April 2019

The purpose of these pages is to publish reports on a wide range of research and discussion, including subjects that should be addressed but have not yet been studied broadly or in depth.

We welcome short (generally 700 – 1,200 word) summaries of research, recently completed or in progress.  We also invite discussion of emerging subjects, topics that deserve greater attention, and ways we can increase synergy with related fields including military geography and history, military technology and economy, armed forces and society, pollution and disease, food and agriculture, managed ecosystems, environmental trends and climate change.  We encourage colleagues to respond to forthcoming posts with further commentaries, for a richer conversation on the evolving state of the art.

Please send posts or ideas for discussion to Richard Tucker, rptucker@umich.edu.

In its September 1943 war-time progress report, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England – CPRE – what one would nowadays call an environmental not-for-profit – took to reviewing changes in the countryside “aggravated by or directly due to the war.” It considered the most influential factors to be the dispersal of industry and the establishment of munitions factories and other new industries together with the necessary housing accommodation for the workers, and the provision of aerodromes, camps and actual defence works which had “inevitably resulted in the loss of much hitherto unspoilt farm land.”

Whilst a proportion of the aerodromes and training camps built were the result of decisions taken during war-time, hundreds of new military-industrial sites – mainly fighter and bomber aircraft and munitions factories – were almost entirely the result of central government war planning in the inter-war period, with many built and in production before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September 1939.

If after the Second World War this landscape militarisation had been reversed – as had happened after the First World War, when a number of Britain’s munitions factories had been dismantled and the land returned to its pre-war use – then the temporary transformation of significant tracts of the British rural landscape in support of the war effort may have been relatively historically insignificant. However, findings from my PhD thesis suggest that only one site – of just five acres – was returned by the Government in the post-war period to anything like its pre-war rural identity.

Looking at primary sources within the environmental history domain provides an alternative timeline to conventional military and industrial approaches to the Second World War. Through looking at internal CPRE documents held in the organisation’s archives at the Museum of English Rural Life at the University of Reading, England, it can be argued that the Second World War began not on 3rd September 1939 but on 29th October 1935, when CPRE’s Executive Committee minutes record discussion of an Air Ministry proposal to establish an aerodrome near the village of Woodsford, in the west of England. The issue of Defence Department land acquisitions and requisitions would then be a virtually ever-present agenda item at the CPRE’s monthly Committee meetings from this point, through the whole of the Second World War and into the late-1940s.

With little effective legislative protection to stop land in rural (or indeed urban) areas from being built on, CPRE became increasingly concerned throughout the 1936 to 1937 period over Defence Department demands for land and in late 1937 cooperated with landed interests in the southern England county of Wiltshire (particularly badly hit by Defence Departments’ land demands) to make a written representation to the new conservation-minded and CPRE-supporting British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, requesting him to intervene to protect the environment against the consequences of Britain’s inter-war mobilisation.

Chamberlain responded positively to this lobbying in January 1938, getting his chief civil servant aide to chair a meeting of the relevant departments, and subsequently a requirement was issued to Defence Departments that they engage with the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries and CPRE over land that the State wished to acquire for war-related purposes. This established a consultative mechanism for both governmental departments and civil society which to a certain extent compensated for the lack of protective legislation.

Frustratingly for the historian, but understandably given the war-time context, CPRE was circumspect in its internal documents about the detail of the work it undertook with Defence Departments through the mechanism, but CPRE archives and personal papers show that Professor Patrick Abercrombie, CPRE Executive Committee member and consultant to the Air Ministry, performed a key intermediary role. CPRE Executive Committee minutes do not systematically document specific sites under consideration by the various War Departments, due to the obvious need for secrecy during war-time. However, it is clear from looking at the long series of minutes that CPRE was actively consulted on a large number of Defence Department proposals which had their origins in the inter-war period.

From late 1943 onwards, with an end to the war in sight at some point in the future, the Government started to make plans for the disposal of surplus-to-post-war requirements factories, with each Defence Department required to make lists of sites that would be available for disposal. The Board of Trade was tasked with compiling a list of enquiries from firms desiring to acquire by purchase or lease Government factories at the end of the war. The Minister of Reconstruction, Lord Woolton, proposed six criteria for the disposal of available factories: the requirements of town and country planning came fourth in order of importance, after the balanced distribution of industry, the potential for new owners to manufacture for the export trade, and the maintenance of a war potential. Every site was seen as either a military or economic asset, with the exception of just one site, at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere in England’s Lake District, where the amenity value of the site exceeded the potential benefit of retaining the manufacturing capacity of the war-time flying boat factory for other peace-time purposes.

