The Things I Carried: Why the Military Cares About Sustainability

Brian Hawthorne, a Partner at the Truman National Security Project, has spent more than nine years in the United States Army, with two tours in Iraq. He is a recipient of the Bronze Star Medal, the Combat Action Badge, and the Senior Parachutist Badge. He is a graduate of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University and lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

The military has always been known as one of the innovation engines of the United States. Be it in telecommunications, medicine, or aviation, our military personnel are used to fighting on the edge of advancing technology, and that is why we are unmatched in our war-fighting capacity. This is the sacred trust that our country has kept with those who fight our wars. Our country has always been willing to pay a little more to ensure our troops have the best. Unfortunately, this innovative history seems to have been forgotten by some in our government today, putting our troops in harms way for no reason. Shouldn’t our military have the best, regardless of politics?

There are some facts of life that our Service members will always have to face: heat, cold, rain, dirt, long days, and sleepless nights. I saw all of these and more in Iraq, but above all else, I remember my two years walking around Iraq as heavy. Everything is heavy: water, ammo, rifles, armor, helmets, radios; you name it. Every pound of war’s burden puts another ache or strain on our knees and backs, and that’s something we never forget. Of course, we carry the weight we’re given in order to do our job, and we rest assured that our nation is giving us the best (and the lightest) equipment possible.

But what if that’s not true? What if politics got between me and a better rifle, or a more powerful radio with smaller batteries? What if the next best thing isn’t on the front lines because its not made in the right Congressional district, or by a powerful corporation? Watching the Navy fight for its next-generation “Great Green Fleet” powered by biofuels makes me wonder about the things I carried, and the things I didn’t. I’m sure the advanced fuels are expensive now, but imagine how much the first nuclear submarine cost? The military is supposed be ahead of the rest of the market, because the consumer market doesn’t have to fight for its life. That’s why our military needs the best, regardless of initial cost, and those investments need to be the most sustainable possible.

Think about it: More efficient aircraft means fewer hostile landings and more hours on station above troops in contact with the enemy. Ships fueled by bio-diesel means fewer oil transports have to traverse the Straight of Hormuz. Solar-powered radios mean fewer batteries carried up a mountain. Our military industrial complex should be continuously pressed to make equipment and vehicles that require as little maintenance and power as possible, because down time endangers lives. This is especially true of fuel. Last month’s attack on a supply convoy through Pakistan (a country we are notably not at war with) only further highlights the danger of moving anything towards the front lines. More efficient and reliable equipment and vehicles means less troops on the road in harm’s way.

Nothing in war happens in a vacuum. A supply convoy moving through a hostile area requires protection, which takes troops away from pursuing the enemy. When a convoy is attacked or delayed, troops on the front lines don’t get what they need when they need it. The longer that battery lasts, or the less fuel that generator needs, the longer we can bring the fight to the enemy without resupplying.

Both sides of the aisle have said that an “all of the above” strategy is what is needed to achieve energy independence. From President Obama to Governor McDonnell (R-VA), most politicians agree that throwing all of our eggs into any one energy basket makes no sense for our nation, especially our military. Both sides agree that sending money to dictatorships for fuel is dangerous at best, and funding both sides of a war at worst, but there seems to be very little will to stop it. While Congress has been understandably uneasy at the high cost (roughly $26 / gallon: five times higher than traditional diesel and jet fuel) the Navy has paid for next-generation biofuels for the “Great Green Fleet,” we have to ask “what’s the alternative?” Homegrown fuels not tied to the global oil market will finally divorce our military from those who wish us harm, if we can get past the budget battles in Congress to let the technology develop, ultimately bringing the cost per gallon down to economic levels.

Indeed, at the prodding of the Navy and others, the defense industry has actually been quite progressive in trying to anticipate the energy needs of the future, and seems to have somewhat embraced alternative sources of energy as part of next generation technologies. Perhaps this is because, after a decade of war, they are hearing our troops saying loud and clear that new equipment must be faster, stronger, lighter, and more sustainable before we field it. It certainly didn’t take an advanced geopolitical education for every Private to realize that our tanks driving along at four gallons of Saudi fuel per mile of Iraqi street was not a logical strategy for that war. But sometimes it seems that this obvious conflict of interest is more popular because crude oil is cheaper than the alternative. I assure you that it is ultimately not. The money our military spends on oil often supports foreign regimes who are training fighters to kill our troops. The sooner we get away from that Achilles’ heel, the safer our sons and daughters will be.

Sometimes I ask people: You don’t want us to go back to steam ships do you? Do loud and dirty diesel submarines sound better to you than our stealthy nuclear ones? Do Civil War era repeating rifles twang nostalgic for you in a way that my automatic M4 rifle just doesn’t? Might the shine of a suit of armor appeal to you more than my ceramic armor plates just because the steel creates jobs in your town? Our troops deserve the best because the best is what protects them and brings them home. That should be the only relevant argument when it comes to fielding and equipping our military, and I hope that is not forgotten this election season.

Our Service members don’t care which district the equipment comes from, or how many jobs yesterday’s technology supports just because it has always been that way. We care about how far we have to carry it and how long it will last until it breaks. It’s about time our nation learns those same things, and remembers that when they send us over there, they better be sending us with the lightest, fastest, deadliest, and most sustainable equipment and fuel that money can buy. Lowest price per gallon may sound good when it comes to dollars, but things like solar panels and bio-fuels cost much fewer lives per gallon. That statistic is all that should be driving the debate. Anything less is simply unsustainable.