Ecocide And Modern Warfare

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As mentioned in previous chapters, the earliest Neolithic settled communities defended their territory against other human groups. The establishment of sedentary agricultural societies undoubtedly increased the potential for warfare by establishing exclusive ownership of land and resources. Early military conflicts have been documented to have had a variety of effects on ecosystems and biodiversity. For example, when a New Guinea highland tribe defeats another in a war, it does not immediately take over the territory of the vanquished. Instead, the winners cut down the fruit trees raised by them, perhaps to reduce the chances of the defeated people attempting to reclaim their territory.22 As conflicts intensified and the means of warfare became increasingly sophisticated, so-called scorched-earth policies became more common.

Perhaps the earliest documented example of systematic destruction of environment by warring armies is the destruction of the North African city of Carthage by the Romans. After Roman troops razed the city they covered the surrounding land with salt in order to destroy their enemy's means of subsistence. There exists no archaeological evidence that the site of ancient Carthage was resettled after the Roman destruction on any significant scale until the end of the first century bce.23 The modern record of industrialized warfare, however, presents a more serious picture as far as scopes of ecological devastation are concerned.

Although modern industrial warfare has immensely raised the social and ecological stakes, the leitmotiv of warfare has stayed the same for millennia: whatever is militarily attractive remains an option. Twentieth-century conflicts extended warfare to large-scale battles over habitat - that is, the expansion of violence through the destruction of environment. In short, the social practice of deliberate large-scale ecocidal devastation by warring armies is an entirely late modern phenomenon. Indeed, the notion of "ecocide" was originally developed in the 1950s and 1960s as an analytical term in the context of the devastating imperial wars in Southeast Asia to describe the practice of scorched earth policies and environmental terrorism by warring armies.

As used in this study, "ecocide" refers to certain acts that intend to disrupt or destroy species development and an entire ecosystem. Acts of war associated with ecocide include the use of weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, biological, or chemical, and attempts to provoke natural disasters such as volcanoes, earthquakes, or floods. In addition, ecocidal acts of warfare include the military use of defoliants, the use of explosives to impair soil quality and to enhance the prospect of disease; the bulldozing of forest or croplands for military purposes; attempts to modify weather or climate; and the forcible and permanent removal of humans or animals from their places of habitation in the pursuit of military or other objectives.

A nineteenth-century antecedent of ecocide by a warring army is exemplified in the systematic destruction of buffalo herds by the US army in order to obliterate the subsistence base of the resisting indigenous inhabitants of the region, the native North American Plains Indians. Defoliation in Vietnam, damage to marine life in the 1991 Gulf War, and destruction of agricultural land in the Horn of Africa during the Cold War, are the most prominent twentieth-century examples of the impact of the depredations of modern international industrial warfare-based conflicts with nature.24

The first major well-documented modern example of environmental warfare occurred earlier in the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1938 during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the Chinese dynamited the Huayuankou dike of the Huang He (Yellow) River in an attempt to halt the marching Japanese forces.25 This military tactic succeeded in drowning several thousand Japanese soldiers and halting their advance into China along this front. In addition, the resulting flooding ecologically ravaged three provinces and inundated several million hectares of farmland. The human costs were staggering: eleven cities and 4,000 villages were flooded, killing several hundred thousand civilians and leaving millions homeless. This little-known act of environmental warfare, performed by a defending army, is perhaps the single most devastating act of environmental warfare in history in terms of the number of human lives claimed.26

World War II contains further examples. In addition to the two Japanese cities obliterated by atomic weapons, scores of pristine Pacific atolls were blasted, burned, and pulverized under intensive air and naval bombard-ments.27 More than 450,000 acres of Libyan farmland were riddled with 5 million land mines. Nazi troops flooded 17 per cent of Dutch farmlands -200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) - with sea water. European bison were slaughtered to near-extinction to supply the mess kitchens of German and Soviet troops in eastern Poland.28 German civilian administrators with the occupying forces in Poland excessively exploited the Polish forests for timber, greatly diminishing the resource base of Poland.29 Soviet armed forces carried out retaliatory deforestation in the wake of World War II in occupied parts of western Europe, harming the region's ecology and crippling postwar social development.