The remainder of the sites were either retained by the Government’s various Defence Departments for military-industrial purposes, some transitioned into single-use civilian manufacturing – most notably aircraft factories into mass-production car factories – or into multiple commercial uses as trading estates. With construction dates for many of the new-build industrial sites starting as far back as 1936, and the post-war future of these sites sometimes taking years to determine, from an environmental history perspective, Britain experienced a long Second World War which extended beyond the start and end dates of the actual military conflict.

Mobilisation for war from the mid-1930s onwards had acted as an urgent agent for change for hundreds of rural areas, spanning tens of thousands of acres of rural landscape. Given the prevailing inter-war peace-time trends of suburban sprawl and random industrialisation, whilst Britain’s rural landscape may have been built on for any number of purposes if there had been no war, the imperative of war planning led to many rural lands being militarised when they would arguably not otherwise have been – and some sites industrialised or at least commercialised earlier than they might have been – or in different places, given that industrial location criteria in peace-time and war-time do not share all the same factors. The environmental significance of this is magnified by the fact that all but one of the military-industrial sites remained within the military, industrial or commercial sphere after the war, creating permanent urban-orientated industrial or otherwise commercial outposts in rural areas, or expanding the pre-war urban periphery into rural areas.


Gary Willis
PhD Student
Department of Historical Studies
University of Bristol, England

By: Richard Tucker

Throughout history, refugee movements have been a tragic consequence of war. These social upheavals have usually been sudden and overwhelming, uprooting entire communities, in contrast to other mass migrations, including recent climate refugee movements. In the industrial era, as the scale and intensity of warfare have increased, the human costs of these tragedies have been accompanied by severe environmental consequences. These costs tend to fall beyond the limits of both military studies and environmental studies, but they contribute to sustained stress on land and resources long after open conflict ends. The environmental costs need to receive more serious attention. This summary proposes perspectives on the war/refugee/environment nexus, using twentieth century examples.

Wartime refugee movements have resulted in environmental degradation in three areas: the locations they are forced to leave, their migratory routes, and locations where they have landed for shorter or longer times. In many cases, marginalized groups such as ethnic minorities have been particularly impacted by these perturbations. The impacts are expressed in damage to natural environments, including loss of biodiversity and disruption of water regimes, and increase of pollution and waste disposal problems. The lands refugees have left (and in some cases returned to) experienced chaotic collapses of land tenure systems and land use, which help to determine long-term environmental consequences.

The history of international refugee aid agencies provides perspective on refugee movements, but their vast archives and studies about them give only tantalizing indications of environmental disruptions.  “A global refugee regime, comprising a formal international organization for refugees, legal conventions, and an international structure to care for the displaced, only began to emerge in the aftermath of the First World War.”  World War I produced chaotic flows of refugees, primarily in Russia, the Middle East and Armenia, as the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires collapsed in the carnage. But their environmental dimensions remain to be reviewed in depth.

Turning to World War II, the environmental disruptions of the massive refugee movements that covered central and eastern Europe have not yet been considered systematically either, though glimpses appear in two new collections.  We have a somewhat clearer understanding of the environmental impacts of certain refugee floods in Asia.  In China the war created many millions of refugees through twelve chaotic years.  When Japanese forces spread across the critically important food producing rice terraces of Henan Province in the plains of the Yellow River in the summer of 1938, the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) army blasted the great river’s dikes, flooding 30% of the region in order to impede the enemy.  Many farmers drowned; fifteen million more, nearly half the province’s population, were displaced.

