Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
16 Apr. 2021
Review by Teddy J. Uldricks, University of Nevada–Las Vegas
The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War
Ed. Simo Laakkonen, Richard Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo
Corvallis: Oregon State Univ. Press, 2017. Pp. xii, 346. ISBN 978–0–87071–879–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, Natural Environment Print Version

The effects of the atomic bombings of Japan and China's breaching of its Yellow River dykes have long been known and studied, but the broader environmental impact of the Second World War remains little studied, apart from a few pioneering works.[1] The book under review here gathers enlightening contributions made by sixteen participants at a 2012 workshop at Helsinki (see table of contents below). Though it is not (nor does it aspire to be) a comprehensive "global environmental history," it certainly enlarges our understanding of a war against the planet. As the editors put it in their introduction, "the environmental history of wars has … ended up in an academic no-man's-land between two traditions of historical research: the history of war and environmental history" (6).

In chapter 2, Simo Laakkonen builds a theoretical framework for discussing the interrelations of war, society, and the environment in a specific "polemosphere." Evan Mawdsley, in chapter 3, defines war as a competition for natural resources and the consequent effects of natural environment on combat. Students of Adolf Hitler's war effort will dislike Mawdsley's claim that "the cause of the three major Axis powers was not world domination: indeed, they were fundamentally antiglobalist" (47). That may be true of Italy and Japan, but not National Socialist Germany.

Laakkonen shows in chapter 4 that, while Nazi ideology incorporated some ideas of respecting and protecting nature, Hitler's Reich lacked the coherence to implement them. His Agriculture Minister, Richard Walther Darré, envisioned a ruralized Germany living in harmony with nature; not surprisingly, he soon lost influence within the Nazi hierarchy. The industrial needs of modern military power quashed any visions of a "blood and soil" agrarian utopia. The Nazis denounced Enlightenment rationalism, but embraced all forms of technology. Although Hermann Göring and Fritz Todt sought ways to expand industry yet protect wild animals and their habitats, Todt's successor, Albert Speer, cared only about maximizing production. Ironically, Heinrich Himmler had a soft spot for animals, though clearly not for human beings.

Some of the worst wartime devastation occurred in Russia and China. Chapter 6, by Paul Josephson, concerns the prolonged heavy fighting around Leningrad, in Kursk, and in Belarus, and the resulting massive damage done to the natural environment. Josephson notes that postwar Soviet economic priorities left inadequate funding for cleaning up and restoring the built and natural environments. He argues convincingly that this wartime phenomenon persisted in the "war against nature" so intrinsic to the Soviet system.

In chapter 6, Micha Muscolino considers flood and famine in China.[2] He reminds us that the inundation caused by breaching the Yellow River dyke in Henan engulfed not a pristine natural environment, but an "anthropogenic" (man-made) landscape. Centuries of expanding populations, intrusive hydraulic engineering, and soil exhaustion had long since brought Henan and all North China to an environmental crisis. The flooding killed 800,000 people and drove another 4 million out from the three affected provinces. Hence, even when the flood waters receded, there was insufficient labor to repair the damage and restore the agro-ecological system. To make matters worse, low rainfall in 1941–42, caused by an El Niño event, crippled agriculture and led to widespread famine. Some 2–3 million starved to death and another four million fled the province. "In the early 1940s, wartime instability combined with state security interests to rule out effective interventions to assist Henan's rural population and avert famine" (105).

Richard Tucker (chap. 7) explains the deleterious effects of fighting, building the Burma and Lasio roads, and hordes of refugees on the fragile ecosystem in the forested mountains of Northeast India and Burma. In addition, both the Japanese and the British ramped up lumbering in the region with no concern for environmental damage. Moreover, the fighting in Burma and India did not cease in 1945; numerous uprisings and counterinsurgencies continued to damage local ecosystems.

Typically, preparations for war (such as expanding industrial production and building bases and roads) cause more long-term environmental damage than does combat itself. Such was the case for the Hawaiian Islands. In chapter 8, Carol Maclennan chronicles the militarization of Hawaii, particularly Pearl Harbor, since the late nineteenth century. Building big Navy and Army bases polluted the natural environment with raw sewage, engine oil, and even radioactive waste. Live-fire exercises scarred the land and left tons of exploded and unexploded ordnance. The Pearl Harbor Naval Complex was declared a Superfund site in 1992 and in 1998 the Hawaii Department of Health warned the public not to consume fish or crabs from Pearl Harbor.

Until the twentieth century, far more soldiers died from disease than combat; infections continued to afflict armies even after 1900. In chapter 9, Helene Laurent discusses one of the most common microbial dangers—louse-born typhus. The Finnish army had great success delousing its troops with saunas and disinfecting buildings with hydrogen cyanide, Zyklon, or hydrogen sulfide. The Germans used Zyklon as a disinfectant and also Zyklon B as a weapon of mass murder during the Holocaust. The United States relied on DDT to kill lice, mites, and mosquitoes (vectors of typhus, scrub typhus, and malaria). Extensive dusting with DDT during the Second World War grievously harmed animal and plant populations and imperiled human health as well.

Chapter 10 concerns the "acoustic ecology of war," specifically the concentrated noise pollution of the battlefield. The earsplitting sound of artillery shelling or aerial bombardments can terrify and even psychologically damage soldiers subjected to it. Outi Ampuja examines the use of sound as a weapon and the damage—shell shock, combat fatigue, PTSD—it can cause.

