The U.S. Military on a Planet From Hell
It was Monday, March 1, 2032, and the top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps were poised, as they are every year around this time, to deliver their annual “posture statement” on military readiness before the Senate Armed Services Committee. As the officers waited for the committee members to take their seats, journalists covering the event conferred among themselves on the meaning of all the badges and insignia worn by the top brass. Each of the officers testifying that day — Generals Richard Sheldon of the Army, Roberto Gonzalez of the Marine Corps, and Shalaya Wright of the Air Force, along with Admiral Daniel Brixton of the Navy — sported chestfuls of multicolored ribbons and medals. What did all those emblems signify?
Easy to spot were the Defense Distinguished Service and Legion of Merit medals worn by all four officers. No less obvious was the parachutist badge worn by General Sheldon and the submarine warfare insignia sported by Admiral Brixton. As young officers, all four had, of course, served in the “Forever Wars” of the earlier years of this century and so each displayed the Global War on Terror Service Medal. But all four also bore service ribbons — those small horizontal bars worn over the left pocket — for campaigns of more recent vintage, and these required closer examination.
Although similar in appearance to the service ribbons of previous decades, the more recent ones worn by these commanders were for an entirely new set of military operations, reflecting a changing global environment: disaster-relief missions occasioned by extreme climate events, critical infrastructure protection and repair, domestic firefighting activities, and police operations in foreign countries ruptured by fighting over increasingly scarce food and water supplies. All four of the officers testifying that day displayed emblems signifying their engagement in multiple operations of those types at home and abroad.
Several, for example, wore the red-black-yellow-and-blue ribbon signifying their participation in relief operations following the staggering one-two punch of Hurricanes Geraldo and Helene in August 2027. Those back-to-back storms, as few present in 2032 could forget, had inundated the coasts of Virginia and Maryland (from whose state flags the colors were derived), causing catastrophic damage and killing hundreds of people. Transportation and communication infrastructure throughout the mid-Atlantic region had been shattered by the two hurricanes, which also caused widespread flooding in Washington, D.C. itself. In response, more than 100,000 active-duty troops had been committed to relief operations across the region, often performing heroic measures to clear roads and restore power.
Also displayed on their heavily decorated uniforms were patches attesting to their membership in elite units and squadrons. General Sheldon, for example, had spent part of his military career as a member of the Army’s Rangers and so wore that unit’s distinctive insignia. But Sheldon, along with General Wright of the Air Force, also sported the bright red patch signifying membership in the military’s elite Firefighting Brigade, established in 2026 to counter the annual conflagrations erupting across California and the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, both General Gonzalez and Admiral Brixton sported the dark-blue patch of the Coastal Relief and Rescue Command, created in 2028 for military support of disaster-relief operations along America’s increasingly storm-ravaged coastlines.
The media, politicians, and the general public have always been fascinated by the medals and badges worn by the nation’s military leaders. This obsession intensified in November 2019 when two events received national attention.
The first was the testimony on President Donald Trump’s possible impeachable offenses before the House Intelligence Committee by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top expert on Ukraine at the National Security Council. During that testimony — which confirmed some of the claims made by an unnamed whistle-blower that the president had conditioned the release of U.S. military aid to Ukraine on an investigation of the alleged financial wrongdoing of his presumed electoral rival, Joe Biden (and his son) — Vindman wore a full-dress uniform. It bore a purple heart (awarded for a combat wound received in Iraq) and other ribbons signifying his participation in the war on terror and the defense of South Korea. Following his appearance, Trump supporters promptly challenged his patriotism, while many other observers affirmed that his calm assertions of loyalty in response to such charges and all those medals on his uniform accorded him unusual credibility.
The second episode occurred just a few weeks later when President Trump intervened in a formal Navy proceeding to allow Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher — once on trial for serious war crimes — to retain his “Trident” pin, the symbol of his membership in the Navy’s elite SEAL commando unit. Gallagher had served multiple tours of duty in the country’s twenty-first-century “forever wars.” He had also been accused by fellow SEALs of murdering a wounded and unconscious enemy combatant and then having himself photographed while proudly holding the dead body up by the hair.