Many struggled westward into higher land in the Huanglongshan mountains of Shaanxi Province.  In that region of steep slopes and fragile ecological equilibrium, terraced agriculture achieved by forest clearance had spread for several centuries, until civil wars in the 1860s largely depopulated the region.  Thereafter the deserted areas returned to secondary succession vegetation and gradual collapse of terraces, resulting in widespread soil erosion. Straggling into Shaanxi, the refugees found the Kuomintang (Nationalist) army desperate to increase food production.  The KMT sent new arrivals to the Huanglongshan mountains, to reclaim the abandoned land, clearing secondary forest to grow rice again. The situation was exacerbated by the arrival of a second wave of refugees from the eastern lowlands, victims of a great famine in 1942-43.  By 1945 portions of the hills were repopulated, but at the cost of widespread deforestation and soil erosion.

Meanwhile in lowland Henan the flood waters remained in place for as much as a decade. In the aftermath of the Japanese retreat in 1945, that critically important rice region was gradually rehabilitated as its people returned to their homeland and repaired the massive environmental damage of wartime.  The Chinese Communists’ work in Henan contributed to their ultimate success in occupying Beijing in 1949.

Burma and Northeastern India

Farther south the efforts of the Western Allies to stop the advance of Japan through Southeast Asia toward British India centered on the forested eastern Himalayas of northeastern Assam and northern Burma, home of many tribal communities, and the more heavily populated agricultural and urban population dominated by ethnic Burmese Buddhists in Lower Burma.  The Japanese advance into Lower Burma in early 1942 created a mass refugee movement fleeing from Rangoon and the southern region.  Many struggled along the Arakan coast to eastern Bengal. In the process, that coastal lowland and adjacent chain of hills, now named Rakhine District of Myanmar, underwent severe displacement of its Muslim population, the Rohingyas, as an early chapter of the refugee crisis that is culminating today.   Some settled in Dacca and Calcutta, where they intensified urban environmental stress including severe water supply disruptions and waste pollution. Others turned northward into the Chittagong hills, where they carved survival settlements out of the forests, competing with local hill cultures.

The largest refugee masses from Lower Burma fled northward into the hill region along the border with Assam.  Hundreds of thousands struggled across the tribal zone of the monsoon-flooded Hukawng Valley, carving new routes where none had existed before, and leaving masses of abandoned goods.  Those who survived the trek into British-defended Assam settled in sparsely populated hill forests, cumulatively stressing that fragile ecosystem as well. An ecologist’s report fifty years later reported that the Hukawng forest had largely recovered, but junk still littered the refugees’ routes, and tracks for subsequent forest clearance and wildlife reduction had been established.  

Thereafter, the wartime disruptions led to the Partition of British India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947, when neo-wartime conditions created an exchange of some 15 million refugees between the new countries, and trends begun in World War II intensified.  Refugees, mostly Hindu, fled newborn East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1970), flooding into urban areas of West Bengal, especially Calcutta, since little rural lowland was available for new settlement. Others scrambled northward into the Chittagong hills and beyond.  The environmental history of Partition is still to be studied, more than just implied.

The Cold War Era: Anti-Apartheid Struggles in Southern Africa

Independence struggles in southern Africa centered in the Portuguese colonies from the 1960s onward.  Their environmental impacts were widespread; many were the consequence of coerced population movements.  Until the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1994, Angola and Mozambique underwent bloody turmoil, even over the borders into South Africa-held Namibia, as well as Southern Rhodesia (independent Zimbabwe after 1980).  The South African Defense Force (SADF) went to great lengths to cripple the anti-apartheid movements in a lengthy counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign. [COIN campaigns against insurgents are an identifiable class of orchestrated violence against whole populations, often causing deliberate environmental degradation and displacement of rural populations.  These need study for their environmental dimensions.]

Emmanuel Kreike has located the ecological impacts of these wartime displacements in fragile settings, describing “environmental changes caused by forced population movements and the terror-inspired disinvestment of human labor from the creation and maintenance of rural infrastructure (wells, water holes, farms, fields, fences, fruit trees) and food production …”  Farms and rural villages turned into “deserted bush-encroached ‘wilderness,” and towns’ resources were stretched to the limit by the influx of refugees.  

In the Namibia-Angola border region disruption fanned out from military bases.  Most fighting was during the rainy season — the cropping season — disrupting subsistence food production.  Anti-guerrilla strikes mostly hit civilians. Bulldozers removed vegetation; heavy fences and land mines crossed sandy soils, removing farms and brush (including wildlife).  Displaced people landed in the floodplain of Namibia’s fragile Ovamboland marshes.

