Five years ago this week, Army Spec. David Hickman died at the age of 23. He was the last fatality of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Preceding him in death were a classified number of my former CIA colleagues, along with 4,473 American and coalition warfighters. Among them was Staff Sergeant Robert Stever, buried across the street from my childhood home in rural Oregon.
If you visit Ssgt. Stever’s grave at night, you can see a red pulse covering the horizon, emanating from the warning lights of hidden wind turbines. They make up the massive Shepherds Flat Wind Farm, home to hundreds of towers that bring electricity to some 235,000 American families.
At first blush, these two worlds – of soldiers and windmills – don’t seem particularly connected. But indeed they are. And we have no time to waste to understand why.
Wars are fought for various reasons, and chief among them are economic interests. Consider World War II. Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor? Blame oil. The Japanese needed petroleum reserves found in the Dutch East Indies and Philippines in order to fuel its navy; they were under an oil embargo following their invasion of China. Unfortunately for Japan, the Europeans and Americans had already laid claim to these areas. Out of options, the Japanese launched a preemptive attack on Hawaii, hoping to knock us out of the South Pacific. Congress voted to join the war the next day.
Some 60 years later, the U.S. invaded Iraq. The reason? Officially, we were told that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. But as time passed and no weapons were found, the real reason became clear: Iraq’s immense oil supply. The belief was that if we could make Iraq a democracy that was friendly to our interests, we could have a more consistent supply of cheap oil. And maybe a more prosperous Middle East.
The financial costs for this oil were – and remain – staggering. We spent over $2.2 trillion on Operation Iraqi Freedom. The amount balloons to $6 trillion in the coming decades if you add the future benefits accrued by our veterans and their survivors.
Which brings us back to Ssgt. Stever, and a critical question: did he have to die for oil?
The country needs energy. We have cars and trucks to drive, trains to move, and planes to fly. We also have homes and businesses to power.
More specifically, we need a mix of energy that ideally meets four criteria: 1) exclusive ownership, 2) reliability, 3) low cost, and 4) scalability. That’s a fancy way of saying we need our own cheap, steady supply of energy that can be used across all industries.
That seems like a tall order. Some might say impossible. And that’s why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America invaded Iraq.
But is it really impossible?
Consider this: More power from the sun hits the Earth in a single hour than all of humanity uses in an entire year.
Or this: U.S. wind resources could generate more than nine times what we currently consume.
Critics will counter that while renewable energy gives us our own source of reliable power, the cost is much higher than fossil-based fuels. Too expensive, they advise.
The truth is that costs for renewable energy are falling quickly, with wind now equal to coal and natural gas; solar will likely reach parity by 2040. Still, it’s fair to say that renewables in general are more expensive and require government subsidies – taxpayer money – to make them competitive.
As an example, look at the development of Shepherds Flat. It cost the American people $700 million in subsidies.
That’s a lot of money.
But compare that to the $6 trillion we paid for the war in Iraq, a war fought over energy. For the same money, we could have built 8,571 Shepherds Flats. We could have powered 2.01 billion homes. We could have saved the lives of 4,474 soldiers.
We could have had one more dad in rural Oregon.
And what of that Iraqi oil, by the way? Most of it is now going to China. In short, we got nothing but debt in our quest for foreign energy. Not to mention the terrorist group ISIS, which sprang up because of the invasion.
It’s now a question of whether politicians will agree. Initial indicators from Pres.-elect Trump aren’t promising. Renewable energy, he claims, is “just an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves.” As a former CIA covert ops officer, I can tell you I’m no tree-hugger. And I’d bet that Ssgt. Stever wasn’t either. If he had a choice, my guess is that he’d rather be serving in his uniform rather than buried in it. He’d rather build windmills, not cemeteries.
And that’s why all of us must demand from our policymakers that it’s time to ditch oil – especially foreign oil – and make America’s energy policy great again.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA officer, providing commentary on national security and the economy. He resides in Oregon. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright