Five Stages of Environmental Impacts of Warfare: An Exploration

Stewart Gordon and Richard Tucker

June 2015


As yet no analytic framework or paradigm shapes the study of the environmental consequences of war and military operations. Writers’ subjects have varied widely in theme and location, as we work toward global coverage and links to an expanding range of disciplines. Case studies have been the norm, generally based on solid archival work or occasionally field work.  Without a shared analytic framework, however, comparison between case studies has proved problematic.  Ideally, a new research framework in the field would foster comparisons across time and space, permitting useful analysis of war’s environmental consequences across disparate periods, cultures, religions, regions, languages and ethnicities. Thus, it might be possible to compare the environmental consequences of fleet buildup before the Peloponnesian Wars to fleet buildup preceding the Napoleonic Wars or even to Kublai Khan’s fleet construction for the invasion of Japan. Implicitly such a framework would promote studies and comparisons outside the twentieth century and beyond Europe. Our thinking in this venture has been much influenced by the important essay by Gary E. Machlis and Thor Hanson, “Warfare Ecology,” Bioscience 58:8 (September 2008).

What we propose here is not a fully developed comparative research framework for the environmental consequences of war. Rather, we explore time and chronology as one aspect of such a research paradigm.  From reading a variety of war and environment case studies as well as recent writing in military history, we have noticed characteristic periods in the interaction of environment and war, as follows:

  1. The Run Up to War
  2. The War Itself
  3. The Immediate Aftermath
  4. Five to Ten Years after the War
  5. The Long Term, a Century or more after the War

We do not seek a single pattern of the consequences of war on the environment. Rather, we expect a variety of patterns. Some wars have affected the environment mainly in the run- up rather than the war itself. The environmental consequences of other wars have become clear only decades after the fighting. We anticipate comparisons between wars of similar pattern, though the wars may be far apart in location and belong to different historical periods.

To illustrate this schema we have chosen examples from the published literature that focus on one or another of the periods we are proposing. Rather than a full discussion of these important books and articles, we provide only a thumbnail summary of the main argument and its relevance to the proposed research structure.  For each time frame we add research questions that arise from comparative perspective.


Environmental Costs of Preparations for Warfare

“Oak, Forests and English Preparations for the Napoleonic War”

This thumbnail discussion relies on what is still the most thorough study of English oak and English shipbuilding, Robert G. Albion, Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy 1652-1862 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926).

In the 1790’s Great Britain’s Naval Board rightly worried that there would not be enough English oak to build the needed ships for the coming war with France.  The limitations were environmental and historical.  Oak of a size and strength for shipbuilding grew only in a very small portion of England consisting of the southeast counties (Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex and Kent), smaller pockets on a north-south line through the center of the island (such as Winwood, Whittelwood, and Sherwood) and the Forest of Dean on the western coast.  None of these stands were in any sense “natural” forests.  The vast majority of the once-dominant oak forests had been cleared for agriculture.  What remained had been managed for centuries and consisted of century-old giants that formed an overstory with younger oaks growing below.  The ground level was kept cleared by pigs; these forests were meant for royal and noble hunting.  The Naval Board and English shipbuilders considered English oak superior to any continentally grown alternative.

When naval demand was limited, nobles could profitably harvest some of the big oaks without damage to the basic system.  The rapid increase in demand for oak in the run-up to the Napoleonic wars could, however, not be met by these managed forests.  Some large oaks were cut, but neither the king nor his nobles were willing to see their estates denuded and the end of an ecological system that had provided profit, building material and game for the table for generations.

The Naval Board pursued probably the only viable strategy: export the problem and import the solution.  They turned to the vast oak forests in the Baltic countries for structural timber and planking.  Whole forests were felled for the dozens and dozens of ships built.  Masts of strong, supple white pine came from the uncut forests of the North American coasts and rivers draining to the coasts.

The run-up to the Napoleonic Wars thus had a variety of environmental effects, such as the wholesale logging of portions of the Baltic region and the eastern littoral of North America.  There were also environmental effects within England.  Many nobles began to grow larch, which was the equal of oak for shipbuilding but maturing in half the time of oak.

