The WIP The global source for women's perspectives

Green Hawks in the Pentagon: the American Army Is on a Green Mission

by Eva Sohlman

Former CIA director Jim Woolsey eagerly leans across the table in the swanky restaurant of the Carlton-Ritz Hotel in Washington, D.C. The seriousness of the matter he’s discussing is reflected in his sharp, almost transparent blue eyes.

”The United States’ dependence on oil makes us very vulnerable from a security and environmental perspective. Why buy oil from Islamic theocracies, which sponsor terrorism against us? We are fighting a war against terror, but are paying for both sides. How smart is that?” asks the sprightly 66-year-old Woolsey.

Woolsey is one of the Green Hawks in the Pentagon – a new movement of tree-huggers, activists, researchers, inventors, army people and neoconservative hawks – who are leading the way toward alternative energy and energy conservation in America. Their motivation is the security of the nation, since they see terrorism and climate change as the greatest threats against the US as a superpower.

“The goal is to become energy independent, but to get there we have to shift to green energy,” says Woolsey who has been engaged in this question since the oil crises in the 1970s.

But according to estimates, the US, the world’s biggest consumer of oil, will continue to increase its oil consumption. Unless something is done to counter this trend it will probably mean that the country, which already imports around 60% of its oil, will become even more dependent on the oil-rich Middle East.

In order to stop this scenario and find new solutions, the Green Hawks hold open meetings in the Pentagon. These meetings, which have already acquired legendary status, attract people from the Pentagon, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department for Homeland Security, the State Department, Congress, embassies, think tanks, environmental organizations, security firms and the weapons industry, all seeking to make new connections and exchange information, knowledge and experiences.

A senior European security analyst who attended one of these meetings described it as “bustling with people from all kinds of groups and interests. Very dynamic.”

Ironically, it was the Iraq war – which many believe was a US attempt to secure its access to oil – which made the Pentagon realize the advantages alternative energy would offer. Hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers have been killed in attacks during transports of fuel and water.

Dan Nolan, who oversees energy projects for the US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, explains it was not until the cost of fuel was measured in blood (American blood) that the commanders started to understand.

“Our transports have never been as vulnerable and exposed as they are in Iraq. More oil is not the solution, it is the problem.” As a consequence the Army now tries to generate what is needed on site; it uses fuel cells which produce water as a byproduct. It uses tents that need 40 percent less air-conditioning, which in turn is now increasingly run on green energy instead of diesel. The diesel generators emit heat, which is easily spotted with infrared detection.

The record high price of oil is another reason the American Army – the world’s biggest consumer of energy – is shifting to green energy. The price of oil is expected to remain high in the near future since oil production is estimated to have already peaked, while the situation in the oil-rich Middle East looks likely to remain unstable.

The Department of Defense is therefore investing an estimated $500-$600 million dollars on research and development of solar, wave, biomass and wind energy, as well as conventional green energy sources. A new law demanding better energy efficiency has been passed, so by 2025 the Army will have to take a quarter of its energy from renewable sources. But that is far too little, far too late, say hawks like Todd Hathaway, a major in the Army who is writing his PhD thesis on nuclear science, focusing on new environmentally friendly technology.

“We can’t afford to not fix this now, and that can only be done with cutting-edge technology,” says the fast-paced 36-year-old outside the Pentagon, whose front boasts a vast field of solar cells.

“Unfortunately there is a strong resistance against new technology from the multi-billion industry for established green energy. We – inventors, scientists, retired Army people and professors – have to invest our own money to get the projects going. This is serious, as these are the kind of technologies that will make this planet survive.”

Woolsey says the fastest solution is the plug-in car that runs on electricity. They cost a quarter of the price to drive in comparison with petrol-guzzling cars; several models are expected to be on the market within the next couple of years.

“If we are to get to the core of the problem, we will have to tackle the car,” he says matter-of-factly. About 70 percent of the US’ oil consumption goes to road transport: the country’s 220 million cars are one of the main reasons why the US emits most of the polluting greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the world.

