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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


March/April 2008

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Bytes of Note - The Human and Social Costs of War

Last issue’s column presented a definition of sustainability and discussed the economic and environmental costs of war and militarism. Still more staggering are the brutal personal, public health, and other social consequences of war. More than 4,000 U.S. fighters have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. By comparison, 2,973 victims died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A Johns Hopkins University study estimates that the war prompted 600,000 more violent deaths in Iraq between the U.S. invasion in 2003 and July 2006 than would have occurred otherwise. U.S. military doctors maintain a Joint Theater Trauma Registry “to capture data and provide information on care and outcomes of military and civilian trauma patients.” Researcher access to that data can be requested here. Surviving casualties suffer from a wide variety of injuries, including amputations (click here for resources for amputees), traumatic brain injury (see the New England Journal of Medicine article “Traumatic Brain Injury in the War Zone”), and post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans may suffer from exposure to chemicals and fear of past exposure.

When thinking about war in terms of sustainability, it is necessary to consider whether the burdens of war are equitably shared across the different divisions of society. The Population Reference Bureau approaches this highly complex question  (“America’s Military Population”) by analyzing the racial, gender, and income characteristics of those who join and remain in the military; their specialties; whether they advance; and whether they are injured, killed, or wounded in action.

Violence against women and the use of children as soldiers are two other social justice issues related to war. Stéphanie Grenier’s 1997 bibliography, “Women’s Human Rights in Conflict Situations,” has sections on violence against women in conflicts by continent. Amnesty International has a multimedia Web site on rape in conflicts . Thesexual slavery of Korean women for Japanese soldiers in World War II has been brought to light recently, and recent and ongoing gender-based violence in war is addressed on the Web page of a UN symposium on the topic.  The Democratic Republic of the Congo has had such a large concentration of this gruesome violence that a local hospital has developed a subspecialty that provides “surgical repair for women [victims] suffering from fistulas of the urogenital tract”  see also the Panzi Hospital Project).

Trafficking women for prostitution near military bases is a problem in many places. The U.S. military leadership is beginning to recognize these “criminal efforts to lure or kidnap people, usually young women, across borders, entrapping them and forcing them into prostitution."

Children continue to be employed as soldiers in wars around the globe. The United Nations provides useful materials here and here. Human Rights Watch presents 20 country case studies, and the Center for Defense Information lobbies the United States to act against countries with child soldiers.

Given the negative impact of war on sustainability, it makes sense to consider how the impacts of war and militarism might be better described, quantified, understood, and addressed within the context of sustainability science. Current sustainability science research questions are articulated here. It also makes sense to foster alternatives to war. That line of research is being pursued in academic peace studies programs. For a guide to graduate and undergraduate programs, fellowships, internships, and careers, click here.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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