This shift, for example, bears comparison to the spread of pine plantations in the American south. Further afield broad questions might include the following: How was the environment stressed by military preparations?  Was there wholesale cutting down forests for ships, masts or gun carriages? Was there Increased iron or gold mining? Did the Run Up include stockpiling of cloth, minerals or food?  Was there enforced shifting of crops or opening of new land for crops?  What about the taking of birds for fletching arrows? What about the taking of ceremonially powerful animals for their skins or feathers?


Environmental Stress during Wartime

This second thumbnail summary is based on Lisa M. Brady, “The Wilderness of War: Nature and Strategy in the American Civil War,” Environmental History 10:3 (July 2005), pp. 421-47 and the fuller treatment in her recent book War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).

The most direct and unambiguous environmental consequences of battle are the immediate impacts of conflict, military movements and operations behind the lines.  Military historians and geographers have described these impacts many times, though their focus has been on military operations themselves and the geographical information necessary for planning strategy and tactics.  Historians of military and society have indicated many close links between the complex, shifting place of civilians in warfare and the environments where they operate. The work of environmental historians converges with those traditions, but with a different narrative focus: on the natural and built environments in play.  The centennial of World War I has given great impetus to studies of the two world wars of the twentieth century, but until now the best work on the immediate environmental stresses of warfare has been in studies of the American Civil War of 1861-65.

Lisa Brady’s work is highly regarded among both environmental and military historians.  In her 2005 article she focuses on fields and forests and their devastation in war. In General Sherman’s 1864 traverse of Georgia, cotton fields that had been turned into cornfields were systematically disrupted in a wide swath, as if “some giant plowshare had passed through the land, marring … the rolling plains, laying waste the fields and gardens … and razing even towns and cities.” (p. 421).  In the same penultimate year of the war General Sheridan and his forces in the Shenandoah Valley of western Virginia systematically destroyed crops, livestock, buildings, even wood supplies.  These and other campaigns also damaged forest cover and swamplands in battle areas.

Reflecting the rich trove of literature on the psychological and intellectual experience of that war, Brady and other environmental historians have also been sensitive to the perceptual dimensions of the natural environment.  But despite their vividness and detail, these eye-witness accounts of destruction present difficulties for establishing the actual ecological legacies, as distinct from disruption of the produce of the land.  Typical rhetoric of the time describes “total destruction,” “desolation,” “a return to wilderness,” and so on; but what did those epithets mean for the longer run?  As she points out in her conclusions, a study of the longer-term environmental legacy of the war’s campaigns would have to take into account rural societies’ determination to rebuild their farm buildings and return to growing crops.  But that is research for another day.  The scope of Brady’s book is limited to the war years.  Like most studies of immediate environmental impacts of conflict, it invites studies of the aftermath.

For comparative studies we might consider some wider questions related to  the actual duration of the war. Was there increased resource extraction to replace direct war losses, for example, wood, cloth, iron and steel?  What were the environmental impacts of increased resource extraction if the war stretched into years? What were the environmental effects of billeting of troops in homes and on farms? How about the increasing needs for fodder and food? Was there increased hunting? Was either side forced into increased food production? Did it consist of plowing commons or pushing agriculture into upland slopes or other marginal soils? Did wartime needs trigger increased building of infrastructure, such as roads, railroads, cart tracks, or coastal defenses? Did new military roads significantly change drainage patterns? Were forests stripped for road building or coastal defenses? Did armies on the march directly stress the environment by cutting trees, foraging food, hunting and killing grazing animals? How large was the impact area? How long did an army stay in one area? What happened to the surrounding environment during an extended siege?



Destruction and Recovery: The Immediate Aftermath

The immediate aftermath – two to five years – is often a period of continuing local conflicts or uneasy peace.  Both world wars of the twentieth century left many regional and national conflicts unresolved into the following decade, but environmental historians have only begun to study those reverberations of the major Powers’ collisions.  This holds true for both rural and urban settings, the reconstruction of both agro-ecosystems and urban environments, though many publications on the elements of that story are available for consideration.  Intensive postwar demand for construction materials includes pressure on timber products, metals, and fossil fuels.  Studies of the sites of extraction processes and scales of production can be integrated with transport systems and materials consumption at sites of reconstruction.

