The Burn Pits, A Book Review
They are called “this generation’s Agent Orange” — the open fire pits operated on over 230 U.S. military bases across Iraq and Afghanistan during our wars there. Every kind of waste — plastics; batteries; old ordnance; asbestos; pesticide containers; tires; biomedical, chemical and nuclear waste; dead animals; human feces; body parts; and corpses — was incinerated in them.
The word “incinerate,” suggesting an enclosed burning facility with pollution controls, is misleading. These barbaric burn pits were dug on military bases in the midst of housing, work and dining facilities, with zero pollution controls. Tons of waste — an average of 10 pounds daily per soldier — burned in them every day, all day and all night. Ash laden with hundreds of toxins and carcinogens blackened the air and coated clothing, beds, desks and dining halls, according to a Government Accounting Office investigation. The burn pits recklessly violated the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defensewaste disposal regulations. And predictably, base commanders temporarily shut them down when politician and high-ranking generals came to visit.
Some of the U.S. bases were built on the remnants of Iraqi military bases that had been bombed and flattened by U.S. airstrikes. A handful of these bases — at least five — contained stockpiles of old chemical warfare weapons, among them the nerve agent sarin and the blistering agent mustard gas, used by Iraq against Iran and the Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s. The burn pits of these American military bases were placed and dug within the residue of chemical weapons, without first analyzing soil samples.
In his no-holds-barred book, “The Burn Pits: The Poisoning of America’s Soldiers,” former Marine and Army Joseph Hickman exposes the knowing contamination of thousands of soldiers stationed on bases with these lethal pits. After interviewing more than a thousand very sick veterans and military contractors about their exposures and investigating the non-response of the Pentagon, high-ranking military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Veterans Health Administration, the author concludes:
“In my experience as a noncommissioned officer, and after serving twenty years in the military, I can honestly say I would believe the words of a private over a general any day of the week.”
War veteran, Hickman has suffered chronic respiratory disease and memory loss since his exposure to the cauldron of toxic air contaminants, from oil well fire smoke to the vapors released from bombed chemical weapons storage sites.
Soon after Hickman retired from the military in 2009, he began to hear from veterans about medical illnesses they were suffering after being in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus began his unstinting investigation, interviewing veterans, military contractors and numerous medical health researchers who, in the void of Pentagon neglect, conducted extensive studies on the health effects of burn pit exposure. From the ailing veterans, he learned of medical claims denied by DOD and Veterans Health Administrationdoctors, who flatly refused to consider that their health problems were service-related, and insinuated that they were looking for a free ride. He discovered that veterans had more than 20 class-action lawsuits in 2008 and 2009 againstKBR Co., the DOD contractor that constructed the burn pits. And he recounts an incriminating conversation with a retired military officer turned KBR manager in charge of construction on Afghanistan and Iraq bases. The engineer characterized KBR as bragging “that they could get away with doing anything they wanted [e.g., no soil and air testing, shoddy construction, hazardous to health open fire pits, and so on] because the Army could not function without them.”
KBR, then a subsidiary of Halliburton (Dick Cheney’s former company), was the major Iraq War profiteer with no-bid contracts and a known master of “phantom charges” in its invoices to DOD. In self-defense KBR states matter-of-factly, to Hickman, that it constructed and operated the burn pits in conformance with contract specs and Army operational guidelines. In fact, this was true. In its haste for war, DOD flaunted its own environmental regulations and approved open-air burn pits — “huge poisonous bonfires” — on U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nor did DOD require the testing of soil, air or burn pit emissions to monitor the pollutionits soldiers were exposed to daily.
In the course of his research, Hickman enlisted the legal assistance of Seton Hall University Law School’s Center for Policy and Research. The center was highly regarded for its uncovering of human rights violations at Guantanamo and exhaustive probing of the 2008 financial crisis. Its work yielded a list of the most prevalent illnesses reported by 500 veterans interviewed by Hickman, namely, acute and debilitating respiratory illnesses (74 percent) and throat, lung and brain cancers and leukemia (26 percent). Over 90 percent, after long waits, were refused disability. Most significantly, the Seton Law investigation found that those veterans with the most critical health problems had served at a small number of former Iraqi military bases. These particular bases had been “major chemical weapons research, processing or storage sites” during the reign of Saddam Hussein and still had old stockpiles of chemical weapons when the U.S. bombed them and built military bases with open fire pits.
Was it coincidence or not, Hickman queries, that Beau Biden, the son of Vice President Joe Biden, who served as a major for 12 months in two Iraq bases, contracted fatal brain cancer, as did many with whom he served? Medical research has since pinpointed titanium dust particles, inhaled by soldiers from the burn pits, as a likely cause of their high rates of brain cancer.
The book does not shy away from U.S. complicity during the Reagan administration in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. The support, all to spite Iran, included chemical weapons design and enlisting Western partners and Western companies in manufacture and production. This complicity now haunts the current war in Iraq:The New York Times reported in 2015 that ISIS had captured a key center of former chemical weapons production.
The tragic tale of burn pit victims replicates the bitter chronicles of the Vietnam War veterans’ exposure to Agent Orange, the ongoing “Gulf War Syndrome” and depleted uranium exposure, from which hundreds of thousands of veterans are injured and disabled. Further, some of these exposed veterans were likely victims of the epidemic military sexual assault in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Yet those victimized by these crushing maladies have been ignored, disbelieved, blamed for their plight and refused help by their government. They tell an inconvenient truth that yields, at best, years of often inconsequential study by a reluctant government, a government that will spend hundreds of billions each fiscal year on defense contractors and weapons of war but penny pinches its injured veterans.
How can an institution like the DOD — apparently so trusted by a majority of Americans and praised as the backbone of our country by President Obama — consistently treat its veterans like so much scrap cast into a burn pit and get away with it?
A final word on the ultimate war victims. The people of Iraq have been poisoned from the war in 1991 through the current war on ISIS. The arc of poisons begins with the oil fires in Kuwait set by fleeing Iraqi soldiers, which burned for seven months, and depleted uranium weapons used by the U.S. in the first Gulf War (1991) and in the Iraq War (2003-2011). It extends to the burn pit air toxins from U.S. bases that wafted into nearby towns and cities and the recent oil conflagrations set by ISIS and ignited during U.S. bombing of ISIS strongholds.
Once among the best health systems in the Middle East, Iraq’s system of care “has been decimated by war; health facilities have been destroyed and not rebuilt; and doctors have fled the continuing violence.”
Massive civilian suffering is unrelieved, with severe shortages of medicines, unsafe drinking water, a broken government, millions displaced by 25 years of war, and the surge of fundamentalist subjugation of women, especially since the Iraq War. The startling rise of birth defects and cancers in Iraq and high lead levels in the baby teeth of Iraqi children are, in large part, the legacy of our war-created pollution in that country.
We, the United States, have never fixed what we have broken in war since World War II. Our imperial ambitions lie at the core of many now-ruined countries, millions of dead across the world, millions of living dead and displaced, toxic environments and hundreds of thousands of disabled U.S. veterans who fought for the war machine. In the words of economist Jeffrey Sachs, “It’s time to abandon the reveries, burdens, and self-deceptions of empire and invest in development at home.