Richard P. Tucker on War and the Environment

Extracts from an important essay: War and the Environment

....Until recent times armies lived off the land; their logistical support systems were so rudimentary that nothing else was possible.10  This process provides the key to much of the damage caused by wars, from ancient times onwards.  Classical Greece exemplified the process.  The Mediterranean borderlands feature long hot summers and short wet winters; their topography is mostly mountainous, with soils that are light and easily eroded once natural vegetation is removed.  Armies of the Greek city-states pillaged their enemies' farmlands, destroying annual crops and olive groves.11

Rural people fled to safety in the hill forests or fortified towns ahead of advancing military columns.  In the Peloponnesian War (431–04 BCE), which ended the golden age of Athens, the Spartan army repeatedly ravaged the farmlands of Attica, Athens' agricultural base, destroying crops in an unsuccessful effort to starve the city into submission.12  These campaigns were the grim precursors of modern "total war," obliterating the distinction between civilian and military targets.  The short-term impacts were obvious to everyone involved; the longer-term environmental results are more difficult to measure.

Southern Italy suffered similar damage to its agricultural lands on a larger scale two centuries later, when the Carthaginian general Hannibal invaded the Roman Republic in the Second Punic War (219–01).  In a long military stalemate, thirteen years of annual summertime fighting in southern Italy impoverished the land, as both armies attempted to deprive each other of provisions.13  The environmental result was neglect of tilled lands, forest depletion in hill regions and watersheds, soil erosion into streams and rivers, and coastal siltation.  In the disturbed coastal zone malaria became endemic, throughout the region's subsequent history until the DDT campaign that followed World War II. 

In the monsoon climate belt the Indian subcontinent saw similar impacts of military movements.    In the upper Indus and Ganges river basin, the Mughal empire's armies (1524–1707) led by elephant corps and cavalry devoured the food and fodder resources of the land. The imperial army was a mobile city of nearly a million fighters, camp followers, and suppliers, who stripped wide areas of everything useful as they moved.  Cavalry swept the countryside, depopulating villages; rural society and its biological base could take decades to recover from the disruption. 14  

Medieval European history showed similar patterns on the land during wartime.  Until the late 1700s a perennial problem was how armies were recruited and compensated.  Lords on manorial estates and the serfs who worked their lands were both warriors whenever military campaigning demanded.  In the age of chivalry mounted knights on heavy horses dominated battles.   Foot soldiers were of two sorts: local militias of impressed peasants, and mercenary bands organized by military entrepreneurs.  Their rewards most often came in the form of booty, a chaotic process always disruptive to agro-ecosystems.  The Hundred Years War in France (1337–1453) was a major example of undisciplined armies ravaging crop lands, marshlands and woodlands.  Many campaigns were renewed for years, devouring both woods and croplands in the process.15  In the twilight zone between mass violence and peaceful times, including after campaigns were over and temporary troops were disbanded, brigandage (hardly distinguishable from regular soldiering) festered.16  Lands deserted when rural people became refugees reverted toward natural woodlands and wetlands, with concomitantly increasing species diversity. The short-term damage to partially domesticated landscapes was evident to anyone with eyes.  The long-term ecological transformations of the early medieval period are difficult to assess, since the long term was a matter of peacetime recovery processes....

Fortifications and Sieges
Throughout medieval Europe, in the decentralized society that succeeded the Roman era, lords of the land built massive fortifications surrounded by earthen ramparts with wooden palisades.  Each required rock from quarries and timber from forests; each had moats and ramparts that disturbed the soil.  Hundreds of manorial castles and fortified towns dotted the land, and each was surrounded by crop lands, pastures and forests.  Sieges of these fortresses and fortified towns often lasted for entire summer seasons, when invading armies could be maintained.  Attacks and counter-attacks left more severe damage to surrounding lands than the simple passage of a moving army.  Rebuilding settlements after the end of a war required yet another round of timber supplies.17

Warfare coincided with disease and helped spread epidemics of plague, typhus and other diseases; in tandem war and epidemics reduced population...

