The Future Eaters

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Oh Lord, thy sea is so vast, and these nerve gas canisters are so small . . .


And another dirty secret disappears into the deep. We are the future eaters, to borrow a phrase from Australian biologist Tim Flannery, as quoted by Ronald Wright in his harrowing investigation of why civilizations collapse, “A Short History of Progress.” They collapse because their sustaining natural environment degrades and goes belly up following generations of human abuse, Wright maintains.

“The human inability to foresee — or to watch out for — long-range consequences may be inherent to our kind, shaped by the millions of years when we lived from hand to mouth by hunting and gathering,” he writes. “It may also be little more than a mix of inertia, greed and foolishness encouraged by the shape of the social pyramid. The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.”

And as they prosper, they perpetuate the abuses, in shadow and secrecy if necessary — if the abuses are irrational enough and stupid enough. Enter the U.S. Army, specifically its Division of Social Irresponsibility, which is mandated to make the trash of war disappear. The world is its latrine.

The day before Halloween, an excellent investigative piece by John M.R. Bull in the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Va., told us how the Army’s ghosts are rising out of the latrine and slowly coming back to haunt us.

Turns out, according to Army documents the paper obtained, from the end of World War II until 1970, the Army jettisoned 64 million pounds of nerve and mustard agents, 400,000 chemical-filled bombs, land mines and rockets and more than 500 tons of radioactive waste into the coastal waters off 11 states that virtually ring the country; has only a vague idea where these dump sites are; has made only haphazard stabs at monitoring a few of the sites even though leakage and container breakdown are inevitable; and has not bothered to inform the affected states or other agencies about the dumping, so that if, say, fishermen pull up an old artillery shell filled with mustard gas in its solid form in a clam-dredging operation (as happened last year off the coast of New Jersey), well, heck, the locals are left to scratch their heads and shrug, as they watch the pus blisters develop, “I’ll be damned.”

Talk about creepy. One disposal site is between Assateague, Md., and Chincoteague, Va., the storied setting of the beloved children’s book about wild horses, “Misty of Chincoteague,” by Marguerite Henry. My daughter cherished this book at age 7 or 8. Here’s what she didn’t realize at the time:

“Dumped there in about 2,000 feet of water,” wrote Bull, “were at least 77,000 mustard-filled mortar shells, 5,000 white phosphorous munitions, 1,500 1-ton canisters of Lewisite (a blistering agent akin to mustard gas) and 800 55-gallon barrels of military radioactive waste.”

Reading about this generates the usual outrage, the usual horror. (Why did hundreds of bottlenose dolphins wash ashore on the East Coast oozing from unexplained skin blisters in 1987? Why have so many areas of the ocean become dead zones?) But it doesn’t generate surprise. This is business as usual.

Last year, for instance, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability warned Congress that many of the country’s waterways are at risk from radioactive and toxic contamination seeping from U.S. Department of Energy nuclear weapons production, research and testing facilities.

The first recommendation the alliance makes to the powers that be is jarringly simple: “Tell the truth about pollution.”

These words leave me speechless — they come wrapped in a shroud of silence. We have not reached a stage of development as a nation where our major institutions are required to level with us about matters of life-and-death consequence. Can you imagine how different things would be if they were?

The Army dumped its nerve gas and nuclear waste in secret — and over the years, more than 200 fishermen have suffered mustard-gas burns from shells pulled up with their nets — because telling the truth would have precipitated public outrage. Ultimately it would force cessation of the behavior that necessitates the dumping in the first place: our endless preparation for war.

As Wright makes clear, our interlocked global civilization has nowhere to go if we do to all of Planet Earth what was done to innumerable local settings over the past 5,000 years. The hard times are upon us. And the search for WMD begins at home.