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The Demilitarization of Homeland America: Lessons From Ferguson and WWII

Posted Aug 19 2014 10:02pm

Posted on | August 18, 2014 |

DDT spaying beach area, 1950's

In tracking the events in Ferguson, Missouri, last week, I was reminded of the words of environmentalist, Edwin Way Teale, some 70 years ago, as WWII was drawing to a close. That war, and arguably the Allied success, was the result of our ability to mobilize and redirect the enormous productive capacity of America’s institutions toward creation of materials that would directly or indirectly support our success.

One unintended consequence, as we learned last week, is that the weapons of war, once the war winds down, sometimes leach their way into the domestic stream of life. And generally, the two don’t mix very well – practically or metaphorically. In the recent case, the image of a heavily armored vehicle cradling an equally heavily armed and crazy eyed sharp-shooter, in the middle of a small Midwestern town is jarring.

But this is not the first, nor I suppose the last time that our Military-Industrial Complex, in pursuit of “peace-time” profit has morphed in front of our eyes. Which brings me back to Teale, who in 1945 was already a well known naturalist author who began his writing career with Popular Science magazine. In March of that year he wrote an article in Nature on DDT titled “DDT: The insect-killer that can be either boon or menace”. In the article he recounts the military use of the insecticide developed for the war effort against malaria carrying mosquitos in the South Pacific. He describes the effort as another front of the war (man versus bug) that was waged with great enthusiasm, a “bug-blitz binge” deposited by “lackwit officials” as he describes it.

What motivated Teale to write the piece at the time was a conversion he was witnessing that was well underway already in the homeland, even before we had a Homeland Security Department. Faced with a surplus of the chemical produced by Monsanto and others, surplus armored vehicles and planes, and a surplus of airmen, the solution pushed by industry, and endorsed by the US Department of Agriculture, was to aerial and land spray the insecticides on America’s farmland, beaches, marshes and woodlands. Teale cautioned about the“unexpected by-products…when man tries to interfere with the balances of Nature… [out of] our ignorance of the interrelationships of natural life.”

While the warnings were prophetic, they went largely unheralded, as the “after-the-war” planes (as Teale called them), piloted by former military pilots sprayed up to 500 acres an hour with chemicals produced by Monsanto and others. In fact, in 1956, when I was 8 years old, I found myself in the vicinity of our own “bug-blitz binge” when the USAD approved the spraying of a million acres of Northeast forests in the hopes of eradicating the gypsy moth.

Edwin Teale died on October 18,1980. For fifty years he labored to deliver primary source material on the environment to the American public. He earned many awards, including a Pulitzer-Prize, but his life was not without controversy. His long term, and well-documented professional friendship with Rachel Carson, author of , and his willingness to challenge broad and indiscriminate spraying of DDT in non-emergency situations, created a point of contention for major chemical companies, their trade organizations and their governmental and academic dependents at USDA and land grant universities over the years.

Their tactics were to make Rachel Carson (during her life and even after her death) the issue, not the chemicals they were indiscriminately distributing around the globe at substantial profit margins. And so it is with Ferguson, where the tragic death of Michael Brown (and the public affairs battle to diminish his reputation) or the debate surrounding the police officer involved, recalls the public debate surrounding Teale’s wartime battles over whether insects were “good, bad, or indifferent”.

But like then, it’s not about the insects, its about the chemicals and the profiteers. And – without denying in any way or diminishing the importance of addressing America’s continuing struggle with racism, or the unconscionable daily denigration, incarceration, and destruction of young black men in this country which cries out for immediate justice – for me the most important issue is that the “Military-Industrial Complex”, and arguably a former Halliburton CEO vice-president, helped get us into this mess, and then created the Homeland Security Department, which, along with the US Military themselves, came up with the brilliant idea of transferring weapons of war to ill prepared small towns and borderline competent police departments across America.

Edwin Teale’s words, “A spray as indiscriminate as DDT can upset the economy of nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy. Ninety percent of all insects are good, and if they are killed, things go out of kilter right away” is instructive. The vast majority of the people in Ferguson, MO, are good. But the indiscriminate distribution of what are clearly weapons of war can also “upset the economy of (our human) nature as much as a revolution upsets social economy.”

Homeland Security and the US Military (likely with the active support of Industry) got us into this mess by “militarizing” America . US citizens should expect nothing less now than that our President and the Congress force these very same bodies to demilitarize America, and pass legislation that will protect all of us from having this ever happen again.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee

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