The Long History of War’s Environmental Costs

By Richard Tucker, World Beyond War
Talk at No War 2017 Conference, September 23, 2017

Good morning, friends,

Nothing like this convergence has happened before. I’m so grateful to the organizers, and I’m tremendously impressed at the range of speakers and organizers who are working together this week and beyond.

The connections between military operations and our stressed biosphere are many-faceted and pervasive, but they’re generally not understood. So there’s work for us to do in many areas. One is the educational system. I’m an environmental historian by trade. As a researcher and teacher, I’ve been working for twenty years on the military dimension of environmental decline through history – not just in wartime, but in peacetime too. As Gar Smith has highlighted, it’s an old story, as old as organized societies.

But in our educational system the many-sided connections between warfare and its environmental costs hardly show up at any level. Environmental historians paid little attention to these connections until our war/environment network emerged less than ten years ago. Most of us didn’t want to study military history. Military historians have always paid attention to the natural world — as settings and shapers of mass conflict – but their work has rarely discussed the long environmental legacies of military operations. Many peace studies programs could be enriched with more environmental material.

We’re producing a steadily growing series of research studies on its history around the world that we’re listing on our website <environmentandwar.com>. The more we’re all aware of the impacts, both immediate and long-term, the more compelling our stories become. That’s why I’m so grateful to Gar for putting together the War and Environment Reader. I hope you’ll all get copies. Now I want to add to Gar’s presentation by emphasizing several deep historical roots of our situation.

Military priorities (for both defense and offense) have been foremost for almost every society and state system through history. Those priorities have shaped political organizations, economic systems, and societies. There have always been arms races, managed by the state and produced by the military industry’s work force. But in the 20th century the distortions of entire economies have been unprecedented in scale. We live now in the Warfare State that was created in World War II and sustained by the Cold War. Our ten-author book on the environmental history of the Second World War in the U. S. probes that; it will be published next year.

Looking back into our longer history, I want to highlight the tangled situation of civilians in wartime — civilians as both victims and supporters of military operations. Here’s where we find many critical connections between people’s lives and environmental damage in both wartime and peacetime.

One central link is Food and Agriculture: Farm populations have regularly suffered severely in wartime, as military columns sweep across the land, requisitioning supplies, burning buildings, destroying crops – and damaging landscapes. These campaigns escalated with the coming of industrial warfare in the nineteenth century. Scorched earth campaigns were notorious in the American Civil War. In World War I agricultural disruptions and severe civilian malnutrition were central to almost every region of Europe and the Middle East, as we trace in our multi-author global environmental history of World War I that will also be in print next year. It’s a perennial issue that links civilian populations to environmental stress

Speaking of scorched earth campaigns, let’s consider deliberate environmental war a bit more. Counter-insurgency campaigns, designed to cripple civilian support of insurgents, have repeatedly caused deliberate environmental damage. The use of chemical weapons in Vietnam was derived in part from colonial-war strategies of the British and French, who in turn had studied American strategy in the conquest of the Philippines around 1900. Similar strategies go back through history at least to ancient Greece.

Many wartime upheavals have caused mass refugee movements.   In modern times they’re usually well reported – except for the environmental dimension. Environmental stress intensifies wherever people are forced to leave their homes, and along their escape routes, and where they land. One appalling example, discussed in our newly published multi-author volume The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War, was China, where tens of millions of refugees fled their homes between 1937 and 1949. Several of us are now studying other cases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In recent years war’s refugees and environmental refugees are merging into an unprecedented flow of seventy million dislocated people. Environment is both cause and result of these massive migrations.

This leads me to Civil Wars, which blur distinctions between combatants and civilians; environmental damage has been a factor in every one of them. However — over the past century not one was merely internal; all of them have been fed by the international arms trade. The environmental links to Resource Wars and the machinations of industrial powers in fighting to control strategic resources should be obvious. These neo-imperial wars, that use local people as surrogates, are environmental conflicts. (Thanks to Michael Klare, Philippe LeBillon in Vancouver, and others, for their important work on this subject.) So when we study the more than fifty “civil” wars of the past century, we must never ignore the global weapons market. (SIPRI).

Here I want to change my tone for a minute, to consider a somewhat more encouraging topic. Sometimes there have been heart-warming stories of victims working together in resilience, in situations that link militarized economies with public health crises and citizens’ environmental protests. In several Soviet Republics in the glasnost-perestroika era that followed the Chernobyl disaster, grassroots organizations emerged overnight when Gorbachev opened the window for public debate. By 1989 neighbors could publicly organize to protest toxic and radioactive disease and link them to broader environmental troubles. A new study from Kiev will soon tell that story specifically for Ukraine, where NGOs organized quickly and linked immediately to international organizations such as Greenpeace, and to their own expatriates in Canada, the US, and western Europe. But it’s hard to sustain a movement, and recent news has been less encouraging. When a regime discourages its people from international connections, as is happening now in Hungary, environmental action is made more difficult.

Finally, we come to the environmental deterioration that merges all the rest: Climate Change. The military’s contribution to global warming has a history, but it hasn’t yet been studied systematically. Barry Sanders’s powerful book, The Green Zone, is one important effort. Military planners – in the US, NATO countries, India, China, Australia — are working hard on today’s reality. But the full history of the fossil fuel era can’t be understood adequately until we see more clearly what the military segment has been, both consuming fossil fuels and shaping the global political economy of coal, oil, and natural gas.

In sum, when we recognize these and many other connections between militarism and the environment, throughout our history, it makes the case for our work all the more compelling, both in the classroom and in shaping everyone’s consciousness of the complexity and high stakes of our challenging times.

So, how to move forward into the times ahead? Resilience and recovery are also important parts of the historical record – human and environmental damage has often been repaired, at least partially. I haven’t said much about that dimension of our environmental history; it deserves much more attention. I’m happy that this weekend we have the chance to work together to find new and strengthened forms of resistance and renewal.

Our historical project’s website <environmentandwar.com> is being revised and expanded this season. It includes an expanding bibliography and a sample of syllabi. We want the site to be increasingly useful for today’s campaigners. I welcome suggestions for how to do that.

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