War and the Environment
Dr. Jane Goodall witnessed firsthand the destruction that comes with war when she went to visit a national park in Tanzania in 1960. “When I arrived in 1960, the hills of Gombe National Park were adjoined by a vast stretch of lush forest; today, the park with its famous chimpanzees is a 32-square-mile island of green. Outside the park, the trees have gone, the soil is losing its fertility, mudslides are a recurring threat, and the forest animals have disappear” (Goodall, 2003). The war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has destroyed this area, leaving it inhospitable to wildlife and humans alike.
War, a creation of man, has caused much destruction and desolation of the environment since its beginning. In the seventeenth century, for instance, the Dutch flooded their own lands by destroying dikes to arrest the onslaught of foreign invader” (Schmitt, 1999). Whether it be a biological attack, such as spreading malaria in a water supply, or a more direct attack with a nuclear bomb, war is constantly drastically changing the environment. In 1991, “Iraqis made good their threat when they began pumping oil into the Persian Gulf and setting Kuwaiti oil wells ablaze” (Schimtt, 1999). This action was taken in response to a war.
“The defoliant Agent Orange, used so infamously in Vietnam (11 million gallons were sprayed), is still active in the environment today. Vietnamese researchers believe that 800 000-1 million Vietnamese people suffer health problems related to the use of this chemical” (Goodall, 2003). The various health defects and other problems associated with war and its byproducts show that the ever increasing use of deadly technology will eventually lead our planet to its own doom. “Toxic fumigants used in the war on drugs in Colombia will threaten human and animal health for years to come. Landmines wreak their own misery, maiming humans as well as animals while rendering good farmland unusable” (Goodall, 2003).
The Cold War is a perfect example of this; if all of the nuclear bombs that the United States and the then U.S.S.R were to have been launched, the world would have quickly died. “Then there are the weapons of mass destruction. The environment still hasn’t recovered from the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of World War II. People in these areas suffer from increased rates of cancer and other disease” (Goodall, 2003). Nuclear war has always been an issue to deal with because while many have them, it is very hard to get rid of them in an environmentally friendly way. “Much has been written about the crumbling nuclear arsenal of post-Cold War Russia and the millions of dollars required to contain the leakage. Nuclear waste from World War II was dumped in the oceans of the world” (Goodall, 2003).
Various efforts have been made to combat the use of more destructive weapons during wartime. “The normative result was two- fold: 1) the Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), a treaty limiting use of the environmental modification as a method of warfare; and 2) inclusion in the 1977 Additional Protocol (I) to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 of two provisions which limit the quantum of environ- mental damage permitted during international armed conflict” (Schmitt, 1999). However, are measures like this effective? The Iraq dumping of oil happened after ENMOD was enacted, and even though it was condemned internationally, not much came of it in the end as no one was held responsible.
War. The very mention of the subject will strike a chord in the heart of most people. Whether with fear, pride, or sadness war means something to everyone on this planet. But what does war bring with it? What does war do the places that become ‘war torn’? What happens to the environment when war changes the area? War, no matter what, always affects the area that it comes to.
Human kind has always been a society of warriors that takes its desires at any means necessary. There is a fighter in every single person alive on this planet; from the day that individual was born, they came out fighting for their first breath. Even if it means banding together, the human species will do whatever is necessary to get what it wants. This definition of ‘whatever’ also includes those possessions which other human beings hold dear: capitol, land, resources including both environmental resources and humans, like slaves. In most instances, these sorts of actions build to war causing not only human sacrifice for the sake of want, but environmental sacrifice.
People have thought of new ways to kill each other for thousands of years. One new age of war fell to the next more innovative, destructive power. Stone was struck down by bronze, and bronze fell to iron. Steel made its way onto the scene and shattered iron before gunpowder made a dramatic entrance onto the battlefield in the shape of artillery and hand held guns, changing the way combat was fought. Belligerents of war sacrificed the personal, close contact fighting of hand-hand-combat to distanced fighting. Distance took on new meaning when it became difficult to even find the enemy, with guerilla style warfare. Militaries then decided instead of sacrificing manpower on hunting for the vicious unknown enemy; take away his defenses through massive firepower. This type of weaponry would involve destruction on a massive scale ranging from high charged explosives, to chemical weaponry, to nuclear armaments.
It is simple to look at war throughout history and realize the heavy blow it deals to human life, but it is more difficult for some to realize the profound impact it has on the planet itself. For ages, weapons of mass destruction have been used to decimate populations, but with unforeseen trauma on the environment. An ancient example of this would be the use of the Black Plague as a biological weapon. A lot of people assume that the bubonic plague that wiped a third of Europe’s total population off the map was brought over by sea from the East, through trading ships carrying infected rats. Although partially true, it is not fully accurate. In 1348, the Mongol army known as the Golden Horde that swept over Eurasia laid siege to the city of Caffa, a port city in present day Ukraine. During the siege, the horde, already distraught with the disease, flung the cadavers of plague victims over the walls hoping to stink out the defenders, but in turn spreading the infection. Those who escaped from the doomed city fled on ships bound for the Mediterranean, and, carrying the disease, spread the biological terror to the rest of Western civilization (Wheelis, 2002). As we move forward through time, scientific advances have brought about another form of weaponry, the chemical menace.
The First World War in the early 20th century saw the first use of massive amounts of chemicals on the battlefield. Armies across Europe had developed billions of canisters filled with chemicals in the form of gas to fire on enemy positions. Some of these gases included mustard and chlorine, both of which if inhaled melted the victims organs while causing severe burns to the skin. Thousands of troops were affected by the gas, but today these gas canisters still cause issues. With over a billion shells estimated to have been fired, many missed their mark while others never exploded, most of which would then be left and forgotten about until decades later an unsuspecting farmer runs over it with his combine and is engulfed in a plume of noxious smoke. Efforts are have been made and are still continuing today to identify and collect these ancient warheads that still wreak havoc almost a century later (Fletcher, 2013).