Farther east along the South Africa-Mozambique borderlands, Mozambique gained independence in 1975, but a civil war lasted until 1992.  A resistance movement supported by South Africa launched a scorched-earth war of terror against populations sympathetic with the new government and its ally, the African National Congress.  Much fighting centered in national parks on both sides of the border. Resistance fighters lived off the land, terrorizing villagers. In response the government concentrated rural populations in fortified villages, backed by the army and militias.  “Thus the rural populations became not only the object and target of the war, but also the principal weapon of war, as farms, food and seed stocks, animals, crops, and fruit trees were pillaged and destroyed.”  Many communal villages were deserted, and bush encroachment let tsetse fly infestations spread.  


After the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support the Communist regime that had overthrown the king a year before, a decade’s fighting between the occupying Soviets and Afghan resistance produced a mass emigration into Iran in the west, and 3,500,000 Afghans fled into Pakistan in the east.  Geographer Nigel Allan studied the intense ecological impacts of the Afghan refugees in northern Pakistan by the mid-1980s. Leaving mountain environments in eastern Afghanistan, where they had ancestral skills of pasturing, farming and hunting, they moved to various niches in northern Pakistan, where their agro-ecological knowledge sometimes fit their new surroundings effectively, and sometimes not.  Many settled in Pakistan’s adjacent North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Where the match was poor, the environmental damage was more severe. In all cases the newly concentrated population placed unprecedented and unmanaged pressure on the alpine forests. Some areas were entirely denuded. Some Afghans ultimately returned home, but continued fighting after the Soviets left in 1989 kept many in Pakistan.


These cases indicate that over the past century, as entire civilian populations became engulfed in war and their noncombatant status was increasingly ignored, refugees from a wide range of conflicts became the victimized agents of widening environmental degradation.  Many Cold War era civil wars and insurgencies (almost invariably intensified by foreign powers and the international arms trade) invite similar environmental analysis. The human drama of wartime population dislocations has largely overshadowed their underlying environmental costs.  But the enormous dislocations of refugees under modern warfare have had correspondingly great and complex ecological costs. In many cases these are partially reversible, if military and political conditions permit. The immediate impact of mass violence has not been the end of the story, since both natural and social systems have the capacity to repair damage.  But in all cases, the environmental degradation that accompanies these upheavals has contributed to the degradation of the biosphere.




1. Alexander Betts, Protection by Persuasion: International Cooperation in the Refugee Regime (Cornell University Press, 2009), p. 8.

2. Richard P. Tucker, Martin Schmid, John R. McNeill and Tait Keller, eds., Global Environmental Dimensions of World War I (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

3.  Simo Laakkonen, Richard P. Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of World War II (Oregon State University Press, 2016); Simo Laakkonen, J. R. McNeill, Richard P. Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo, eds., The Resilient City in World War II: Urban Environmental Histories (Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming, 2019).

4.  Micah S. Muscolino, The Ecology of War in China: Henan Province, the Yellow River, and Beyond, 1938-1950 (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

5.  Richard P. Tucker, “Environmental Scars in Northeastern India and Burma,” in Laakkonen, Long Shadows, 117-34.

6.  Emmanuel Kreike, “War and the Environmental Effects of Displacement in Southern Africa (1970s-1990s),” in William G. Moseley and B. Ikubolajeh Logan, eds., African Environment and Development (Ashgate, 2004), 90.  Also Emmanuel Kreike, Recreating Eden: Land Use, Environment, and Society in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia (Heinemann, 2004).

7.  Kreike, “War,” 103.

8.  Nigel J. R. Allan, “The Impact of Afghan Refugees on the Vegetation Resources of Pakistan’s Hindukush-Himalaya,” Mountain Research and Development 7:3 (August, 1987), 200-204.

Tony Andersson

In February 2018, archaeologists working with the National Geographic Society announced that they had uncovered evidence proving that the Ancient Maya Empire was far larger, more densely populated, and had done more to transform its environment than scientists had previously appreciated.  Using a new technology called LIDAR, the team was able to peer through the dense forest cover that blankets the northern lowlands of Guatemala, digitally revealing cities, elevated highways, and massive earthworks used for water control and warfare. Scientists claimed that the technology showed that up to 20 million people had inhabited the ancient Maya domain, in which “every inch of land” had been put into production—making the ancient Maya one of the largest and most technologically sophisticated empires of the ancient world.  The discovery renewed calls to step up the enforcement of conservation laws in the Maya Biosphere Reserve, where the study was conducted.


