my “pitch,” I ask myself: Who remembers the tragedy of Iraq and Iraqis? And even if people remember, why should they care about Iraqi children suffering from cancer?

I found an answer and a soul mate in Barry Sanders, professor and author, twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, who confronted this question some years ago in his essay, “The Green Zone: The Environmental Crisis of Militarism.” The book, named one of the top-censored stories by Project Censor in 2009, uses Iraq’s harrowing recent history to connect three critical issues: war, climate and health. In terms of news cycles, Iraq is ancient history. But if you want to understand the current moment, Iraq could not be more relevant.

What happened and continues to happen to Iraq and to Iraqis is the case study that defines a much larger story, an investigation into the question: What is the U.S. military’s contribution to worldwide pollution and thus to global warming and climate chaos. Sanders offers “…rough but informed …” answers that lead him to conclude the U.S. military is “… the world’s worst polluter…” It threatens the very life of the planet, holding our fate “… in its vice-like grip.” And here’s why:

For decades, doctors, scientists and researchers have suspected Iraq’s public health crisis, especially the dramatic increase in cancer, leukemia and congenital birth defects over the last two decades, was linked to U.S. military operations and weapons of war which introduced large quantities of depleted uranium and other heavy metals and toxins into the environment.

It has been nearly impossible to prove this link because 20-plus years of war, sanctions, occupation and ongoing instability have made it difficult to do substantive research in Iraq. Personal and public records have been lost and destroyed.

And more significantly, there is enormous resistance in high places. Research in the U.S. and Europe about the possible connection between Iraq’s toxic environment and the disease/ symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome in soldiers, is also met with skepticism and resistance.

Sanders doesn’t set out to prove or disprove the connection. He simply sets the stage, and lets the actors speak for themselves. In his drama about the fate of the planet, facts, figures and research sit prominently on the stage next to sick Iraqis, Afghanis and U.S. soldiers. Hundreds of thousands who have died on both sides of the conflicts lie in the shadows as his main character, the U.S. military, struts its stuff.

The U.S. military uses unbelievable volumes of resources, including fuel, to maintain and operate hundreds of military bases and wage wars. They need huge amounts and a variety of fuels. Some are more polluting and toxic than others but they all contribute heavily to global warming and are consumed at staggering levels.

The irony, the absurdity of the situation, is obvious. The U.S. quest for control over fuel drives us to war, and in the course of waging war, the military uses — Sanders might say wastes — extraordinary amounts of the world’s dwindling fuel resources. Citing Energy Bulletin, the Pentagon is the largest single consumer of petroleum in the world, using enough oil in one year to run all of the transit systems in the U.S. for the next 14 to 22 years.

“The Green Zone” is a difficult read. Fact by fact and chapter by chapter it connects the dots between war, climate and health, revealing the extent of the existential threat of U.S. militarism to the entire planet, not just to targeted countries. It answers the question: Why care about Iraqi children with cancer? And that answer provokes other questions, about our own futures, the future of our children and our grandchildren. Those are questions that I expect Sanders hopes will move us to action.

“The Green Zone” makes it painfully clear why we should care about Iraq and Iraqis, and why we have to work more and more effectively to end our endless wars. The book is, on some level, a parallel story to the one we all know: First they came for my neighbor but I didn’t care because…

It reminds us why we must stand together against war and militarism if we are serious about saving planet Earth, and why we must care about one another.

This is an urgent call to action. There are rumblings but I don’t feel a real Category 5 storm brewing. Sanders has connected the dots between war, militarism, climate change/chaos and health. Now it is up to us to do something. Buy the book, read it and act on it.

Contributions to Iraqi Pediatric Oncology Nursing Education and Training can be made online at

Claudia Lefko, of Northampton, coordinates “Baghdad Resolve: An International Collaboration to Improve Cancer Care in Iraq.”

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