It was not until the US-Vietnam conflict, however, that an offensive army utilized deliberate large-scale ecologically destructive technologies.30 Carrying 20 tons of bombs into the stratosphere, a US B-52 bomber could strike from 30,000 feet without warning, turning entire villages into sudden eruptions of flaming sticks, human limbs, and thatch. A formation of B-52s could obliterate a "box" approximately five-eighths of a mile wide by 2 miles long. These flying behemoths dropped 13 million tons of bombs on North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos - triple the total tonnage dropped in World War II. Such ferocious carpet-bombing, as historian William Thompson notes, left at least 25 million craters - each averaging 60 square yards - in a country nearly the size of Washington state. When the tropical rainforest canopy - up to 50 feet thick - resisted the onslaught of bombs, shells, and bullets, US forces developed the 15,000-pound Daisycutter bomb, which exploded with a shock-wave that killed earthworms 100 meters (330 feet) from the impact crater. The aerial and ground bombardment detonated the equivalent of an 8-kiloton bomb over Vietnam every 24 hours.31

Heavy bombing and herbicide spraying contributed to the precipitous decline of the red-shanked duoc langur - one of eleven mammals found only in Southeast Asia. Air-dropped poisons and high explosives also brought the lemur, the pileated gibbon, the Ouston's civet, and the wild forest ox to the brink of extinction. South Vietnam's lobster industry was wrecked by overproduction to satisfy members of the occupying imperial army. The tiger population was similarly devastated for the souvenir trade. Elephants and water buffalo used by the Vietcong to move supplies were attacked and slaughtered by US pilots and ground troops, just as the Romans had targeted Hannibal's elephants centuries before.32

Encouraged by state official fixations on technological solutions, deliberate, large-scale spraying of eco-toxins in Vietnam had commenced soon after the beginning of the war in the early 1960s. According to Thompson, a total of 18.8 million gallons of pesticides were sprayed over 20 per cent of the forests of South Vietnam. In one decade, 990,000 acres of prime agricultural lands were poisoned. "Agent Orange," the most commonly employed "jungle-eating" defoliant in Vietnam, spread DNA-damaging mutagens throughout Vietnam's war-torn biological environment. As a result, the rate of miscarriages and birth defects began to increase among Vietnamese women. Precious ancient tropical forests were eliminated by the blades of giant bulldozers weighing almost 3 tons. Dubbed "Roman plows" by their historically minded operators, these Earth-wrecking jungle eaters plowed under the entire village of Ben Suc and scraped clean 1,400 acres of fertile rice paddies tilled by the community's 3,000 inhabitants.33 South of Saigon, in the Plain of Reeds, the 5 foot tall eastern sarus crane came under attack as US forces dug hundreds of drainage ditches across 39,000 acres of sedge marshes. Once the coastal mangroves were dry, the soldiers sprayed the shrubbery with flame-throwers. By the war's end, more than half of the mangrove swamps in South Vietnam had been destroyed by chemical poisoning and napalm. Overall, an estimated 5 million acres of inland tropical forests had been heavily damaged by bombs, shells, bulldozers, and toxic defoliants.34

The displacement resulting from this environmental holocaust brought suffering to entire populations of animals and humans. In an ecological domino effect, starving hill tribes were forced to turn from contaminated rice fields to the forests for survival. Logging for cash and land-clearing accelerated together with subsistence hunting. In Ba Be National Park, threatened leaf monkeys were shot by villagers to provide meat for their families. Before the United States entered the fray, southern Vietnam had been predominantly rural, with 85 per cent of its population living simple lives in the lush countryside. By the war's end, 3 million of Vietnam's 17 million inhabitants had become refugees living in cities.35

Deforestation, erosion, dried-up water sources, and flooding have increased drastically since the war ended. The primary cause of this water-related havoc is the decrease in Vietnam's forest cover from 44 per cent of the total land area in 1943 to only 24 per cent 40 years later. Between 100,000 and 200,000 tons of topsoil per hectare wash down swollen rivers to the sea each year. Deforestation is continuing in post-war Vietnam as surviving forests are felled to rebuild 10 million homes, schools, hospitals, roads, and irrigation systems. This inexorable pressure is shrinking the forests the country needs for long-term sustainability at a rate of 494,000 acres a year. With more than two-fifths of southern Vietnam's once-verdant countryside a post-war wasteland, unusable for either agriculture or forestry, a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources argues that much of this ecological damage can never be repaired. Even more ominous, a report by Asia-Pacific's Environment Network of Malaysia concluded that Vietnam is a country facing "gradual extinction."36 Following Vietnam, the recent civil wars in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda further illustrate the devastating environmental effects of late modern war and its capacity of causing serious ecological damage. Almost all of the Yugoslav national parks in the war zones were destroyed, including the Plitcic Lakes, Biokovo, Trsteno Arboretum, Krka River, Kopack Rit Bird Reserve, and the Osijek Zoo. Deer, game, and domestic animals starved, sickened, or were shot by machine-guns. Energy and chemical plants were destroyed and chemicals are leaking into the ecosystem.37

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