The book's contributors deal as well with resource extraction during and after the war. In chapter 11, Matthew Evenden describes the damage done to the aluminum commodity chain by the wartime expansion of bauxite mining in British Guiana, aluminum smelting in Quebec, and the shipment of the metal to factories in Britain, the United States, and Australia. The process involved clearing forests in Latin American for open mines that, when exhausted, resembled a lunar surface inhospitable to plants and animals. In North America, the smelting process, especially its enormous electric power requirements, caused the damming and diversion of waters, greatly altering fish habitats, and the proliferation of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons polluting air and water.

In chapter 12, Christopher Boyer discusses the Mexican government's wartime "crisis utilization" policy, which led to "radical curtailment of environmental protections, local autonomy, and the state's former commitment to balanced economic development in rural areas" (218). This was institutionalized in postwar Mexican resource policy, particularly regarding the logging industry. This meant that a corporate, developmental imperative—read "clear cutting"—replaced the previous policy of forest conservation and management.

In chapter 14, William Tsutsui and Timo Vuorisalo argue that

Japanese imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region from the late nineteenth century until 1945 developed patterns of exploitation of marine resources that are still present, and contribute to the overharvesting of marine fish and the continuing conflicts between Japanese fishing interests and overseas competitors and conservationists. (215)

They also connect fishing to imperial expansion. Tokyo intensified fishing for export in order to acquire the oil, iron ore, and rubber needed by its armed forces. The geographic extent and efficiency of Japanese fishing soon brought many Pacific species under pressure, as trawlers moved from one depleted area to the next. Ironically, World War II toppled this "pelagic empire," as most of the larger fishing ships and their crews were pressed into military service. By war's end, nearly half the fishing fleet had been destroyed. The Japanese fishing industry rebounded soon after the war with the encouragement of American occupation authorities. It become even larger than it had been in the 1930s. Unsurprisingly, overfishing recurred.

In chapter 15, Ilmo Massa and Alla Bolotova survey the military use of Arctic resources during the war—specifically in the northern reaches of Canada, Finland, and the Soviet Union. They use the concept of "extractive economy" to explore the unsustainable misuse of natural systems and resources in the region. Building roads and railways, laying pipelines, generating electric power, expanding fisheries, mining uranium, coal, and other resources, establishing military bases and stations, and even engaging in limited combat "opened" and damaged fragile northern ecosystems.

In chapter 16, Anna-Katharina Wöbse discusses the effect of World War II on silencing and then reviving and transforming international attempts to protect the environment. She highlights UNESCO's cooperation with ecology-minded NGOs. "The Second World War triggered the Americanization and modernization of preservationism, and thus had a lasting effect on the evolution of environmentalism as we know it today"(310).

The editors close by calling for "additional thematic and empirical case studies before well grounded theoretical generalizations can be made" (315). In their view, "the Second World War became one of the main forces that rewrote the environmental history of the latter part of the twentieth century" (317). Laakkonen and his colleagues identify five areas in need of further investigation: (1) the environmental impact of preparing for war (2); postwar reconstruction; (3) natural resource exploitation; (4) the "Global synchronization of environmental policy making" (323); and (5) the threat posed by the toxicity of the postwar world to human survival. In short, "World War II also meant the birth of global environmental catastrophism" (325). Scholars and advanced students will prize The Long Shadows for highlighting the seldom studied but grave environmental aftereffects of World War II.

1. Simo Laakkonen (Univ. of Turku), Richard P. Tucker (Univ. of Michigan), Timo Vuorisalo       (Univ. of Turku), "The Long Shadows."
2. Simo Laakkonen, "Polemosphere: The War, Society, and the Environment."
3. Evan Mawdsley (Glasgow Univ.), "World War II: A Global Perspective."
4. Simo Laakkonen, "Environmental Policies of the Third Reich."
5. Paul Josephson (Colby College), "The Costs of the War for the Soviet Union."
6. Micha Muscolino (Univ. of Oxford), "Conceptualizng Wartime Flood and Famine in China."
7. Richard P. Tucker, "Environmental Scars in Northeastern India and Burma."
8. Carol Maclennan (Michigan Tech. Univ.), "Hawai'i: Before and After Pearl Harbor."
9. Helene Laurent, M.D., "The Great Louse War: Control of Typhus Fever."
10. Outi Ampuja (Univ. of Helsinki), "Perspectives on the Acoustic Ecology off War."
11. Matthew Evenden (Univ. of British Columbia), "Aluminum's Permanent Revolution."
12. Christopher R. Boyer (Univ. of Illinois¬–Chicago), "Crisis Utilization in Mexican Forests."
13. Gregory Maddox, "Food Disruption and Agricultural Policy in Tanganyika."
14. William M. Tsutsui (Hendrix College) and Timo Vuorisalo, "Japanese Imperialism and       Marine Resources."
15. Ilmo Massa (Univ. of Helsinki) and Alla Bolotova (European Univ. at St. Petersburg),       "Opening the Circumpolar Arctic World."
16. Anna-Katharina Wöbse (Justus Liebig Univ. Giessen), "International Conservation after the       Two World Wars."
17. Simo Laakkonen, Richard P. Tucker, Timo Vuorisalo, "Hypotheses: World War II and Its       Shadows."

[1] E.g., Judith Bennett, Natives and Exotics: World War II and Environment in the South Pacific (Honolulu: U Hawaii Pr, 2009), and Jacob Hamblin, "Environmental Dimensions of World War II," in Thomas W. Zeiler and Daniel M. DuBois, eds., A Companion to World War II (Oxford: Blackwell, 2013) chapter 41.

[2] See also his The Ecology of War in North China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938–1950 (NY: Cambridge U Pr, 2015).

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