The Burn Pit

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There is an open burn pit at the huge American air base in Balad, Iraq, largest of four US taxpayer-funded military monstrosities built in Iraq and operated to this day without a legal status-of-forces agreement. Military Times reports on the environmental concerns of this pit not only because the details are vivid and alarming, but because Balad’s burn pit is part of a larger toxicity problem created by the American government in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rand recently published "Green Warriors: Army Environmental Considerations for Contingency Operations from Planning Through Post-Conflict." The title alone would be Orwellian, if the researchers at Rand had the slightest sense of irony. As direct and grateful beneficiaries of the most polluting, destructive, and studiously careless post—Cold War government on earth, their "Green Warriors" is a modern-day Looney Toon.

Balad, a microcosm of Americana abroad and shining icon of our foreign policy in gas and oil rich regions, produces, among other things, 250 tons of waste per day. That’s over 90,000 tons of waste per year. Waste the size of a US aircraft carrier, or an entire Washington Monument in garbage, year after year — just from one Iraqi base. Who says America doesn’t produce anything!

Today, three "green" incinerators exist at Balad. But to date, the majority of waste is still burned in the open pit. It’s only news today because some apparently unpatriotic American servicemen have been complaining about possible health effects of living downwind from the burn plume.

Perhaps VP candidate Sarah Palin could travel to Balad, talk to the troops, and explain the difference between "real" America and the rest of the country.

One wonders, if one has never served in the military or worked for a government agency, why can’t this activity just be stopped, on command? Isn’t that the advantage of a top-down, non-democratic, government-run operation that is guided by reams and reams of rules and regulations, wholly owned and wholly accountable to the American people?

Those who have served in the military, or studied military history, or read Catch 22, watched Biloxi Blues, Apocalypse Now, or Full Metal Jacket, and even John S. McCain, III himself, all understand that rules and regulations exist to be broken and ignored, and the military is accountable to no one who cannot do it harm, including the military-industrial beholden Congress of false patriots who reliably fund its activities.

Problems and disturbances that appear elephantine and massive — such as the clear intent of the US government to remain permanently in Iraq despite the wishes of either the American or Iraqi people, or the obscene and unnecessary air pollution and waste production at just this one American outpost — are easy to shrug off as impossible to solve or resolve.

But we can take a short lesson on statism.

When I burn waste here on the farm, I don’t always obey the county rule that restricts burning before 4 pm — I make a judgment call based on wind and weather, and go from there. But, as the county guidelines advise, I don’t burn chemicals, Styrofoam, recyclable materials, or ammo. There is a simple reason I don’t burn those things — it might be hazardous for me, my family, and my livestock, and damaging to my property. Even though I’m next door to an often malodorous chicken farm, I do care what my neighbors think and don’t wish to do harm to their property or environment either. I imagine that the soldier pictured throwing waste into the burn pit, and every other soldier at Balad behaves much the same way when disposing of garbage on his or her own property.

Why can’t we extend private property good sense to government? This is the fundamental problem — whether we are considering Congressional and Federal Reserve bailouts, partnerships, and nationalization of bad banks, uncompetitive car manufacturers, or underfunded insurance companies, or if we are trying to understand why the military pollutes at home and abroad with such impunity.

Good sense and personal responsibility simply cannot be extended to the collective. They cannot even be extended to an entire family, a fact George and Barbara Bush, and every other parent in the world, must periodically contemplate. Yet, government in general, and military organizations particularly, are collectives. They are defined by collective thought, collective action, and collective responsibility — which conspire to produce thoughtless action and zero accountability, in things large and small.

It is sad to read about military pollution, the awful destruction of the environment conducted by our own friends and neighbors in uniform. But collectivism, whether it be the kind witnessed in the former Soviet Union or the kind seen today in Republican and Democrat party politics, is simply incapable of producing moral behavior or market-worthy products. Bad ideas, lousy designs, faulty and incompetent planning, and flawed execution are all made beautiful through the elimination of personal accountability, and the redefinition of failure.

This, my friends, is why John McCain could crash airplane after airplane and not be grounded, and why he has loudly lauded the illegal and expensive Iraq invasion, and all subsequent military "surges." This is how Congress and the Fed salvage at above-market prices several well-known companies with our finances, and without a clue, a thought, a plan or an endgame. This is how Barack Obama easily rationalizes and explains his ideas about mandating the sharing of prosperity, at home and abroad. With collectives, as Yogi Berra might say, you never get what you pay for, and then some.

Want to shut down the burn pit? Don’t join the collective, and if you have been made part of one against your will, don’t support it. Wear the white armband of the slave, and nod or wink at your fellows — there are indeed many. And if you are a soldier at Balad Air Base on burn duty — take your crap to one of the incinerators, and don’t re-up.

LRC columnist Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. [send her mail], a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for MilitaryWeek.com, hosted the call-in radio show American Forum, and blogs occasionally for Huffingtonpost.com and Liberty and Power. To receive automatic announcements of new articles, click here.

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