When tried by fellow officers last June, Gallagher was acquitted of the murder charge after a key witness changed his story. He was, however, found guilty of taking a “trophy” photo of a dead enemy, a violation of military rules. When, on this basis, the Navy sought to eject Gallagher from the SEALs and strip him of his Trident pin, President Trump, egged on by conservative pundits, overruled the top brass and allowed him to keep that insignia. “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin,” Trump tweeted on November 21st.
Like Lt. Col. Vindman, Chief Petty Officer Gallagher wore numerous service ribbons in his courtroom and public appearances and, in his case, too, they signified participation in the forever wars of the twenty-teens. A quick look at the badges borne by most other senior officers today would similarly reveal participation in those conflicts, as almost every senior commander has been obliged to serve several tours of duty in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.
By 2019, however, public support for engagement in those conflicts had largely evaporated and — to again peer into the future — during the 2020s, U.S. military involvement in such seemingly endless and futile contests would diminish sharply. Defense against China and Russia would remain a major military concern, but it would generate relatively little actual military activity, other than an ever-growing investment in high-tech weaponry. Instead, in those years, on a distinctly changing planet, the military mission would begin to change radically as well. Protecting the homeland from climate disasters and providing support to climate-ravaged allies abroad would become the main focus of American military operations and so the medals and ribbons awarded to those who displayed meritorious service in performing such duties would only multiply.
Medals for a Climate-Wracked Century
I can only speculate, of course, about the particular contingencies that will lead to the designation of special military insignia for participation in the climate battles of the decades ahead. Nevertheless, it’s possible, by extrapolating from recent events, to imagine what these might look like, even though the Department of Defense (DoD) does not yet award such ribbons.
Consider, for example, the Pentagon’s response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, all of which hit parts of the United States between August and September 2017. In reaction to those mega-storms, which battered eastern Texas, southern Florida, and virtually all of Puerto Rico, the DoD deployed tens of thousands of active-duty troops to assist relief operations, along with a flotilla of naval vessels and a slew of helicopters and cargo aircraft. In addition, to help restore power and water supplies in Puerto Rico, it mobilized 11,400 active-duty and National Guard troops — many of whom were still engaged in such activities six months after Maria’s disastrous passage across that island. Given the extent of the military’s involvement in such rescue-and-relief operations — often conducted under hazardous conditions — it would certainly have been fitting had the Pentagon awarded a special service ribbon for participation in those triple-hurricane responses, using colors drawn from the Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rican flags.
Another example would have been Super Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, which pulverized parts of the Philippines, a long-time ally, killing more than 6,000 people and destroying a million homes. With the Filipino government essentially immobilized by the scale of the disaster, President Barack Obama ordered the U.S. military to mount a massive relief operation, which it called Damayan. At its peak, it involved some 14,000 U.S. military personnel, a dozen major warships — including the carrier USS George Washington — and 66 aircraft. This effort, too, deserved recognition in the form of a distinctive service ribbon.
Now, let’s jump a decade or more into the future. By the early 2030s, with global temperatures significantly higher than they are today, extreme storms like Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Haiyan are likely to be occurring more frequently and to be even more powerful. With sea levels rising worldwide and ever more people living in low-lying coastal areas around the globe, the damage caused by such extreme weather is bound to increase exponentially, regularly overwhelming the response capabilities of civilian authorities. The result: ever increasing calls on the armed forces to provide relief-and-rescue services. “More frequent and/or more severe extreme weather events… may require substantial involvement of DoD units, personnel, and assets in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) abroad and in Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA) at home,” the Pentagon was already informing Congress back in 2015.
