The Problem With Burn Pits

On our very first episode, we took a deep dive into the horrifying realities of burn pits — giant holes that get filled with all kinds of trash, from plastic bags to entire trucks to human body parts and then get lit on fire with jet fuel. The U.S. military routinely used burn pits to dispose of trash during our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. In the process, some 3.5 million soldiers were potentially exposed to the carcinogen-laden smoke released by these massive burning piles.

Many of those soldiers have developed rare respiratory problems and cancers as a result of their exposure to burn pits. For a long time, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) routinely refused to acknowledge that these illnesses were connected to veterans’ service and denied their benefit claims, depriving them of the care they desperately needed.

The veterans we had on our episode and other advocacy groups worked tirelessly for years to push for legislation that would provide access to care for the many veterans exposed to toxins at war. After many years of work, the Honoring Our Pact Act was introduced to Congress. 

After initially passing both the House and the Senate with bipartisan support, the bill ran into a small procedural hiccup and had to return to the House for another vote. It made its way back to the Senate, where a group of Republicans who had previously supported it suddenly flipped their votes and claimed there was a “budgetary gimmick” introduced by Democrats. As Jon pointed out in numerous interviews, there was nothing added. (Only one sentence had been removed related to the procedural issue.)

Finally, after a ton of pressure from veterans and their advocates — who literally camped out outside the Capitol until the Senate agreed to vote on it again — the Honoring Our PACT Act was passed on August 2, 2022, in a vote of 86-11.

The sweeping legislation establishes presumption for more than 20 diseases that are linked to burn pit exposure. This is a huge victory for everyone who has been fighting so hard for so long to get burn pit victims the support and health care they deserve.

If you want to learn more about helping our veterans, visit our Take Action page.

The Problem With Allies

For a nation that goes to war as much as America does, we haven’t done a great job of being a team player with our strongest allies. Now, as Russia and China are moving to consolidate their global power, World War 3 seems like it could break out at any moment, where does that leave us? 

In our “Searching for Allies” episode, Jon asked members of the European Parliament who would end up on what team in the next world war, and their answers provided some fascinating insight into why America’s reputation isn’t so glowing. They also spoke about the lack of support for Europe in India and across Africa as a result of colonialism, and why some of America’s most long-standing alliances are now particularly fragile.

At least part of the skepticism that America now faces is rooted in how we’ve handled our interventions in the middle east over the past few decades. During the war in Afghanistan, we made big promises in return for the services of Afghan interpreters, including offering them a path to U.S. citizenship. But once our military went home, we left many of these local allies behind — and they were now facing violent threats from the Taliban for cooperating with America. 

In our Allies episode, we investigated why the U.S. immigration system has made it so hard for the interpreters who served alongside our military in Afghanistan to get the Special Immigrant Visas we promised them. We spoke with those who’ve been left to fend for themselves against Taliban retribution and a veteran who scrambled to help his translator get out of Afghanistan when the U.S. wouldn’t. We also asked Sen. Dick Durbin, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, about what needs to happen to fix the process for getting our Afghan allies to safety and on a path to American citizenship.

For more on how to help our Afghan allies, visit our Take Action page.

The Military Industrial Complex

The Problem with Defense

If a budget is a list of priorities, then consider what it means that 20% of the entire federal budget and 50% of annual discretionary spending goes to defense. In our “The Military Industrial Excess” episode, we investigate why America relies so heavily on military interventions to keep the global order — while also being the world’s largest arms dealer — and we ask whether any of this is actually making anyone any safer.

One of the biggest problems is that so much of the money we spend on defense is going to private contractors, who also happen to have tremendous lobbying power in Washington. So, instead of using the other foreign policy tools at our disposal, we’ve found ourselves in a near-endless cycle of intervening in a country in the name of spreading democracy only to have to reappear later to manage the chaos that’s followed in our wake – using our military.

This may be a source of tremendous profit for defense contractors, but as we have learned from our other episodes about war, it comes at a tremendous cost to our soldiers and the civilians in places where we intervene. Perhaps it’s time to rethink our role as the world’s policeman and focus more on funneling money into things like diplomacy which work far better for keeping the peace.