Persian Gulf Wars and Environment Essay

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The Persian Gulf Wars – the first fought between Iraq and Iran between 1980 and 1988, the second fought between a U.S. – led coalition and Iraqi occupying forces in Kuwait in 1991, and the third fought between the United States and the Iraqi Army in Iraq itself and later against insurgents from 2003 to the present-are no exception to the tragic rules of environment and war.

Success in war is highly dependent on very immediate, short-term considerations. A slight change in tactics or position on either side can have serious consequences for the ultimate outcome of a conflict. Success in environmental policy, in contrast, must develop over the long term. War is fought in highly unstable situations where there is often a lack of clear government. Without a government, there is no way to regulate or to manage environmental crises. Rather than attempting to save the environment, both sides in the conflict may destroy the enemy’s environment for immediate tactical advantage.

Destruction of the environment around enemy troops has an ancient history, going back to the destruction of crops and the poisoning of besieged cities’ water supplies. One of the most dramatic examples of this was the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam by U.S. forces to kill the jungle and root out the Vietcong. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein faced resistance from southern Iraqi Arabs, he drained marshes and destroyed ecosystems. His use of mustard gas against Kurds in the north also had serious environmental, let alone humanitarian, consequences.

The sheer presence of a military can lead to large quantities of garbage and waste. In the case of U.S. troops stationed in the arid zones of Saudi Arabia during the first gulf war, much of the waste was buried or burned. The Iraqi military, without sufficient logistical or planning support, caused serious damage and often relied on burn and run tactics. The most famous image of the first gulf war was of oil fires set alight in Kuwait by Iraqi forces, and possibly by some coalition bombing. Some 600 fires raged after the first war, causing serious respiratory diseases, and the soot from the fires scavenged large quantities of ozone. This has been called one of the worst deliberate environmental disasters, causing an oil slick in the fragile and overstretched gulf ecosystem, one of the most productive marine environments in the world. The dugong, a threatened species of manatee, is especially vulnerable to the destruction of coastal marine vegetation. Several washed up dead on the Saudi beaches after the oil spill. The second gulf war also led to the release of harmful chemicals and pollutants into the gulf.

The bombing of poorly constructed chemical and nuclear facilities led to the leaching of harmful wastes into the Tigris River, source of most of Baghdad’s water supply. The present lack of central control in some areas of Iraq has lead to further serious environmental consequences. As insurgents target trash collectors, waste and sewage builds up in the cities and slums. The looting of nuclear and chemical facilities after the U.S. occupation in 2003 has led to serious concerns about the whereabouts of dangerous nuclear fuel and radiation. Some looted nuclear barrels were allegedly used to store milk and food. Even as some areas-such as the marshlands-have been restored, the lack of infrastructure, water, power, and development has led to desperate measures in a civilian population exposed to pollution and poverty.


  1. Haim Bresheeth and Hira Yuval-Davis, , The Gulf War and the New World Order (Zed Books, 1991);
  2. Micah Sifry and Cristopher Cerf, , The Iraq War Reader (Touchstone, 2003).

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