Historically, it has viewed such activities as a “lesser included case”; that is, the military has not allocated specific troops or equipment for HA/DR and DSCA operations ahead of time, but used whatever combat forces it had on hand for such missions. Typical, for instance, was the use of an aircraft carrier already in the region to deal with the results of Super Typhoon Haiyan. As such events only grow in intensity and frequency, however, the Pentagon will find it increasingly necessary to establish dedicated units like the hypothetical “Coastal Relief and Rescue Command” (whose insignia General Gonzalez and Admiral Brixton were wearing in “2032”).
This will become essential as multiple coastal storms coincide with other extreme events, including massive wildfires or severe inland flooding, creating a “complex catastrophe” that could someday threaten the economy and political cohesion of the United States itself.
The DoD first envisioned the possibility of a “complex catastrophe” in 2012, after Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast that October. Sandy, as many readers will recall, knocked out power in lower Manhattan and disrupted commerce and transportation throughout the New York Metropolitan Area. On that occasion, the DoD mobilized more than 14,000 military personnel for relief-and-rescue operations and provided a variety of critical support services. In the wake of that storm, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta commanded his staff to consider the possibility of even more damaging versions of the same and how these might affect the military’s future roles and mission.
The Pentagon’s response came in a 2013 handbook, Strategy for Homeland Defense and Defense Support of Civil Authorities, warning the military to start anticipating and preparing for “complex catastrophes,” which, in an ominous breathful, it defined as “cascading failures of multiple, interdependent, critical, life-sustaining infrastructure sectors [causing] extraordinary levels of mass casualties, damage, or disruption severely affecting the population, environment, economy, public health, national morale, response efforts, and/or government functions.” While recognizing that civil authorities must remain the first line of defense in such calamities, the handbook indicated that, if civil institutions are overwhelmed — an increasingly likely reality — the armed forces must be prepared to assume many key governmental functions, possibly for an extended period of time.
In the future, in other words, all senior commanders and other officers can expect to participate in major HA/DR and DSCA operations during their careers, possibly involving extended deployments and hazardous missions. In 2017, for instance, many soldiers were deployed in Houston for rescue operations after Hurricane Harvey had drenched the region and, in the process, were exposed to toxic chemicals in the knee-deep floodwaters because some of the area’s petrochemical plants had been inundated. Looting has also been a recurring feature of major weather disasters, sometimes involving gunfire or other threats to life.
Increasingly frequent and savage wildfires in the American West are another climate-related peril likely to impinge on the military’s future operational posture. As temperatures rise and forests dry out, fires, once started, often spread with a daunting rapidity, overpowering firefighters and other local defenses. California and the Pacific Northwest are at particular risk, as severe drought has been a persistent problem in the region, while people have moved their homes ever deeper into the forests. In recent years, the National Guard in those states has been called up on numerous occasions to help battle such fires and active-duty troops have increasingly been deployed on the fire lines as well.
The proliferation of ever more severe wildfires in the American West — combined with similar devastating outbreaks in Australia and the rainforests of Indonesia and the Amazon — have led to a global shortage of the giant air tankers used to fight them. In November 2019, for example, Australia was pleading for the loan of water tankers still needed in California to cope with a deadly fire season that had lasted far longer than usual. It’s easy to imagine, then, that the U.S. Air Force will one day be compelled by Congress to establish a dedicated fleet of water tankers to fight fires around the country — what I chose to call the U.S. Firefighting Brigade in my own futuristic imaginings.
Foreign Climate Wars
Yet another climate-related mission likely to be undertaken by U.S. forces in the years ahead will be armed intervention in foreign civil conflicts triggered by severe drought, food shortages, or other resource scarcities. American military and intelligence analysts believe that rising world temperatures will result in widespread shortages of food and water in crucial areas of the planet like the Middle East, only exacerbating preexisting hostilities to the breaking point. When governments fail to respond in an efficient and equitable manner, conflict is likely to erupt, possibly resulting in state collapse, warlordism, and mass migrations — outcomes that could pose a significant threat to global stability. (Keep in mind, for instance, that the horrific Syrian civil war, still ongoing, was preceded by an “extreme drought,” the worst in modern times and believed to be climate-change induced.)
