By Tucker Higgins
“The Burden” opens like a James Bond film.
A U.S. Air Force cargo plane flies over unidentified snow-covered mountains as packages slide out of the plane’s open cargo hold and parachute down thousands of feet onto the icy ground below. The music picks up; tight shots get tighter. It’s not clear what exactly is wrong – but you know that what you’re seeing isn’t right.
On the ground, you see Army Lt. Col. David Preston. The cargo plane, it turns out, was flying over the Hindu Kush mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, above Forward Operating Base Waza K’wah. The packages were 500-pound fuel drums.
“Everything we do relies on fuel,” Preston says. “If we ran out of fuel here, we’d be sitting ducks.”
With that opening, director Roger Sorkin expertly establishes the central conflict behind his documentary. On the one hand, oil is necessary for America’s military to function. On the other, oil makes the military vulnerable.
Thanks to Operation Free, an affiliate of the Truman National Security Project, the documentary screened July 25 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., for advocates, guests, and those who helped fund the movie on Kickstarter. The screening was co-hosted by Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
For all its initial likeness to a Bond thriller, the documentary soon acquires the traits of a strong legal argument. Bolstered by expert testimony from high-ranking military officials, Sorkin presents what might be considered his “theory of the case,” taking the viewer through a chain of evidence to prove, as Rep. Peters said in introducing the film to viewers in the Capitol, that “there is no alternative but alternatives.”
The first link in this chain is the military’s incontrovertible reliance on oil. The U.S. military is the world’s largest institutional purchaser of oil – and almost a fifth of the military’s costs are related to energy. “The costs are so volatile and can spike,” explains former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs Sharon Burke, who attended the screening. To illustrate, the movie presents its most alarming statistic: every dollar increase in the price of a barrel of oil costs the military $130 million.
“That’s the price. The costs go way further,” said Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations & Environment Dennis McGinn, also present at the screening. The costs, in lost strategic opportunities, are the second part of the chain of evidence. The movie follows several truck drivers – or, in military jargon, 88 Mikes – who face these costs most directly. We learn there is one casualty for every 24 fuel convoys. Traveling in a convoy, one 88 Mike says, is “a roll of the dice.”
With on-the-ground footage from war zones, it’s easy to understand why it’s a tactical disadvantage to allocate so many resources to guard fuel convoys. But the bigger, geostrategic threat of oil dependency is just as ably demonstrated in the film.
The oil the military guards so carefully not only travels along the tortuous, IED-laden roads of Iraq and Afghanistan; it also must navigate hazardous shipping routes like the Strait of Hormuz, the Turkish Straits, the Strait of Malacca, and the Suez Canal. In many cases these routes can be easily blocked by hostile nations in the Middle East, many of which the military funds with its oil purchases. What’s more, no amount of domestic production, based on current reserve estimates, can eliminate that threat: “When you stop sucking on that [domestic production] straw, they’ve still got lots,” one military official says in a voice-over.
The final piece of the movie’s puzzle involves climate change, a consequence of more than a century of unrestrained burning of fossil fuels. Whether it’s the domestic threat of extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy, or the international demand for American military assistance in the face of natural disasters like typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, climate change costs the U.S. military in both time and money. Remarkably, every month the U.S. military receives two foreign assistance requests. Sorkin, the director, said his interest in the subject was partially due to hearing the phrase “threat multiplier.” In other words, as we continue to spew carbon pollution into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, we exacerbate the threat climate change poses to our national security.
The film’s dramatic peroration is hopeful. “It is the triple promise of this American century: we can protect our national security, create jobs, and clean our air,” we hear. An alternatives-based military is inevitable.
“It is in our DNA to look for the next thing,” says Vice Adm. Phillip Cullom.
Tucker Higgins, an International Relations major at The College of William & Mary, is an intern at Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2). You can follow him on twitter @tuckerhiggins.