Now fast forward half a century to the United States entrance into the Vietnam War. Vietnam was different for the American giant in that they were fighting a colony of ants in terms of firepower. Instead of fighting the Americans in the open, the Vietnamese used their dense jungle environment to their advantage using guerilla tactics to hit and run. The United States military decided instead of wasting precious troops on search-and-destroy missions they would try and take the Vietnamese advantage away from them, annihilate their hiding places. Through the highly toxic defoliant chemical known as Agent Orange, the United States military laid waste to the countryside. The main component of Agent Orange, dioxin, caused generational devastation with millions of tons of the chemical sprayed all over the region. It sunk into the jungle’s roots and squeezed the greenery of any life within the immediate sprayed area. The agent worked its way through the soil and into the water and food chain, causing ruin to the animal and human populations with its effects still scene in the obliterated forests and horribly deformed children of their infected ancestors (Hitchens, 2006).
Even high explosive weapons not meant to do any more damage than its own explosion has an environmental impact. Landmines, buried underground, are triggered when it is stepped on and this includes both human and animal victims. Even years after the dispute has ended, these landmines are a constant threat to passer-bys because they are generally unmarked and unknown to the person or animals next footstep. This unknown threat forces many farmers to move away from land that would have been suitable for cultivating, but instead they are forced to migrate to more fragile environments, such as forests leading to a deforestation and depletion of resources. But the threat is not the only thing environmentally unfriendly, the explosion can cause chaos. When it explodes, it displaces the earth around it damaging the surrounding vegetation. The same can be said for other high explosives such as cluster bombs. But landmines also prove to impact the earth by their toxic remnants when they begin to decay within the earth. The materials within the landmine begin to breakdown over time and seep into the soil (Informaction.org).
The biggest and one of the worst weapons known to man has to be the invention of the nuclear bomb. By the splitting of atoms, scientists near the end of World War II discovered an end to the war; total annihilation of a population. Two nuclear bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The thermal and ionizing radiation of the blasts left the two cities leveled with human casualties reaching close to 300,000. But nuclear explosions do more than level areas and take lives; they have much longer lasting effects. The shockwave from the blast clears miles around ground zero carrying environmental shrapnel such as trees, glass, and pieces of buildings into the surrounding area as well as radiation along with it. Those who did not feel the full effects of the explosion are still affected by the radiation and succumb to radiation sickness which there is no known medical cure. The lasting dangers are in the nuclear fallout, however. The explosion pulls in the surrounding environment upwards creating the mushroom cloud that is so commonly seen with nuclear explosions. The irradiated debris then falls back to the Earth as fallout making the targeted area uninhabitable for years to come. It is not just the use of the lethal weapon that damages, but the production of them as well. Nuclear facilities pollute vast amounts of soil and water through accidental leaks, and accidents can happen such as the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the 1980s. The city still remains a ghost town to this day (motherearth.org).
One example of the environmental impact without even the use of weaponry is the damage that massive troop movement can cause on the misplacement of soil, such as in Kuwait when U.S. and Iraqi forces crossed the Kuwait border, unintentionally destroying the vegetation in the region and in turn hurting animal populations (Palmer, 2012).
Some people may feel that there could be an environmentally friendly way to wage war, but to be honest, war is ugly. There is no possible way to fight a war without harming the planet. The solution for the introduction of the plague at the siege of Caffa, pray and wait, hoping for a quick death. Today, however, with medical breakthroughs, we can protect ourselves by studying and learning from the viruses that once plagued the human species and ones that may one day threaten us again. In looking at chemical as well as nuclear and even conventional weapons, we can conclude that the most environmentally safe practice is to not use them. They lay waste to human populations as well as animals. Country sides are ravaged for years to come and in most cases left uninhabitable. But seeing as war is inevitable in the fighting human spirit the next best option is to better prepare for the fatal outcome. One such option that is taking place today is the attempt to purify irradiated water supplies that have been affected by testing grounds, but this is a slow and difficult process as we are gradually learning the extreme monetary cost of such an effort (Eisler, 2012). As we progress into the technological future it will be interesting to see what type of weapons the human mind can think of next in order to “save lives”. We can only wait and see if any of these will have less of an impact on this earth than their destructive ancestors.
Fletcher, M. (2013, July 12). Lethal relics from ww1 are still emerging. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/britain-at-war/10172232/Lethal-relics-from-WW1-are-still- emerging.html
Wheelis, M. (2002). Biological warfare at the 1346 siege of caffa. Center for Disease Control: Mark Wheelis,8(9), Retrieved from http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/8/9/01-0536_article.htm
Hitchens, C. (2006). The vietnam syndrome. Vanity Fair, Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2006/08/hitchens200608
Palmer, B. (2012, February 28). War on the world: How does war affect the environment. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/the_green_lantern/2012/02/how_does_war_impact_the_planet_.html
The impact of war and weapons on humans and the environment. (2013). Information for Action. Retrieved from http://www.informaction.org/index.php menu=menua.txt&main=weapons_effects.txt&pf=true
The effects of nuclear weapons. (2013). Friends of the Earth. Retrieved from http://www.motherearth.org/nuke/begin2.php
War and the Environment: Fault Lines in the Prescriptive Landscape
Michael N. Schmitt
Archiv des Völkerrechts , 37. Bd., 1. H. (März 1999), pp. 25-67
Published by: Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40799122
Disturbing Facts about War and the Environment
Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment , Vol. 1, No. 6 (Aug., 2003), p. 283
Published by: Ecological Society of America
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3868073