Op Ed: Army doesn’t need Makua Valley for live-fire exercises


June 19, 2009

Army doesn’t need Makua Valley for live-fire exercises

Troops have trained elsewhere for years; other option needed

By David Henkin

“Let them train!” has been the rallying cry of Sen. Daniel Inouye and others who want the Army to resume live-fire exercises in Makua Valley.

It’s an emotionally compelling plea. Who would want to send our young men and women into battle without adequate preparation?

Unfortunately, it’s a highly charged, even deceptive, plea that serves to deflect attention from the real issue. It’s not whether the Army should train, but where.

Is a valley sacred to Hawaiians the best place to fire mortars and artillery – activities that have already damaged petroglyphs and other ancient cultural sites there?

Is the home to nearly 50 endangered and threatened species the best place to fire tracers and illumination rounds – the same weapons that have already sparked hundreds of fires, destroying the native forest and threatening rare plants and animals with extinction?

Is an area just three miles from Makaha’s homes and businesses, across the street from a public beach, the best place to stage a mock battle – using very real weapons and live ammunition?

Many don’t think so, which is why Malama Makua and Earthjustice have spent 11 years in court to compel the Army to give an honest accounting of the price we pay when soldiers train at Makua and to explore alternatives that would accomplish the Army’s mission without sacrificing Makua’s cultural and biological treasures.

The Army’s recently released environmental impact statement confirms Makua is not the only option. The Army admits it would be both feasible and reasonable to conduct its training at Pohakuloa on the Big Island, with much less risk of environmental damage. Indeed, the Army has already been using Pohakuloa to train troops for deployment and has emphasized the added benefit of giving soldiers based on O’ahu a realistic opportunity to practice deployment.

The Army has not trained at Makua since June 2004, and has conducted no live-fire training there in eight of the last 11 years. Yet even without Makua, it has successfully prepared its soldiers for battle.

How can Army officials, or Sen. Inouye, validly claim Makua is essential when the military’s own actions over the past decade have proven otherwise?

Quite simply, they can’t, because it isn’t.

Makua, which was pressed into service following the attack on Pearl Harbor, has had its day. As Congressman Neil Abercrombie has pointed out, based on his years of service on the Armed Services Committee, Makua is best suited for training soldiers for the trench warfare characteristic of WWI, not to meet the needs of the 21st century.

Makua was never intended to be a permanent training site. The Army promised to return it upon the cessation of hostilities with Japan, but 64 years later, the people of Hawai’i are still waiting.

Of the options identified under the EIS, Makua Valley and its resources are the most fragile, vulnerable and irreplaceable. Yet the Army has chosen Makua as its preferred alternative for the highest conceivable level of training, employing some of its most destructive weapons.

While we might expect this sort of environmental and cultural insensitivity from the Bush administration, it’s not a good fit with Hawai’i-born President Obama, who has a special understanding of the Islands.

But no matter who occupies the White House, using Makua Valley as a mock battleground doesn’t make sense. Not when Makua is unique – but its training opportunities are not.

Yes, let them train. But there’s no need to sacrifice Makua to do it.

David Henkin is a Honolulu-based Earthjustice attorney who has been involved with the Makua case since 1998. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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