For our thumbnail we have chosen Carola Hein, Jeffry M. Diefendorf and Ishida Yorigusa, eds., Rebuilding Urban Japan after 1945 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).  The authors describe how urban planners took the opportunity provided by wartime devastation to redesign cities on what they considered to be more rational and efficient designs. This is a central dimension of warfare’s immediate environmental consequences.  Behind it lie dimensions of urban environmental damage during the war, including intensive industrial toxics and pollution, disruption of power and water supplies, and their impacts on human and social health.  All these aspects have received detailed analysis, but we are at an early stage of integrating them into the environmental history of war’s immediate aftermath, with analogies throughout the history of urban centers.

Post-war reconstruction was often hindered by either severe monetary inflation in the last period of wars, or after the First World War the immediate postwar depression.  Hence, governmental agencies, private sector construction firms, and fiscal managers all must be considered in reconstructing this first stage of war’s aftermath.

Comparative questions in this timeframe might include the following: Were the environmental effects significantly different between the winner and the loser? What about resources surrendered as reparations? Can we see the “peace” having different short-term environmental effects in varying environmental regions, such as the ocean littoral, the main river valleys, the upland slopes, and the mountains? What happened to refugees? Did they actually end up occupying environmentally sensitive locales, such as wetlands, riverbanks, or steep hillsides? How much of the surrounding area was stripped?  What about the camp’s water supply and effects of the camp on nearby rivers? Were significant portions of the losing side’s population enslaved and removed from the land, thereby decreasing the environmental impact of human habitation?  Did the “peace”, however defined, leave active, armed militias, which did not recognize the peace arrangements? Did they strip resources to sustain their resistance?

Medium-Range Legacy of Warfare: A Decade and Beyond

This thumbnail relies on Greg Bankoff, “Of Beasts and Men: Animals and the Cold War in Eastern Asia,” in J. R. McNeill and Corinna R. Unger, Environmental Histories of the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 203-26.

Environmental historians of warfare’s aftermath have done more work on the years immediately following 1945 than any other war, as a reflection of considerable interest in the early Cold War years.  In this essay Bankoff, who has published extensively on Southeast Asia, presents a global overview of warfare’s impact on animals, primarily wildlife over the forty years of the Cold War.  The aftermath of World War II played out in complex and locally varying ways, including locations of continuing or revived conflict.  This essay has a focus on the wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan.  His approach is to integrate political and military narratives with material on wildlife, in an orbit that includes Jeffrey McNeely and other tropical zoologists.

Data are inevitably fragmentary for this dimension of environmental change.  Bankoff draws upon surveys done by wildlife biologists in some locations; following them, he highlights the fates of rare and endangered species.  But field work in settings of violence is always risky, and numbers of indicative species are problematical.

Wildlife has been decimated in war zones, its numbers recovering slowly after the end of mass violence.  Both soldiers and civilians (though there may have been only a vague distinction between the two) shot tigers and other trophy animals in the chaotic conditions of conflict zones of Vietnam and Afghanistan.  Bankoff adds a perceptive reminder of the role of refugees: hunting and trapping in uprooted desperation, they often place heavy pressure on wildlife, shooting or capturing meat to supplement meager protein in their diets or animals to sell as a source of cash.

In contrast, he also explores the fact that where human pressure on natural systems is reduced, many species of flora and fauna thrive.  Truce lines (the most important is the Demilitarized Zone  in central Korea) and transition zones where opposing warriors keep each other out, become demilitarized areas, official or de facto, where wild species thrive. And in the medium run, even where military operations have scarred the land, some animal species increase, as with fish and mosquitos in the bomb craters of Vietnam, and vermin species such as rats in many degraded settings.

In the interface between wildlands and human societies, consideration of this timeframe might include the following comparative questions: Did the refugee camps slowly become permanent, thereby significantly changing the environment around them? Were depopulated areas repopulated? What were the effects on the plants, animals and general ecology that had occupied the abandoned lands?  What about hunting and killing large animals perceived as a threat to agriculture or the human population? Was agriculture so altered by the war that it did not return to its pre-war patterns, thereby altering ecological niches and opportunities for plants and animals? Was there a shift between stall-fed and rough pasture-fed husbandry, which had environmental effects?  Did the post-war government commit to “development” as a means of garnering support from its people? What were the environmental effects of this process, such as the expansion of agriculture into fragile areas, more mining and resource extraction, more commercial fishing? Did remaining militias militarily oppose these “development” efforts and what were the environmental effects of these drawn-out conflicts?


