Since the time most Western history books refer to as the “Age of Discovery,” states interested in empire and global trade established military bases on the many islands of the Pacific. Originally, these bases served a mostly logistical purpose, providing ships with places to resupply on their long journeys across the world’s largest ocean. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish claimed whole island chains throughout the Pacific. A Spanish explorer claimed Guam, for example, in 1565, and a band of Jesuit missionaries permanently settled on the island a century later. Following the Spanish-American War, the United States of America annexed a number of islands previously controlled by the Spanish crown, and by the end of the Second World War, only the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and France retained their Pacific empires.
Throughout the later 20th century, many of these islands gained their independence from their imperial masters, though not before a number of them were subjected to nuclear testing. The widespread environmental, human, and cultural destruction caused by these tests is so great that it would be a disservice to both issues to discuss them in the same article. However, as the direct control of these empires receded, a number of them, namely the United States, left military bases in their wake, often included in treaties that guaranteed the independence of the formerly colonized nations. Much has been said about the U.S.’s method of expanding and maintaining its position as the premiere global superpower through the use of its many military bases, but, especially on the small, increasingly densely populated islands of the Pacific, they have a less-discussed environmental cost.
On small islands, locals and people indigenous to the island often find that military buildup and construction impacts their access to clean, accessible drinking water. United States military bases, both domestic and foreign, consistently rank as some of the most polluted places in the world, as perchlorate and other components of jet and rocket fuel contaminate aquifers, soil, and other sources of drinking water. On Okinawa, which, in 2003, housed 70% of all the military bases in Japan despite making up only 0.6% of its total landmass, the military often doesn’t report environmental accidents to the Japanese government. However, recent studies show that Okinawan children have been burned while swimming on shorelines sprayed with defoliants and sickened by drinking water contaminated with herbicides. The U.S. military has poisoned the water of around a third of the island’s population with PFAS substances, which are used in food wrapping, nonstick cookware, and, most importantly, military firefighting foams, the largest known contamination in Okinawa’s history. In 2016, when Okinawans first learned of the contamination, government officials asked for permission to inspect Kadena Air Force base, and still had not received approval as of 2020, with a military spokesman claiming that it would be inappropriate to speculate on the origin of PFAS on the island, despite it having no other industries that manufacture or use the substance. Internal reports from the Kadena Air Base reveal that between 2001 and 2015, the facility accidentally released at least 23,000 liters of various firefighting foams. These issues are compounded by the fact that Article 4 of the Status of the United States Armed Forces Agreement requires the Japanese government to pay for any environmental cleanup.
Okinawa is not alone in its plight in regards to lack of access to clean water. On Guam, local and environmental activists have raised concerns that new construction, which, ironically, began in order to lessen the U.S.’s military footprint in Japan, may have unintended consequences on their access to clean water. For one, the dramatic increase of population on an island with aging infrastructure will undoubtedly cause undue stress on the water supply, creating a shortage of at least six million gallons per day, according to estimations. Even if the Department of Defense manages to drill 16 new wells, which is unlikely due to a shortage of funding, there may still be a shortage of fresh water. Water shortages decrease water pressure, which can cause sewage and storm water to seep into drinking water, causing waterborne diseases that will inevitably affect lower income communities the most, as well as making it harder for firefighters to put out fires. Wastewater is a similar issue, as its disposal is expensive and complex even in the best of situations and Guam, with its lack of space, deteriorating infrastructure, and governmental red tape, dealing with it could be incredibly difficult. In 2016, no work had been done to improve the water and sewage situation. Locals also expressed concerns that lead from bullets in the planned live firing range could contaminate the island’s aquifer. On Saipan, the Department of Defense shipped ceramic containers of PCBs, highly toxic, carcinogenic materials often used in electrical equipment such as transformers and circuit breakers, to the island in the 1960s, not informing the Confederation of the Northern Marianas about their presence until 1988. Before being informed, local residents, unaware of the nature of the items, used the potentially deadly capacitors as boundary markers, windbreaks, roadblocks, and even headstones. When the United States left its installations at Subic Bay and Clark Airforce Base in the Philippines, it left dozens of sites of dumped or buried asbestos and toxic chemicals.
Drinking water is not the only concern in terms of the pollution and environmental destruction caused by military buildup in Pacific. The new military buildup on Guam is slated to remove 1,000 acres of the islands native limestone forests, where old trees plunge their roots directly into the stone beneath, about 8 percent of all the remaining limestone forests, which have already been reduced to covering only 10 percent of the island when they originally covered 50 percent. Deforestation on the island has grown so severe that only one of the island’s native Serianthes trees remains, making the tree critically endangered as they only appear on Guam and the island of Rota. Similarly, on Okinawa, the U.S. promised to replace the unpopular Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma in 1996, and while it remains open after a full quarter of a century, its slated replacement, the Henoko base, is being built on a coral reef. Despite the concerns raised by this choice of location, the Biden administration reaffirmed that the base in northern Okinawa is the “only solution” to the unpopular Futenma facility. Guam is also plagued by invasive species such as the brown tree snake, which has driven 10 of its 13 native bird species to near-extinction, and was probably brought to the island by the U.S. military in the 1940s.
The environmental damage caused by the U.S.’s military bases is not limited to inhabited islands. Wake Island, a 3-square-mile island home only to about 100 contract workers and a missile launch support facility, was selected as a dumping ground for PCBs. The island sits less than three meters above sea level, causing significant concerns that the materials could wash into the ocean. Despite claims from the military in 2000 that the materials would be stored there for only a year, environmental cleanup was continuing as recently as 2013. Johnston Atoll has a similar, if perhaps even worse situation, as it was home to the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agents Disposal System (JACADS) until 2001, which has caused a wide range of pollution on the northern part of the island. After the Vietnam War, the military stored drums of the defoliant Agent Orange on the island, many of which have leaked onto the island. The facility there is also responsible for the incineration of chemical weapons such as mustard gas and nerve agents, and there have been four documented cases of nerve gases being released into the environment.
The United States is also not alone in causing environmental destruction in the pacific. France, which still directly administers a portion of Polynesia, is most infamous for its nuclear testing program in the Pacific. However, as the French military shut down its bases in the Mururoa, Fangataufa, and Hao atolls, it left behind low-level radioactive waste buried in old test shafts and covered in concrete, as well as high-level waste dumped into two shafts on Mururoa. The French government also charged the territorial government of French Polynesia for the cost of monitoring the radioactive pollution, as well as funding twenty soldiers to remain behind, despite refusing to return the atolls to the territory’s control.
The impact of large-scale military buildup across the Pacific continues to be felt primarily by its inhabitants, who often do not have the ability to stand up to large, powerful bureaucracies like the Department of Defense.