“Climate change is an urgent and growing threat to our national security,” the DoD stated in its 2015 report to Congress, “contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows, and conflicts over basic resources such as food and water.”
One area where these forces can be witnessed today is the Lake Chad region of northern Nigeria, where severe drought conditions have produced widespread hardship and discontent that a variety of insurgent groups have sought to exploit. Once a thriving locale for fishing and irrigated agriculture, Lake Chad has shrunk to less than a fifth of its original size due to global warming and water mismanagement. With people’s livelihoods in jeopardy and the central government providing little reliable assistance, the terror group Boko Haram has been able to attract significant local support.
“Economic conditions in the region have become increasingly dire, creating resentment, grievances, and tensions within and among populations,” the CNA Corporation, a Pentagon-funded think tank, noted as early as 2017. “Boko Haram exploits this situation to recruit followers, offering them economic opportunity and secured livelihoods.”
Given Nigeria’s strategic importance as a major oil producer and bulwark of African Union peacekeeping forces, the United States has long assisted the Nigerian military with arms and training support. Were Boko Haram to begin to attack Abuja, the capital, or pose a threat to the survival of the Nigerian government, it’s entirely plausible that the Pentagon would be called upon to deploy forces there.
Were such a thing to happen, a service ribbon for participation in “Operation Yanci” (Hausa for “freedom”), the 2024 mission to crush Boko Haram and save the Nigerian state, might have the green and white bands of the Nigerian flag and be worn — at least in my imaginings — by two of the generals present at that hearing in 2032.
Another plausible future mission for the U.S. military: to help the government of the Philippines reassert control over its southern island of Mindanao after a typhoon even more destructive than 2013’s Haiyan struck the region in 2026. With the government in nearly complete disarray, as after Haiyan’s landfall, militant separatists that year seized control of the country’s second largest island. Unable to overcome the rebels on its own, Manila called on Washington to bolster its forces. Mindanao has long experienced revolts focused on a central government widely viewed as prejudiced against the island’s 20 million people, a significant number of them Muslim. In May 2017, for instance, radical Islamist groups seized control of Marawi, a Muslim-majority city of about 200,000 in western Mindanao. Only after five months of fighting in which 168 government soldiers died and 1,400 were wounded was the city completely retaken. The United States aided Filipino forces with arms and intelligence during that struggle and has continued to provide them with counterinsurgency training ever since.
As global warming advances and Pacific typhoons grow more intense, the Philippines will be hit again and again by catastrophic, Haiyan-level storms like Kammuri this December. So it’s not hard to envision a future storm severe enough to completely paralyze government services and provide an opening for another Marawi-style event on an even larger scale. For those American soldiers who will participate in Operation Kalayaan (Tagalog for “Liberty”), the 2026 campaign to liberate Mindinao from rebel forces, there will undoubtedly be a ribbon of red, blue, white, and gold, the colors of the Filipino flag.
The Military on a New Planet
All this, of course, is speculation, but given how rapidly the planetary environment is being altered by global warming and its disruptive effects, climate change will become a major factor in U.S. strategic planning. That, in turn, will mean the setting up of specialized commands to deal with such contingencies and the earmarking of specific resources — troops and equipment — for domestic and foreign disaster-relief missions.
The Department of Defense will similarly have to step up its efforts to harden its own domestic and foreign bases against severe storms and flooding, while beginning to develop plans to relocate those that will be inundated as sea levels rise. In a similar fashion, count on fire protection becoming a major concern for base commanders across the American West. Efforts now under way at significant installations to reduce the U.S. military’s prodigious consumption of fossil fuels and to increase reliance on renewables will undoubtedly be part of the package as well. And with all of this will surely go plans to devise new medals and honors for military personnel who exhibit meritorious service in protecting the nation against the extreme climate perils to come. In a world in which all hell is going to break loose, everything will change and the military will be no exception.