What does it mean to be environmentally literate when you are a soldier?

We seldom read about linking the military with environmental issues. For your summer reading, this is a good article by Hennie Smit, University Lecturer and President of the International Association for Military Geosciences at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. It is important for all of us to take the environment seriously.  Well, it appears that there is environmental awareness even in the military.

Do soldiers care about the environment? A study in South Africa suggests they do

Kermit the frog declared that it is difficult to be green. Obviously, he was referring to the colour, rather than to the condition of being environmentally conscious. But for soldiers it is also not always easy to be pro-environmental.

By their very nature traditional military activities, like fighting wars, are destructive. But modern armies undertake a remarkably diverse range of military activities. This means that they affect extensive areas during training and when executing their missions. Rightly, they are expected to conduct themselves in a way that protects the environment. Most countries have laws that set down rules and regulations to ensure this happens. South Africa is no exception: the military has to abide by laws designed to ensure that the environment is protected.

But what does it mean to be environmentally literate when you are a soldier? Three conditions need to be met to qualify.

The first is that they need to have a positive attitude towards the environment in which they execute their mission, be it training, routine base management, disaster relief, peace missions, or actual fighting. Secondly, this must translate into environmentally beneficial behaviour while executing their missions. And thirdly, they need to have the necessary knowledge to be able to act in an environmentally responsible manner.

In researching the environmental awareness of South African Army soldiers, I found that they had high levels of awareness about the environment and their responsibilities toward it.

This matters because the South African military uses large areas – around 400 000 hectares – to do their training. On top of this, they interact with civilian populations as well as the environment during disaster relief operations and deployments outside the country. In a wartime situation it is obviously even more important to understand the implications of their actions on the environment.

The results of my study show that, in general, they do. But this won’t be sustained unless military management ensures that environmental services posts remain fully staffed with dedicated, competent individuals. The people staffed in these posts are ultimately responsible for ensuring that soldiers receive good environmental education and training.

A proud tradition of environmental management

The South African Department of Defence has a long history of formal environmental management, second only to that of the USA. The first instruction to formulate guidelines for environmental management was issued in 1977. In 1998 a new law required all state departments with functions that could affect the environment, including the Department of Defence, to develop environmental implementation plans. These had to identify gaps as well as areas of efficiency in environmental performance, and set out what must be done to address the gaps and strengthen the efficient areas.

There have been a number of developments since then that attest to the apparent sincerity of the Department of Defence’s environmental commitment.

The first is that two environmental implementation plans have seen the light of day. Furthermore, a number of internal directives and policies were issued. In addition, 47 dedicated environmental posts have been created to drive environmental management and ensure that soldiers understand the importance of environmentally friendly conduct when they do their job.

What’s been missing is any monitoring of how the systems are working. As a result there’s no proof that the plans are effective, or that they’re influencing the daily activities of members of the department. The policies merely reflected command decisions and did not present proof of implementation or the effect of the policies and plans on the environmental performance of soldiers.

To make matters worse, not all of the environmental posts were staffed at all times.

The study

In my study, I developed a questionnaire for soldiers serving in the country’s army. I hoped the survey would provide some clarity about their environmental awareness.

The final questionnaire was designed to test their attitude, behaviour and knowledge. In a section with open questions, respondents could give responses in their own words. A total of 1090 questionnaires were gathered for analysis.

I found very positive results for both the attitude and behaviour scales, as well as high levels of environmental knowledge. These results were supported by the main message from the open ended questions. Here soldiers reported that existing military environmental education and training programmes instil environmentally friendly behaviour in them.

Environmentally illiterate soldiers can cause havoc in the execution of their duties. Given the existing pressures on the environment, this is something that can not be afforded. My research suggests that, in the case of the South African Army, soldiers recognise the importance of environmentally responsible behaviour. Hopefully this will enable them to execute their mandate without damaging the environment in which they operate.

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