For six weeks this summer, the U.S. military will detonate bombs, conduct live fire training, and sink ships off the coast of the Hawaiian islands in a display that activists say epitomizes how the military’s colonization of Hawaiian land and ongoing destruction of delicate ecosystems are one in the same. Known as the Rim of the Pacific exercises (also called RIMPAC) and hosted every two years since 1971, these “war games” are just another facet of the military’s ongoing destruction of Native land, consumption of precious natural resources, and willful antagonism against endangered and threatened species, all of which organizers, Indigenous land and water defenders, and Hawaiian residents have decried since the U.S. government-sanctioned overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893.
While the military claims the exercises will strengthen international cooperation and American sovereignty, activists say RIMPAC achieves just the opposite. With militaries from 25 countries, including Israel, Japan, and Colombia, gathering to test new equipment, practice amphibious landing and diving drills, and hone inter-military communications, the ensuing damage will further erode Native sovereignty while putting the land and people at even more risk for environmental damage.
“At the very end of RIMPAC, they have what’s called a ‘security exchange expo’ where they all sit around and pat each other on the back and congratulate themselves on why RIMPAC was so necessary and great,” said Joy Enomoto, a Koa Futures Organizer for Hawaiʻi Peace and Justice. “Meanwhile, they’ve devastated our entire ecosystem.”
Enomoto says that RIMPAC’s image as an event that’s not only necessary but desirable is culturally and ecologically destructive military marketing. The U.S. government uses this militarized security theater to justify the devastation of sacred sites, like the island of Kaho‘olawe that the U.S. military bombed relentlessly for decades, to Mākua valley, which served as firing range, to Pōhakuloa, the land at the base of Mauna Kea used for live fire training.
For many advocates like Enomoto, RIMPAC is undoubtedly a source of major harm to the islands, but it’s also emblematic of a larger contradiction—that practices in military power and war-making directly impact environmental health and Hawaiian sovereignty, all while military operations more broadly constitute one of the single greatest contributors to climate change. All of which extend from the original annexation of the islands to serve U.S. interests and empire-building regardless of how Native Hawaiians and Hawaiian sovereignty are harmed, both immediately and in the long term.
“There’s no way to look at climate justice without looking at the military,” Enomoto said.
The U.S. military and RIMPAC did not respond to inquiries.
The military is a leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions
RIMPAC is a contributor to and evidence of a larger environmental problem, organizers say, a reality obscured by marketing that leans heavily into normalizing and downplaying the destructive nature of military exercises. Weapons training is referred to as “exercises” or “events” and propaganda on Instagram and Facebook feature videos highlighting military personnel speaking excitedly about RIMPAC, or portraying ships moving through the ocean with music that sounds akin to that of an action movie. Nothing about the immense destruction and damage caused by these “exercises” is ever mentioned, eliding the true costs of U.S. security and who’s paying for it.
There’s the immediate harms caused by this summer’s war games and the long-term climate impacts of U.S. military operations. In the first 20 years of this century, the military was responsible for 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions; emitting more toxic gas than a majority of the world’s countries. The Air Force and the Navy are two of the largest buyers of fossil fuels, purchasing $4.9 billion and $2.8 billion dollars worth of fuel in 2017 alone, respectively.
Of course, all that fossil fuel consumption and the toxic gas emissions have a cost: 75% of the country’s Superfund sites—toxic, contaminated land unfit for human living—are former military bases. Military and war-making chemicals, like explosives, perchlorate, benzene, and other chemical weapons, seep into the soil and groundwater systems.
Such is the case at Kapūkakī, or Red Hill, a military fuel storage facility built to hold up to 250 million gallons of fuel—much of which is used to support RIMPAC. The storage facility began leaking toxic jet fuel into the island’s source of drinking water in late November 2021, poisoning the water of thousands of residents, including military families. The first known leak of the facility occurred in 2014, and an investigation from May 2021 revealed that the facility had suffered disrepair and “a host of maintenance issues,” per Hawaii Public Radio. Public calls for accountability resulted in the Hawaii Department of Health demanding that the U.S. Department of Defense shut down and defuel the facility.
“It’s an embarrassment, inviting all these countries over to an island where [the military] basically poisoned thousands of their own people and are threatening to destroy the water that we need to live here,” said Wayne Tanaka, the director of the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i. “Wherever there’s military [activity] people are getting sick. We need the Navy to focus on that and not on playing war games.”
Military chose Hawai‘i as a strategic outpost—now its ecosystems pay the price
Kyle Kajihiro, a professor of geography and ethnic studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, says that according to historical records, the federal government pursued the Hawaiian islands as a strategic military outpost, staging a military-backed coup d’état against the Hawaiian Kingdom. By the mid-20th century, Hawai‘i became the home for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which governs a large swath of U.S. military territory. Through this militarization, land became both a tool and a weapon.
“Hawai‘i becomes the first fulcrum of the American Empire to pivot from the continent overseas,” Kajihiro said.
Now, Kajihiro says, the Hawaiian islands, Hawaiians, and Hawai‘i residents are victims of the military’s environmental destruction. And Hawai‘i, often viewed as a paradise to tourists, is a place where “future wars are in development,” Kajihiro said. Through weapons testing and war-making, defense contractors and fossil fuel corporations reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits at the further expense of Native Hawaiians’ rights and the islands’ environmental health.
“The stuff they practice at RIMPAC—[like] hypersonic missile testing—those technologies become realized in wars in the future, but they begin here,” Kajihiro said. “Some people get paid but others pay the price.”