The Long Environmental Legacy, a Century after Conflict

This thumbnail relies on Joseph P. Hupy and Randall J. Schaetzl, “Soil Development on the WWI Battlefield of Verdun, France,” Geoderma 145: 1-2 (May 2008), 37-49, and Hupy’s influential companion article, “The Environmental Footprint of War,” Environment and History (2008), pp. 405-21.

Fundamental to the assessment of long-term legacies of war is the study of soils that have been impacted by conflict.  Chroniclers of the wars of empires and kingdoms have often asserted that the resource base for human societies was permanently degraded.  This is plausible, wherever soil character and harsh climates make recovery from conflict difficult, slow or ultimately only partial.  Nutrient-poor soils, even on relatively flat terrain, or thin soils on steep slopes, have been badly damaged, making the return of vegetation (whether by natural processes or human efforts at reconstruction) difficult and slow at best.  But lacking ecological field studies until recent times, our conclusions must remain general or tentative.

But even on highly fertile soils and in favorable climates, the land has been vulnerable to severe compaction or churning by the machines and high explosives of the industrial age, followed by long-term processes in the life of the soil.  One rigorous approach is illustrated by Joseph Hupy’s studies of military geography, a model of what can be accomplished by soil specialists.  Hupy has conducted intensive field surveys of the trenches of World War I in the battlefields around Verdun, and the battlefields of Khe Sanh, one of the most heavily damaged battle areas during the Vietnam War.  In his “Environmental Footprint …” essay he defines the broad orientation of his work:

“The destruction associated with modern warfare is particularly catastrophic due to the extent, magnitude and duration of contemporary wars.  These large magnitude disturbances radically alter the shape of the landscape, limiting the ability of the landscape to revert back to its original state.  This article addresses the direct impacts of war on the physical landscape and why the magnitude of disturbance has increased significantly over the past century.” (p. 405).

In the same year’s study of Verdun he and Schaetzl dissect the soil structure a century after the construction of deep trenches and the repeated bombardment of fields and forests.  They report:

“The WWI battle of Verdun in 1916, remains one of the most intense battles fought between two nations (Germany and France) in all of human history. … Historically the Verdun battlefield is one of the best documented and, in the decades since the war, unaltered battlefields in the world. (p. 38) The millions of artillery craters … have changed the area’s surface hydrology, water table characteristics, and soil development processes and rates. (p. 47).  … Many craters penetrated the shallow limestone bedrock, and blasted out fragments of limestone on nearby undisturbed [locations] had already been incorporated into the profile.  Despite the short period of time since the battle (88 years), measurable amounts of weathering and pedogenesis has occurred in the soils within the craters.  A major pedogenic process operative here is the accumulation and decomposition of organic matter, which is intimately associated with (and aided by) earthworm bioturbation.”

Painstaking field work of this sort can provide a foundation for understanding what has been possible (and what has limited the possibilities) for either natural regeneration or socially organized reconstruction in the long aftermath.  The political, economic and social dimensions of environmental change can thus be clarified.  With this analysis in mind, we can raise additional questions that might be useful in the long timeframe.  They might include the following: Was the ecology permanently altered in the winning or losing country? Did agricultural land return to arable, grassland or forest? Did human interventions on rivers – dams, weirs, locks, channel maintenance – so change that new wetlands and channels emerged? Did the war alter political ideology among the winners or losers so dramatically that the shift altered the perception of regions, as, for example, “frontiers” rather than “heartland”?  Or did a new religion spread among the winners or losers, shifting food patterns and thereby affecting the environment? If the government was weak and unable to establish authority, did civil war become relatively permanent? What were the environmental effects?



Other excellent examples that fit each of these time periods could equally well be chosen.  We welcome responses from both their authors and other colleagues who can discuss comparative cases.  And as we continue to build bridges across disciplinary chasms, we welcome discussion of cases that illustrate other methodologies and fields of research.

We hope that this research framework proves both useful and provocative in the field of war and the environment, and that it:

  • promotes the movement from case studies to comparative analysis;
  • encourages collaboration between scholars studying wars widely separated in both space and time;
  • stimulates environmental studies of many smaller wars by scholars whose core interest lies outside the field of war and environment;
  • initiates a discussion leading to a fuller research framework that includes not only temporal, but, for example, spatial, institutional, economic, and political vectors.

The proof of the utility of this research framework will, of course, be its adoption by scholars inside and outside the field of war and the environment. This forum is an invitation to begin the discussion.

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