Militarism’s Impact on Climate Change Can No Longer Be Ignored

Interview with Ellen Barfield, War Resisters League board member, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

Concern about the climate crisis now ranks first or second among a majority of Americans, according to recent public opinion polls. That’s due in part to the high-profile coverage given to newly-elected U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York, and her support for the Green New Deal, which has been championed by the youth-initiated and led Sunrise Movement. But few people active in the climate movement make the connection between that crisis and militarism and war.

Ellen Barfield is one person who does. She’s an Army veteran who served from 1977 to 1981, serves on the board of the War Resisters League, the U.S. affiliate of War Resisters International, which will celebrate its centennial in 2020. Barfield is also the former vice president of the group Veterans for Peace.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Barfield in Washington, D.C., during a break from a climate meeting they were both attending. Here Barfield explains the links she sees between the two issues, and the urgency she feels to take action on both.

ELLEN BARFIELD: What we’re doing programmatically is, we have been for quite a few years, working with the police war games and police expos that happen in way too many cities. You may know the 1033 program, where the U.S. government gives – or sells at a very low rate –surplus military equipment to domestic police. It’s no wonder that they show up with their riot gear with their tanks…it’s horrendous.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Like in Ferguson.

ELLEN BARFIELD: Like in Ferguson, exactly. And we’ve been helping local coalitions challenge that, with a fair amount of success. The oldest one is in the Bay Area and what they did over several years was chase it around – one community said not here, and it just shuffled down the road, and the last permutation is they’ve kind of just about given up on doing it in the Bay Area at all. It’s long and slow and painful, but hooray, that’s a win. That’s one of our programs that’s been going on for awhile.

A really new one is BAMF – Building Anti-Military Futures. And it’s basically a teach-in about helping young high school, mostly students, recognize the extreme pervasiveness of the military recruiters who are in their schools 24/7, and challenging the mindset that that’s their only economic opportunity.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, for the last five years at least, I know you’ve been involved in climate struggles, trying to stop fossil fuel projects. How does that fit into your – if it does – nonviolent work with War Resisters League?

ELLEN BARFIELD: Well, it totally does. I have always considered, especially anti-nuclear war work, but in general, anti-war work is very much environmental work. War is obviously horrendous for the environment. Even just preparing for war is horrendous for the environment. It happens that the U.S. Pentagon is the single biggest entity in the world burning fossil fuel – massive, massive amounts of fossil fuels. And a lot of the wars in the last while have been to keep control of the oil and gas around the world. “How did our oil get under their sand?” You may remember that from challenging the Iraq War. Yeah, good question. How dare we think it our oil? But if you’re capitalistically powerful, you can steal people’s stuff. So all of that, it’s so intermingled. The war economy and the whole war mindset.

And the stuff on the border about “they’re invading” and “how dare they?” They’re leaving because climate change is flooding over [in some places and creating drought in others] where they live but also because communities are awash in violence. It may be gangs that young people who lived in the U.S. and got then kicked out and formed a gang where they went back to because their family was gone and that’s all they had – that’s some of it – and just the terrible violence that U.S. training of military training of Latin American troops has created. I mean, it just goes on and on and on. People leave because they can’t live at home, not because they’re greedy and want to live where the streets are paved with gold.

So, it’s all very connected. I started working specifically on climate stuff because, clearly, it was the other existential crisis, aside from possible nuclear war, so I think they’re very connected.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Most people don’t make that connection. Let’s talk about the Green New Deal for a minute. This is a resolution – not legislation yet – proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez from New York and Sen. Markey from Massachusetts. And I understand that you have some criticisms.

ELLEN BARFIELD: I do. I think it is a fabulous idea and I’m thrilled with all the youthful energy. I’ve been in the halls of Congress for a couple of the big Sunrise things. They’re glad to have us old folks there lending support, but it’s largely youth and that’s tremendously exciting to connect the terrible economic disparities getting nothing but worse, and hurray that the Green New Deal is very clear that not only must we straighten up our act climate- and energy-wise, but that must afford jobs and training and help to the most disadvantaged, the people who’ve had the hardest time for way too long. That’s fabulous.

However, they are not saying anything about what I just said about the Pentagon. And it’s not just the Green New Deal. It’s the Big Greens. The environmental effort doesn’t in general talk at all about militarism and the Pentagon. And the answer back to the Green New Deal from those who claim to be sympathetic, but are [dismissive] is that we can’t afford it, and that’s technically true, but that’s because more than half our tax dollars are going into the already massive Pentagon; we spend more than the seven nations behind us [combined], and those are the only ones that could conceivably be any real military threat to us. It’s just crazy, and we have 800 to 1,000 bases in over 150 countries around the world. Imagine how expensive that is; it’s just massive, massive amounts of money. We’ve got to suck it back.

And so, the Greens in general, and the Green New Deal – just say it. I’m not asking them to go surround the Pentagon [laughs], but just say that that’s a piece of what’s going on. We can most assuredly afford to do those things if we will just change our priorities.

For more information on the War Resisters League, visit warresisters.org. 

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