The century of total war
The industrial capacity for warfare had accelerated rapidly since 1870, and all combatant economies had forged close ties between military commanders and industrial designers and managers.42 By 1914 war in Europe could be pursued with railway and wheeled vehicles, and during the war the first air forces appeared.  The consequences caught everyone strategically unprepared. As the war on the Western front bogged down in a three-year stalemate along hundreds of miles of trenches in Flanders and northern France, millions of bomb and shell craters left puddles, ponds, and mud where crop fields and woodlands had been before. On both sides of the war, improved long-distance food transport enabled mass armies to be sustained year-round, and battles to be fought almost endlessly.  On occasion, armies deliberately deprived both enemy units and civilians of food, fiber, and fodder by ravaging land and destroying stored crops. In early 1917, as the German armies withdrew from the Somme battlefields, they systematically destroyed nearly every building, fence, well, bridge, and tree over an area sixty-five by twenty miles to deprive the advancing enemy of sustenance and cover.43  In eastern Europe the wide and constantly shifting battle zone between the German and Russian armies opened remote areas to development and pointed toward vast damage to forests, marshes and agricultural zones in World War II.

The war also saw the first large-scale use of chemical warfare. Germany, France and Britain all attempted to develop chemical weapons before 1914.  Germany's chemical industry, the world's leader, forged close cooperation with her military, enabling the German army to use massive amounts of chlorine and mustard gas on Allied troops. By the war's end chemical warfare produced 1.3 million casualties, including ninety thousand deaths; mustard gas and other chemical agents temporarily poisoned lands on and near the battlefields. It is difficult to assess the immediate environmental impact, because no one measured it, but its carryover effect was massive. Chemical warfare increased the size of chemical industries, demonstrated the value of scientific research to chemists and governments, and helped inspire postwar pesticides. And military aircraft became the backbone of postwar crop dusting, increasing the scale on which pest control was economical.44

Throughout Europe and even overseas, forests came under unprecedented wartime pressures.  Lengthy bombardments in battle zones shattered forests that had been carefully managed for centuries.  For hundreds of miles behind the lines, massive emergency fellings of timber were carried out. Only the great forest zone of Russia escaped heavy exploitation, since imperial Russia's transport system was still rudimentary.  The British, Canadians, and Americans organized large timber shipments from North America and even India's monsoon forests.  But this war saw only the beginnings of tree cutting from tropical rainforests, since logging and transport facilities were still in their infancy, even in the colonial forests of British and French West Africa.45  Perhaps equally important for the longer run, government forestry agencies in many countries took greater control over forest resources during the war. The immediate postwar period saw reforestation programs in both Europe and North America, in which single-species tree plantations replaced the greater variety of species in the former natural forests.

Between the two world wars further acceleration of military industry enabled militarized states to mobilize far greater resources from around the world than a quarter century before, and impose new levels of destruction. When Japan attacked China in 1937 and then Hitler's armies invaded Poland in late 1939, they unleashed a war in which seventy million people would die, and his own country ultimately suffered some of the most total devastation, particularly at the hands of the Allied air forces. By the summer of 1945 British and American bombers, dropping incendiary bombs produced by the rapidly maturing chemical industry, leveled one hundred thirty German cities, killing some six hundred thousand civilians. The postwar reconstruction, physical as well as social, would be daunting.

In combat zones the forests of Europe were once again badly damaged by fighting. Behind the lines of combat, timber was cut at the most urgent rates that the limited available workforce could achieve, and great forests of Norway and Poland were looted of their timber wealth. This time, even more than in the previous war, the battle zones of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East could call upon timber resources from other continents.  Both harvesting machinery and transport networks (from forest roads to harbor facilities to oceanic shipping) were more highly developed than in the previous war, though the vast forest resources of Asian Russia were still largely inaccessible. 

In the Far East, Japan had pre-empted Soviet interest in the industrial belt of Manchuria by occupying it as early as 1931.  Six years later Japanese armies, supported by Japanese aerial bombing of Chinese cities, advanced westward across China.  In the war's most notorious action, the retreating Chinese Nationalist leadership broke the Yellow River dikes, flooding vast areas of intensely cultivated lowlands, drowning over 800,000 people and turning 2 million others into refugees. 46  Between them, the Nationalist and Japanese armies produced a scale of human and environmental damage by war's end that is still not fully measured. 

In early 1942, immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan's war machine continued down the Pacific, quickly seizing the strategic forest and rubber resources of the Philippines, Indonesia and mainland Southeast Asia.  For roughly three years, until they were beaten back, the occupying Japanese forces brutalized forests and plantations, leaving a seriously compromised environmental legacy.. read the full essay:

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