Stones to Drones: A Short History of War on Earth
Gar Smith / World Beyond War
September 22-24 at American University in Washington, DC.
War is humanity’s deadliest activity. From 500 BC to AD 2000 history records more than 1000 [1,022] major documented wars. In the 20th Century, an estimated 165 wars killed as many as 258 million people — more than 6 percent of all the people born during the entire 20th century. WWII claimed the lives of 17 million soldiers and 34 million civilians. In today’s wars, 75 percent of those killed are civilians — mostly women, children, the elderly, and the poor.
The US is the world’s leading purveyor of war. It’s our biggest export. According to Navy historians, from 1776 through 2006, US troops fought in 234 foreign wars. Between 1945 and 2014, the US launched 81% of the world’s 248 major conflicts. Since the Pentagon’s retreat from Vietnam in 1973, US forces have targeted Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina, Bosnia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Grenada, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, the Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, and the former Yugoslavia.
Wars against nature have a long history. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s oldest tales, recounts a Mesopotamian warrior’s quest to kill Humbaba — a monster who reigned over a sacred Cedar Forest. The fact that Humbaba was the servant of Enlil, the god of earth, wind, and air didn’t stop Gilgamesh from killing this protector of Nature and felling the cedars.
The Bible (Judges 15:4-5) relates an unusual “scorched-earth” attack on the Philistines when Samson “caught three hundred foxes and tied them tail-to-tail in pairs. He then fastened a torch to every pair of tails . . . and let the foxes loose in the standing grain of the Philistines.”
During the Peloponnesian War, King Archidamus began his attack on Plataea by felling all the fruit trees surrounding the town.
In 1346, Mongol Tartars employed biological warfare to attack the Black Sea town of Caffa — by catapulting bodies of plague victims over the fortified walls.
Poisoning water supplies and destroying crops and livestock are a proven means of subduing a population. Even today, these “scorched-earth” tactics remain a preferred way of dealing with agrarian societies in the Global South.
During the American Revolution, George Washington employed “scorched-earth” tactics against Native Americans who allied with British troops. The fruit orchards and corn crops of the Iroquois Nation were razed in hopes that their destruction would cause the Iroquois to perish as well.
The American Civil War featured Gen. Sherman’s “March through Georgia” and Gen. Sheridan’s campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, two “scorched-earth” assaults aimed at destroying civilian crops, livestock, and property. Sherman’s army devastated 10 million acres of land in Georgia while Shenandoah’s farmlands were turned into fire-blackened landscapes.
During the many horrors of World War I, some of the worst environmental impacts occurred in France. At the Battle of the Somme, where 57,000 British soldiers died in the first day of combat, the High Wood was left a burnt tumble of blasted, mangled trunks.
In Poland, German troops leveled forests to provide timber for military construction. In the process, they destroyed the habitat of the few remaining European buffalo — which were quickly cut down by the rifles of hungry German soldiers.
One survivor described the battlefield as a landscape of “dumb, black stumps of shattered trees which still stick up where there used to be villages. Flayed by splinters of bursting shells, they stand like corpses upright.” A century after the carnage, Belgian farmers are still unearthing the bones of soldiers who bled to death in Flanders Field.
WWI inflicted damage inside the US as well. To feed the war effort, 40 million acres were rushed into cultivation on acreage largely unsuited for agriculture. Lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands were drained to create farmland. Native grasses were replaced with wheat fields. Forests were clear-cut to serve wartime needs. Extensive overplanting of cotton depleted soils that eventually succumbed to drought and erosion.
But the biggest impact came with the oil-fueled mechanization of war. Suddenly, modern armies no longer needed oats and hay for horses and mules. By the end of WWI, General Motors had built nearly 9,000 [8,512] military vehicles and turned a tidy profit. Air power would prove to be another historic game-changer.
With the outbreak of World War II, the European countryside suffered a renewed onslaught. German troops flooded 17 percent of Holland’s lowland farms with saltwater. Allied bombers breached two dams in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, destroying 7500 acres of German farmland.
In Norway, Hitler’s retreating troops methodically destroyed buildings, roads, crops, forests, water supplies, and wildlife. Fifty percent of Norway’s reindeer were killed.
Fifty years after the end of WWII, bombs, artillery shells, and mines were still being recovered from the fields and waterways of France. Millions of acres remain off-limits and the buried ordnance still claims occasional victims.
WWII’s most destructive event involved the detonation of two nuclear bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The fireballs were followed by a “black rain” that pelted survivors for days, leaving behind an invisible mist of radiation that seeped into the water and air, leaving a chilling legacy of cancers and mutations in plants, animals, and newborn children.
