Nuspl on Martini, 'Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases'

Edwin A. Martini, ed.
Tony Nuspl

Edwin A. Martini, ed. Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases. Donald R. Ellegood International Publications Series. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 320 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-99465-9.

Reviewed by Tony Nuspl (Rogers State University, Tulsa Peace Fellowship) Published on H-Environment (July, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (University of Idaho)

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"The Mess That War Left Behind"

To be fair, "the demilitarization of landscapes" is a large topic, and the nine essays within Edwin A. Martini's edited collection Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases provide a slice (introduction, by Martini, p. 13). But the book is not a compelling read. Part of the problem is the editor's preference for what he calls "the detached perspective," which makes for some bloodless writing, in the policy vein, as opposed to the "resistance school," writings that do not shy away from value judgments about US militarism and imperialism (pp. 5, 4-6). As a result, the latter is sorely underrepresented and instead, overall, this collection seems to strive for what might be called a veneer of objectivity, an academic tone of detachment that tends to reinforce the status quo. Perhaps this even bleeds into providing apologia for past US military mistakes, or the current refusal to own up to environmental disasters caused, both at home and abroad, by US military forces and/or "militarized landscapes" incidental to US bases. Yet the introduction promises discussion of "charges of ecocide" made against the US military (p. 14). Instead we get a tendentious argument that the US military is capable of acknowledging "nature's integral role" (p. 8).

Aren't we better off just sticking to the term "landscapes of contamination" rather than debating "the refuge effect" for the fauna that happen to be guests of military-controlled lands (pp. 9, 249)? Chapter 2, by Neil Oatsvall, opines that the military is capable of a "deep sensitivity to the natural world" because of a nod in the direction of protecting charismatic species —in this case, the sea otter; also see chapter 8 on the red-cockaded woodpecker, the brown pelican, the Hawaiian stilt, the manatee, the leatherback turtle, etc. (introduction, p. 8). Chapter 3, by Leisl Carr Childers, attempts to reconstruct people's reactions to nuclear testing and their consciousness (or lack thereof) that bombs going off upwind means that they—and their livestock—are in turn downwinders "under the shadow of the fallout cloud" (p. 84; "downwind" pp. 81, 90). The essay discusses the popular epidemiology used by non-experts outside the military proper to understand the degree of risk from nuclear bomb tests to which they or their livestock might be exposed. Using inductive reasoning, the average citizen was capable of concluding that "contact with radioactive fallout seemed the most likely explanation" for some of the health problems being experienced (p. 103). But in keeping with the detached perspective, it is impossible to say what the author's views are about low-level radiation (LLR) exposure from the testing regime that occurred in the continental US.

Meanwhile, chapters 4 and 5 are concerned with how the biological and chemical weapons used by the US military for aerial defoliation can be the subject of "spin." Chapter 4, by Martini, argues that the more-or-less responsible destruction of Agent Orange stocks in the 1970s constitutes sufficient evidence for a wonted "military environmentalism"—even if this involved using the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific as a dumping ground (p. 113). But as the author explains, if it was a responsible way to destroy the environmental hazard, also known as "the mess that war left behind," the US military only did so because it "was compelled to deal" with an increasingly complex set of environmental laws and regulations (pp. 121, 113). The academic approach dominates chapter 5, by Daniel Weimer, with its discussion of "post-environmental movement discourse" in the "defoliation programs" of US foreign policy (p. 148). The institutional bias in the discussion is clear, with the emphasis on "how U.S. officials in the mid-1970s negotiated a seemingly inhospitable atmosphere" regarding herbicide programs, with their desire to continue using Vietnam-style defoliants, based on Monsanto corporation's product glyphosate (p. 144). In sum, Weimer argues that American officials aimed "to thwart critics who argued that drug crop defoliation posed a danger to the environment and public health" for the sake of pursuing the drug war (p. 147). Again, this chapter undermines the idea that there is such a thing as "military environmentalism."

Chapters 6, 7, and 8 address the role of civil society in opposing militarized landscapes. Chapter 6, by Jennifer Liss Ohayon, involves a promising discussion of "citizen advisory boards" as part of the civilian oversight of US military Superfund sites, in other words, the hundreds of environmental disaster zones designated as priorities by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This touches on issues of environmental injustice done to minority communities forced to bear the brunt of the pollution and contamination in their communities due to US military operations, US bases, or US munitions production. It should come as no surprise that "military-related activities are responsible for the majority of the contaminated federal lands in the United States" (p. 177). Given that the Superfund Act was "passed in part as a response to public advocacy," public participation is still needed to ensure Department of Defense (DOD) accountability in the requisite environmental cleanup or remediation efforts (p. 172). Unfortunately, the citizen advisory boards—up until they were disbanded—did not really afford the public a chance to shape decisions or influence priorities for specific sites, according to the case studies addressed here. Chapter 7, by Heejin Han and Yooil Bae, discusses civil society as the source of pressure to change the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in South Korea. Essentially, the problem is that the SOFA is a paper tiger when it comes to environmental protection, providing cover for the negligence of US Forces in Korea (USFK). All the costs to mitigate the damage caused at Camp Kim have been borne by the Koreans, because the USFK has externalized the cost of its operations, foisting the cost of cleanup on the Koreans so as not to be borne by the USFK. The intransigence of the USFK on this point, and the reluctance of the South Korean government to rock the boat, as host nation, means that it remains largely in the hands of investigative journalists to raise public awareness about "the environmental externalities produced by U.S. military bases" (p. 230).

