The Futility of Wars Over Petroleum

When we talk about peak oil with our American friends and co-workers, somebody (usually a male, by the way) almost always says something like, “We’ve got the biggest, meanest military in the world. If we run out of oil, we’ll just go get some more.” While tempting to some in a visceral sense, this approach would never succeed. Let’s talk about why.

It’s immoral

Invading another nation just to loot its natural resources is inconsistent with the image Americans have of themselves as a nation that plays fair with others. We Americans seem to have outgrown any sense that we should behave ourselves, however, so let’s move on.

Take a look at Iraq

Do we really need to say anything else? In the unlikely event that we do,

The U.S. won’t have the biggest, meanest military for long

It is unlikely that a nation as bellicose as the U.S. will give up its military power any time soon. It will remain a formidable military power, even while withholding health care from its citizens, education from its children, and routine maintenance from its electrical grid. That’s not the question. The question is whether the U.S. is a preemptive military power, one whose might is so formidable, so feared, that no other nation or group of nations would dare to challenge it. And if it is now a preemptive military power, is it likely to remain so? The answer to the first question is probably not. To the second, certainly not.

The world’s perception of the military might of the U.S. was quite high leading up to and immediately following the invasion of Iraq. In the intervening years, however, it has become painfully apparent that the American military is mismanaged, ill-equipped, and incompetently commanded. The rest of the world may come to fear and respect American military power again, but only if that fear and respect is earned anew.

The U.S. needs to borrow more than a billion dollars of additional money every day just to maintain the status quo. Talk about not sustainable! As cash-soaked China continues to expand its military power, the U.S. power in comparison will shrink dramatically.

The U.S. has attempted subterfuge in its invasion of Iraq, pretending its invasion was about something other than oil, and by all accounts save those of the Bush administration and its privately owned public relations firm Fox News, the strategy has failed dismally. The next seizure of oil would be even less subtle, even more alarming to others in the world, and even more likely to prompt resistance.

This resistance to an oil grab by the U.S. would come in two forms, first from other nations who would band together in alliances to choke off the money flow from the U.S. (its mother’s milk) and if necessary take up arms against it. Imagine for a moment a protracted, expensive struggle for oil between two alliances: on one side, the U.S., the U.K., Japan, and part of eastern Europe. On the other side, Russia, India, most of the middle East, most of Africa, and most of western Europe. Such a war would produce no winners, except perhaps China, which would in all likelihood be smart enough to stay on the sidelines and make money selling weapons and ammo to everybody.

The other form in which the U.S. would encounter resistance is from loosely knit “cells” of resistance fighters, call them terrorists if you wish, who would if provoked engage in asymmetrical warfare with the U.S. and its allies. This loosely knit and shadowy resistance would make it expensive and difficult to cooperate in any way with the U.S. or American business interests. Unlike the “war on terror” the U.S. is now pursuing, the struggle against this loose-knit global network of resistance would be a more lonely affair. After the U.S. launches an oil-grabbing war of conquest, the resistance fighters would get covert or overt help from a broad spectrum of nations, businesses, and individuals who view the U.S. as a threat to world security.

Nothing sucks down petroleum like a war

American soldiers and sailors are the most energy-consuming fighters ever seen on the field of war. The average GI in Iraq consumes about nine gallons of fuel per day. All that armor the families of GIs have been clamoring to have added to vehicles makes them safer for the soldiers in them, but at the price of worse fuel economy. A fully-armored Humvee weighs about five tons. A Bradley fighting vehicle gets less than two miles per gallon.

The U.S. military is the biggest purchaser of oil in the world, larger than than the entire nation of Greece. The military today consumes far more fuel per soldier than it did a few decades ago. in a 2005 article in Atlantic Monthly entitled “Gas pains: one of the U.S. military’s greatest vulnerabilities in Iraq is its enormous appetite for fuel. The insurgents have figured this out,” Author Robert Bryce notes that General Patton’s Third Army consisted of 400,000 men and used about 400,000 gallons of gasoline per day. The U.S. forces in Iraq, in contrast, number about 1/3 as many troops and consume more than four times as much fuel. It has been an axiom of war that the tonnage support for a well-equipped army is 50% ammunition, 30% fuel, and the rest food, water and supplies. Fuel is now approaching 70% for the U.S. military.

And here’s a quick factoid for you: an F-16 fighter uses about 20 gallons of fuel per minute.

Knowing as we do now that the U.S. went to war in Iraq for oil, isn’t it ironic that the U.S. is using far more fuel to fight the war than it will ever hope to get from Iraq’s oil fields?

The Defense Science Board has recommended that military procurement officers make fuel economy a key consideration when buying future weapons systems. The Joint Chiefs of Staff dismissed the recommendation. According to one frustrated planner quoted in Bryce’s article, there’s still a predominant sentiment throughout all levels of the Pentagon that “fuel economy is for sissies.” The Defense Science Board has fired in early 2008 another salvo, called “More Fight – Less Fuel.” The report is unclassified, but as of the last time we checked, the download wasn’t working. Maybe by now it will work for you if you Google the title. The U.S. military will eventually take fuel economy seriously, but it will always be an oil-draining business to fight a war.


If the U.S. is so foolish as to launch another war for oil, it will finish the adventure weaker, poorer, less secure, with fewer friends, and with more enemies. It will be perceived as a rogue nation that needs to be controlled so it doesn’t threaten the world’s security again.