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The Environment: Another Weapon of War?

“Take care that the light in you does not become darkness”

Luke 11:35

Federal Penitentiary, Lisbon, Ohio, May 2001

The Gospel of Luke offers a special caution to our restless, perverse tribe. For God makes us creatures of choice but would never force out choices. So, with Divine help, we can rise to sublime nobility. Or, without that help, we can plunge to the subhuman. Moreover, without that help we destroy others, ourselves and creation. Like today, “this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:4).

                  Flannery O’Connor’s short story —“A Good Man is Hard to Find” —is a favorite of mine. It tells of a Georgia family of five on vacation —husband, wife, grandmother, two children. At the grandmother’s prodding, they decide to make a slight detour into a remote area in search of a house that she remembers from her youth. Almost there, they have an accident which overturns their car, leaving them stranded. Suddenly, another car carrying three nondescript men appears. As they draw near, the grandmother recognizes the leader from an article in the newspaper. “’You’re the Misfit!’” she said. ‘I recognized you at once!’” This seals their doom —the three are escaped convicts —all of them murderers. With dispatch, they take the couple and their children into the woods and shoot them.

                  Only the grandmother remains and she bargains for her life with the leader. “I know you’re a good man…do you ever pray?” “I used to,” the convict answers “but I don’t any more.” “Why not,” she asks, “Why don’t you pray anymore?” “Cause I’m doing OK by my own self!” he retorts. Then, he takes her into the woods and kills her.

                  “We’re doing OK by our own selves!” could be the creed of most Americans. Actually, the opposite is true. The Domination Coalition —Government, Corporations, Military, Church, Media, Education Establishment —combine to reinforce one another and to keep the public at heel. Belief in the “filthy, rotten system” of peace secured by nuclear weapons, the environment shuddering from our militarism and waste, consumption of seven times our share of global goods, service and energy, violence as a way of life, millions diverted by the American version of bread and circuses.

                  What forms this slavish spirit in so many Americans? Materialism, fascination with technology hyper-individualism, privatized religion, mediocre education, excess in food, alcohol and drugs, imperial pride —all suggest a galaxy of false gods which mock the truth and are devoid of compassion and justice. Clearly, we “ain’t doing OK by our own selves.”

                  There are further terrible realities for us to consider. The nuclear debacle —weapons and power —unparalleled as the Big Lie, now kills us and the world’s people at a stupefying rate. Or maims or diseases us. Cesium-137 is a fall-out product of atmospheric detonation of atomic bombs. This radioactive garbage is deployed globally by testing in the atmosphere and underground. A study by Dr. Rosalie Bertell, a world-class epidemiologist from Toronto, computes that 1.3 billion have been killed, maimed or diseased by testing alone. We are being poisoned: by hundreds of nuclear power plants (the U.S. has 103 functional); by 144 nuclear weapons stations (109 of them so contaminated they can’t be cleaned up); by seven to eight million tons of exposed uranium tailings; and by depleted uranium, possessed now by 41 countries, and fired broadscale in the second American nuclear war (Iraq), and its third (Yugoslavia).

                  The evidence above is mostly American since the US authored the Doomsday Race and led it to the present. H. Rap Brown once remarked that violence was as American as “cherry pie.” And Martin Luther King charged that the U.S. with being the “greenest purveyor of violence in the world.”  Americans have little inkling that the blank check they give the war department —taxes, war work, military service, imperial and war rhetoric, moral ambiguity —exposes an intention to burn down the planet and incinerate its people. All for our “Way of Life.”

                  In any case the Nuclear Club —led by the U.S. —has killed, maimed or diseased 1.3 billion people since 1945. The American share of this terrible total is conservatively one half (650 millions) or a Holocaust equivalent (12 to 13 million) for each of the 56 years since 1945.

                  The dead, maimed or diseased increase daily throughout the world as the radioactive toxins, each with a staggering half-life of millions of years, increase in volume. Depleted uranium, for example, has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. Dr. Rosalie Bertell likens the plight of the world’s people to that of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. There, the Nazis with demonic ingenuity fed them false hopes by permitting leadership, police and fire brigades, business entrepreneurship, and promises of resettlement on Soviet land when the selections and shipments began. Meanwhile they kept a stranglehold on food (starvation diet) and communications with the outside world (non-existent). Only when a brave Jew escaped from the ghetto and followed the trains eastward to the Death Camps were the illusions challenged. Slowly, the Jews began to understand they were marked for extinction. A gallant uprising flared in 1943, when the Nazis speedily crushed, then razed the ghetto and built a park there.

                  The analogies between then and now could not be more clear or forceful. Dr. Bertell calls out predicament “species-cide —the suicide of the species.” It is apparent that the nuclear chieftains are killing us. But like the captive Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, we are unwittingly cooperating in our own destruction, which threatens to burgeon into omnicide. Nuclear denial and public silence entraps us —either by a profound ignorance of nuclear realities, or if the facts intrude, by moral and political escapism. Carpe Diem rules our days —get yours, build your cocoon, run like hell from everything ugly or unpleasant.

                  All throughout the cold war face-off with the Soviet Union, the US military, sanitized by a vast and efficient propaganda machine, escaped complicity in the current assault on the environment. But now, a few forthright authors are peeling away the mother’s protective coloration.

                  War results in fantastic death and destruction —the “bloody 20th century” killed more than 200 million in its wars —but the environmental consequences can linger for hundreds and thousands of years. The intense research and development of any combat-ready military machine, the war games carried out globally, and the nuclear cycle (mining and processing uranium, nuclear weapons manufacture, testing and deployment) —even apart from their use in war —constitute an environmental disaster. Given Bertell’s estimates of the human damage caused by nuclear weapons testing alone, one wonders how much that grisly harvest is environmentally connected? In Iraq and Yugoslavia, our twin nuclear wars of the 90s, the military targeted every element of society: enemy, soldier, civilian, infrastructure, the unborn, but also air, soil, water, plant life —in short, the environment. Implicit in the “Total” wars the U.S. wages is scorched earth policy, limited only by our humanitarian posturing. But we left Iraq and Yugoslavia crippled environmentally. The U.S. military, in short, has added the environment to its arsenal of weapons.

                  One might ask what will check this unprecedented criminality, which far exceeds the mass slaughters of Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Hitler or Stalin? What will check the American bosses or warriors except the people awakened to the God of non-violence and justice? No international court exist to indict those responsible, and a Truth Commission is far down the road. Only the people remain.

                  “Take care that the light in you does not become darkness.”


Phil Berrigan

Berrigan was an internationally renowned American peace activist.


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