Chapter 8, by Katherine M. Keirns, addresses the use of landmark legislation by the citizenry as a kind of domestic "insurgency" against at least three types of militarized landscapes: DOD land grabs, Cold War nuclear standoff weapons in farm fields, and biological weapons labs in the Midwest. The experience at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the civilian US Fish and Wildlife Service, a relatively underfunded agency went up against the US Army, and won its case for species conservation under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), is retold here. There are today still complaints from the armed services about the power of the ESA; but the DOD has secured itself buffer zones around its bases under the auspices of the ESA, having learned from these legal suits against it to situate itself as defender of the land rather than as a threat to it. There are good reasons to remain dubious about the sincerity of such environmentalism, given the instrumental goals that could be hiding behind it (more land grabs, down the line) and the ingrained grumbling about the ESA within the military.

What kind of "wilderness" is it, when, due to human hazards left behind, you have to sign a waiver before entering? The last chapter in this volume, chapter 9, by David G. Havlick, recommends a visit to the refuge in southern Indiana, carved out of the Jefferson Proving Ground (JPG), even though there is a radiological hazard lurking from so-called depleted uranium rounds, not to mention the non-radiological hazard from another three to five million unexploded conventional shells. As a "militarized landscape," the nature of the site as "severely degraded" is readily admitted (p. 266). But we get more of the detached perspective, with this "hybrid landscape" described as an "integrated cultural and ecological production" (pp. 268, 266.). Rather than admit that certain things useful to the military have no utility in the state of nature—such as genotoxic radioactive fragments and unexploded ordnance (UXO)—the argument turns the concept of ecological restoration on its head, in order to "interpret the relationship between militarism and the environment more broadly" (p. 267). This is the thin edge of the wedge, leading to the argument that man (to wit, militarized man) is the measure of all things. The cynic might sniff at the greenwashing involved in relabeling major military installations as "national wildlife refuges"—nearly two dozen of them now created in the US in this fashion, by repurposing military lands. (The prospect that this is mere rhetorical cover is explicitly mentioned in this volume as a possibility, in chapters 8 and 9). Yes, the DOD would like you to believe in the "military's environmental stewardship" (p. 270, citing an official publication), and have you sign the hold-harmless agreement as you enter their sites, but what we are really looking at are "mutant ecologies" (Joseph Masco's term, from a paper cited in chapter 9, p. 285n18), a term of art that is particularly apt where radiological contamination is involved, such as from depleted uranium (DU) ordnance tests, or plutonium contamination. It is also hard to see how uncleared minefields (such as the DMZ in Korea, or the "death strip" of the Iron Curtain Trail) can be called "de facto wildlife refuges" (p. 271): that certainly is not what the layman means by "wilderness." In sum, the discussion of nature gets unmoored, increasingly subject to poststructuralist or postmodern academic speculation, in the "discourse of ecological militarization" with its disjunctures and simulacra; an ersatz nature of brownfields seems to be all that the DOD lands can provide as de facto protected areas, the military's land base often being "in dire need of cleanup and remediation" before it can be given back in some shape or form to the civilian world (pp. 283, 276).

In defense of US military practices, there is mention of what might be called environmental recovery occurring at (some) militarized landscapes, by means undertaken intentionally to reverse the demise of nature where possible, by providing "ecological restoration" to damaged lands or contaminated waters. The idea behind the recovery of an ecosystem is usually that nature can only recuperate when humanity retreats, or somehow gives the ecology a break from the stresses imposed by human civility—or incivility, as the case may be. The instituting of dozens of transitional military-to-wildlife refuges ("M2W") is not necessarily progress; it might just be false progress, resulting in merely managed landscapes. This collection seems to want to blur the distinction between "militarized landscapes" (in the title of the book) and land recuperating from previous military uses (the bomb crater as habitat). The essays are at cross-purposes in this regard: whereas chapter 1, by Brandon C. Davis, argues that wilderness conservation on military-claimed lands was largely "an unintended or ironic consequence of locking up land," essentially accidental and incidental, chapter 8, by Katherine M. Keirns, argues that this kind of benefit to nature is now wired into the military's land management policies, because of lessons learned (p. 35). With this category of "military-into-wildlife refuge" (and attendant "buffer zones"), there is a tendency to anthropomorphize nature, resorting to cultural excuses for incompletely restored land, unintentional "gardens." The overall claim seems to be that this kind of hybrid landscape is the new reality we have to accept, or the best of a possible future. And yet, if there is a unifying theme for this volume, it is that the US military and its "empire of bases that continue to litter the planet" should not be permitted to treat any part of the land or sea as a Permanent Sacrifice Zone (PSZ), whether at home or abroad, whether in the plains or in the forests, whether along the coast or in a deep sea trench (p. 15).

Citation: Tony Nuspl. Review of Martini, Edwin A., ed., Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL:

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