But despite the green hawks’ efforts, the battle is far from won, although the issue of the environment has gone from taboo to trendy in a short time. Today Washington is buzzing with talk about the importance of living green, Hollywood celebrities drive green cars and Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s commitment to improving the environment has attracted young voters in the primaries.

The increased awareness is partly due to Al Gore’s Nobel Prize and his film An Inconvenient Truth. But it was not Gore who converted the generals in the Pentagon. According to US and UK media, it was Nora “Envirobabe” Maccoby who, at the end of 2005, lectured then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The 40-year-old film director had just led an energy delegation to China, one of the world’s worst producers of carbon dioxide, but which also harbors one of the fastest growing markets for alternative energy.

“I told him the rest of the world was moving ahead with technology that America developed and America was getting left in the dust. I told him that we could redeem the mistakes of the Bush administration and restore morale within the Army by leading a new technology revolution. I told him he could be a hero.”

Rumsfeld described the meeting bluntly. “She kicked my ass, and she was right,” and he set the ball rolling. A month later President Bush talked about America’s “oil addiction” in his annual State of the Union address.

“The dam was opened and suddenly it was OK to talk about renewable energy and energy independence,” says Maccoby.

But even though the awareness of climate change and the disastrous consequences it has for the planet – causing droughts, floods and hurricanes, forcing millions of people to leave their homes and leading to conflicts and war – has increased, it is far from where it needs to be, Mitzi Wertheim points out. Wertheim, whom other hawks call “the spider in the web” and who is said to “know everybody in Washington,” is the main organizer of the Pentagon meetings. She also hosts a green salon in her home with guests that include high-ranking admirals and generals. She works for CNA Corporation, a non-profit organization providing research and analysis for public sector leaders. She was Woolsey’s deputy when he was under secretary of the Navy.

“There is a risk that a lot of parallel work is being done within the departments with regards to energy. I want them to collaborate and share their work so we can get to grips with this big threat as efficiently as possible.”

For now however, the greatest challenge is to make Americans – who consume twice as much energy and generate more than twice as much garbage as the average European – understand the vital importance of environment conservation and energy efficiency.

“Energy and the environment are big and multi-faceted issues and therefore very difficult to grasp on an immediate level.” Therefore Wertheim’s next plan is to produce “ABC books on energy,” she explains in her cozy but slightly cold living room. She explains that she keeps the heating down during the day to save energy, while hospitably offering a cup of tea and a warm poncho.

The Green Hawks, scientists and inventors dedicated to new, non-conventional energy technologies have long been dismissed as fervent evangelical environment loonies who nurse paranoid and utopian ideas. But now that the Army is shifting to green energy, the “environment loonies” are expected to come in from the cold, and as a consequence, their technologies will become more accepted. New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman is of this belief. In his article “The Power of Green” he writes: “Pay attention: When the U.S. Army desegregated, the country really desegregated; when the Army goes green, the country could really go green.”

Maccoby has the same vision: “Then we’ll see as big a revolution for energy that we have seen with Internet and IT,” she says with a big smile.

About the Author
Eva Sohlman is a Swedish journalist and writer with credentials in print, radio and TV. She was formerly the editor of The World in Focus (“Världen i Fokus”), a Swedish TV program which she also produced that reports world news and in-depth studio interviews. The show follows Eva’s international career reporting for Reuters and publications in The Economist, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Having lived, studied and worked in Sweden, Britain and France, Eva is fluent in each of those country’s languages. Her book, Arabia Felix [Happy Arabia] in the Time of Terror – Journeys in Yemen (“Arabia Felix i Terrorns tid – Resor i Jemen” ) was published in Swedish in January 2007. It is based on her reporting for Reuters and the Economist. Three chapters translated into English by her Swedish publisher, Wahlström & Widstrand can be found here.

Back to top