Before the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963, the US and USSR had unleashed 1,352 underground nuclear blasts, 520 atmospheric detonations, and eight sub-sea explosions — equal to the force of 36,400 Hiroshima-sized bombs. In 2002, the National Cancer Institute warned that everyone on Earth had been exposed to fallout levels that had caused tens of thousands of cancer deaths.
In the closing decades of the 20th century, the military horror show was unrelenting.
For 37 months in the early 1950s, the US pounded North Korea with 635,000 tons of bombs and 32,557 tons of napalm. The US destroyed 78 Korean cities, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals, 600,000 homes, and killed perhaps as many as 9 million people — 30% of the population by some estimates. Pyongyang has good reason to fear the US.
In 1991, the US dropped 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq, destroying homes, power plants, major dams and water systems, triggering a health emergency that contributed to the deaths of a half-million Iraqi children.
Smoke from Kuwait’s burning oil fields turned day to night and released vast plumes of toxic soot that drifted downwind for hundreds of miles.
From 1992 to 2007, US bombing helped destroy 38 percent of the forest habitat in Afghanistan.
In 1999, NATO’s bombing of a petrochemical plant in Yugoslavia sent clouds of deadly chemicals into the sky and released tons of pollution into nearby rivers.
Africa’s Rwandan war drove nearly 750,000 people into the Virunga National Park. 105 square miles were ransacked and 35 square miles were “stripped bare.”
In Sudan, fleeing soldiers and civilians spilled into the Garamba National Park, decimating the animal population. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, armed conflict reduced the resident elephant population from 22,000 to 5,000.
During its 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon spread more than 1,000 tons of radioactive depleted uranium over the land, triggering an epidemic of cancers and a generation of horrifically deformed children in Fallujah and other cities.
When asked what triggered the Iraq War, former CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid admitted: “Of course it’s about oil. We can’t really deny that.” Here’s the awful truth: The Pentagon needs to fight wars for oil to fight wars for oil.
The Pentagon measures fuel use in “gallons-per-mile” and “barrels-per-hour” and the amount of oil burned increases whenever the Pentagon goes to war. At its peak, the Iraq War generated more than three million metric tons of global-warming CO2 per month. Here’s an unseen headline: Military pollution is a major factor driving climate change.
And here’s an irony. The military’s scorched Earth tactics have become so devastating that we now find ourselves living â€“ literally â€“ on a Scorched Earth. Industrial pollution and military operations have driven temperatures to the tipping point. In pursuit of profit and power, extractive corporations and imperial armies have effectively declared war on the biosphere. Now, the planet is striking back — with an onslaught of extreme weather.
But an insurgent Earth is like no other force a human army has ever faced. A single hurricane can unleash a punch equal to the detonation of 10,000 atomic bombs. Hurricane Harvey’s airstrike on Texas caused $180 billion in damage. Hurricane Irma’s tab could top $250 billion. Maria’s toll is still growing.
Speaking of money. The Worldwatch Institute reports that redirecting 15 percent of the funds spent on weapons globally could eradicate most of the causes of war and environmental destruction. So why does war persist? Because the US has become a Corporate Militocracy controlled by the Arms Industry and Fossil Fuel Interests. As former Congressmember Ron Paul notes: Military spending mainly “benefits a thin layer of well-connected and well-paid elites. The elites are terrified that peace may finally break out, which will be bad for their profits.”
It’s worth recalling that the modern environmental movement arose, in part, in response to the horrors of the Viet Nam war — Agent Orange, napalm, carpet-bombing — and Greenpeace got its start protesting a planned nuclear test near Alaska. In fact, the name “Greenpeace” was chosen because it combined “the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world.”
Today our survival is threatened by gun barrels and oil barrels. To stabilize our climate, we need to stop wasting money on war. We can’t win a war directed against the very planet we live on. We need to put down our weapons of war and plunder, negotiate an honorable surrender, and sign a lasting Peace Treaty with the Planet.
Gar Smith is an award-winning investigative journalist, editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal, co-founder of Environmentalists Against War, and author of Nuclear Roulette (Chelsea Green). His new book, The War and Environment Reader (Just World Books) will be published on October 3. He was one of many speakers at the World Beyond War three-day conference on “War and the Environment,” September 22-24 at the American University in Washington, DC. (For details, include a video archive of the presentations, visit: http://worldbeyondwar.org/nowar2017.)
David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio.He is a 2015, 2016, 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee.
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