Mountain Warfare and Environmental History

Fragile mountainous landscapes around the world are environmental settings where warfare has been endemic through the centuries.  Mountain zones became major battle regions during World War I, as we see in Tait Keller’s work on the Italian / Austro-Hungarian battle zone of the southeastern Alps, and Marc Landry’s work in progress on the French Alps in the same war.  In the Second World War several mountain regions were disrupted, as we learn, for example, from Chris Pearson’s study of the Vercors region in southeastern France.  Micah Muscolino’s study of refugee movements in the Huanglonghshan mountains of western China in World War II adds a tragic dimension, as does my forthcoming essay on the eastern Himalayas during that war.

But far back through history there have been many armed struggles in contested mountain regions.  Mountain terrain has been a refuge for dissidents, insurgents, and pastoralists.  Intermittent but often protracted resistance movements in the hills, and counter-insurgency campaigns based in lowlands, have repeatedly put mountain ecosystems at risk.  John McNeill’s Mountains of the Mediterranean orients us to several instances of that sort of warfare.  In this asymmetrical warfare insurgents typically have avoided concentrated battles with militarized regimes; so the more powerful military machine has resorted to attacking the insurgents’ bases of operations.  This is environmental warfare – deliberate damage to ecological settings.  To some extent, this type of environmental warfare has been addressed by international Law of Warfare treaties since 1975.  Further studies of the environmental damage suffered by mountain ecosystems will be valuable additions to the ongoing work of international lawyers.

Any number of other examples come to mind, that invite closer examination: the southern flanks of the Pyrenees in Napoleon’s Peninsular War; the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece during the civil war of the late 1940s; the mountain valleys of the Himalayas through South Asia’s long history of conquest and resistance; the montagnards’territory in twentieth-century Vietnam; the Atlas Mountains; the Caucasus repeatedly; and more, all await more serious attention by environmental historians.

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