Guernica Magazine runs an interesting article on burn pits, open dump sites used to dispose of waste in Afghanistan, and the health problems that may result from their use for both soldiers and Afghani civilians.
Veterans Administration and private physicians have seen a significant increase in respiratory problems in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Other physical problems among war veterans include shortness of breath, headaches and coughing up blood. Almost all of these soldiers had exposure to burn pits as well as battlefield smoke and dust storms. It seems unlikely that the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans working on U.S. military bases or living nearby have escaped such debilitating ailments themselves.
“If we know American soldiers are being affected, then we know it is quite possible for local laborers on bases and the local population to be affected,” said Steven Markowitz, a physician and professor of environmental sciences at Queens College, City University of New York.
The military, of course, is a male-dominated profession, so most of the veterans with health problems from the burn pits are male. The United States military’s chemical endangerment of mostly-male soldiers’ lives has a long and opprobrious history– from mustard gas in World War I and II to Agent Orange in Vietnam to Gulf War Syndrome during the Gulf War. One wonders how much more outraged Americans would be if it were mostly women coming home from war unable to breathe and hacking up blood; in fact, one of the original arguments against including women in the military was that people would be far more upset if a woman died or had long-term health problems from her military service, and that would reduce support for the military.
Afghan civilians also are affected by the burn pits. It should not escape masculist notice that every vignette in the Guernica piece is narrated from the point of view of a man. Why?
An Afghan translator earned upwards of $800 a month; Afghan laborers on U.S. military bases brought home $200 a month, soldiers even more. In Afghanistan the average income is less than $50 a month. Why risk a well-paying job because of a bad smell [from the burn pit]?
This is a classic case of the disposable male and how a sexist society ends up harming both men and women. Nearly a quarter of Afghan men believe women should not be allowed to work outside the home; presumably an even larger number believe the man should be the primary breadwinner, or would feel emasculated if their wife worked to support the family when they stayed at home to take care of the children. Therefore, in a country with 35% unemployment and slightly more in poverty, a man has to take what kind of job he can get in order to support his family and retain his manhood.
And if that job ruins your health… well, that’s the price you pay to support your family and discharge your responsibilities. Men are supposed to sacrifice themselves to protect and provide for their families and others who need them. This is noble, of course, but it shouldn’t be necessary. Everyone should be able to work a job that won’t cause them permanent long-term health damage, and no one should be forced to choose between feeding their families and their lives.