One of those profitable and destructive technologies is sonar testing, a way of measuring distance and communicating underwater with sound frequencies. Environmental activists have previously tried to sue the military over its use of sonar during RIMPAC. According to a 2006 legal filing by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the military’s use of sonar causes tens of thousands of marine mammals, fish, and other species to be injured, stranded, and killed. Beached whales exposed to sonar suffer bleeding in the brain and ears, and organ damage. Sonar has also been found to impede the inherent survival systems of mammals, confusing their navigation, ability to find food, and mating patterns.
“There is no scientific dispute that intense sonar blasts can disturb, injure, and even kill marine mammals,” the lawsuit read. “Biologists worry that whales found dying on beaches are only the tip of an iceberg, and that many more are dying at sea.”
A Center for Biological Diversity legal complaint against the military’s use of sonar at RIMPAC said that this use of sonar constituted an “inherent threat”’ against marine ecosystems, including 43 species of marine mammals and five endangered whale species, and one endangered seal species.
Underwater explosive denotations are also a threat to marine life and ecosystems that are entitled to protections through the federal Marine Mammal Act, which says “certain species and population stocks of marine mammals are, or may be, in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of man’s activities.” In order to conduct RIMPAC exercises, other federal agencies, like the Department of Defense and the National Marine Fisheries Service, routinely grant the Navy and Military exemptions that allow them to use sonar and detonate explosives without being held accountable for the ecological threats they pose.
Then there’s the threat that military operations pose to sensitive coral reef habitats. Kanoa Ventura, a 17-year-old Hawaiian high school student who lives on O’ahu and has been organizing with the Hawai‘i chapter of the Sierra Club, says that the military’s amphibious landings (boats that land on beaches) destroy coral reefs.
“The wheels tear them to shreds,” Ventura said.
The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says that coral reefs “are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on Earth,” supporting “more species per unit area than any other marine environment.” Reefs also prevent erosion, buffer storms, and support a $100 million U.S. fishing industry. Despite their integral role, coral reefs are severely threatened by ocean acidification, algal blooms, and loss of habitat, and every other summer in Hawai‘i, RIMPAC exercises exacerbate the threats coral reefs face. Coral reefs also tell the creation story of Hawaiians, Ventura says.
“The first organism that comes into existence is the coral reef, so there’s also a religious component to it as well,” Ventura said.
The damage done to Hawai‘i’s environment by U.S. imperialism is mirrored in how Native Hawaiians have been systematically oppressed by the government. Between 1778, when Captain James Cook first settled and began to colonize Hawai‘i, and 1840, the Hawaiian population decreased by 84%—a result of forced assimilation and degradation of Hawaiian social structures, belief systems, and culture. In the two decades following the U.S. takeover of the Hawaiian government in 1898, colonization would diminish the Hawaiian population to 24,00.
U.S. militaristic and imperial interests nearly destroyed Hawaiian culture—the very thing so many tourists and military personnel value about the islands—which makes the need to preserve the future of Hawaiian culture in the face of toxic militarism and climate change even more pressing.
“I do think that we could end it in the future”
The myriad of public health and climate concerns about both the military and its RIMPAC exercises are evident and undisputed, but the question remains of how long the military will be allowed its war games while others suffer. Organizers are hopeful that the events of 2020, when the military reduced its RIMPAC operations because of organizing around public health concerns, and the 2021 Red Hill leakage, demonstrate both the harms that the military poses as well as the power that Hawaiians and Hawai‘i residents have to push back against the status quo.
“I don’t expect anything to happen this summer,” Ventura said. “I do think that we could end it in the future. [But] I don’t know what that timeframe would be.”
But even if organizers successfully stave off RIMPAC operations, the question remains how to care for the ecosystems that bear the scars of military operations. One such place is Mākua Valley, where the military practiced helicopter firing and live fire testing, says Michael Hadfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawai’i who studied the conservation and evolutionary biology of Hawaiian tree snails. According to Hadfield, Mākua burned over and over again. Hawaiian tree snails, which had no natural predators up until colonization, now have many, including rats, and pigs, and they face a loss of habitat.
To protect the tree snails, Hadfield and his students built 30 by 30 meter enclosures in some parts of Mākua, to prevent rats from coming in and to offer the snails a chance to repopulate. Every so often the enclosures need to be checked on, adjusted, or tended to; unlike the natural ecosystem, the enclosures aren’t self-sustaining.
“They work [and] they’re beautiful, but they’re finite,” Hadfield said of the enclosures.
But you can’t build an enclosure in the ocean, and it’s not possible to intervene in every threatened ecosystem, in large part because of the time and commitment it takes from ecologists to do so responsibly.
“It comes down, I think, to a human value system: are we willing to perpetually put in the time and the money to keep these things on earth?” Hadfield said.
Of course, conservation and vigilant stewardship is necessary to maintain ecosystems after the military has already done its damage. While the military may have paused operations in Mākua, its systemic impacts on global ecological balance remain and are made possible by the takeover of Native land while also disproportionately impacting Hawaiians and Native peoples across the U.S.
Kajihiro hopes that the Red Hill incident will be a wake-up call to residents of Hawai‘i and in the mainland U.S.
“If there’s any silver lining to this incident, it has revealed how fragile life on this island really is if we don’t take care of it, and how vulnerable we are to these military effects that are all around us, but they’re often hidden in plain sight,” Kajihiro said.