The question of just how many ancient Maya there were—and what that meant for today’s forest—is a question freighted with a long history of political and racial violence.  National Geographic’s claims aside, evidence of a large population goes back at least to the 1910s, when the archaeologist Sylvanus Morley estimated a peak of 15 million (and a minimum of several million) based on a couple of field expeditions, the testimony of his local guides, and some basic extrapolation.  In the 1930s and 1940s, the lower of Morley’s estimates inspired Guatemalan nationalists and scientists at the United Fruit Company to dream of “resurrecting” the old empire by through mass conversion of the “idle” rainforests to timber plantations and industrial agriculture. The belief that many millions of ancient Maya had lived prosperously for nearly 3,000 years in the tropical lowlands was widely accepted into the 1960s, when it fell out of favor.  The reasons for this change in attitude had less to do with new scientific findings in the jungle than a violent rupture in Guatemala’s political landscape.


In 1954, a CIA-backed mercenary army overthrew Guatemala’s popular democratic government that had passed a land reform two years earlier.  Supported by a reactionary oligarchy, the new regime dismantled the “communist” land reform and cracked down on all dissent, killing thousands of peasant leaders, union activists, and moderate politicians who demanded a return to democratic rule.  By 1960, widespread and arbitrary repression sparked open revolt, initiating a thirty-six year civil war that pitted successive military governments against leftist guerrillas, reformist politicians, workers, students, some Catholic priests, and peasant civilians.  In the 1960s, the Guatemalan military targeted the lowland forests for economic development, hoping to use the abundant precious woods and subsoil minerals to fuel industrialization that they believed would defuse popular resentment. The army turned the forests where the Maya Biosphere is today into an extractive fortress, excluding peasants who might “waste” its natural resources or use the cover of the forest canopy to involve themselves in subversive activity.  The army also sponsored scientific studies by the UN FAO and other development agencies to stimulate a logging industry that it controlled and profited from directly. Findings that implied that agricultural settlement was feasible were suppressed. The officer in charge of developing the lowland frontier flatly told a gathering of social luminaries that “Morley got it wrong.” Anyone who argued for settling small farmers in the lowlands was dismissed as “irrational” and “political”—as opposed to the army and its forest scientist partners, who embodied “economic” and “rational” use.


While the Guatemalan army was getting into the forestry business and increasingly targeting ethnic Maya as part of its counterinsurgency campaign, its agents and apologists helped to popularize stories about the ancient Maya “collapse.”  One version of this story, dating to the geologist Charles Wythe Cooke’s reflections on so many ancient Maya cities sat near swamplands, blamed runaway population growth and forest clearing for grain cultivation, which he argued had desiccated the local environment and silted up hypothetical primeval lakes.  In this scenario, the ancient Maya had unleashed a man-made ecological catastrophe for the ages, and left a Malthusian fable for the here and now. The lesson was clear: protect the forests from “slash-and-burn” agriculture (which the ancient lowland Maya were assumed to have practiced, because twentieth century Maya in the highlands did), or face a civilizational disaster.  Cooke never had any evidence to support his hypothesis, but it fit into preexisting narratives about deforestation and desertification in the disciplines of scientific forestry and soil conservation. Furthermore, Paul Erlich’s warning of a third world “population bomb” had helped to make the tropical peasant the prime explanation for global environmental degradation. US and European foresters played key leadership and advisory roles in the Guatemalan military’s forestry activities from the 1960s through the 1980s, and echoed army officers’ pronouncements that irrationally large families of “nomadic” farmers had to be kept out of the forests.  By the 1980s, variants of Cooke’s deforestation-and-collapse narrative were common sense among conservationists in Guatemala, the Guatemalan army was “draining the human sea” of Maya peasants in a genocidal scorched earth campaign, and Morley was all but forgotten.


The peace accords that ended Guatemala’s civil war in 1996 were supposed to guarantee the peasantry’s subsistence rights, but they have been ignored in practice.  The army’s old logging reserves, now managed by NGOs and civilian conservation agencies, have played an important role in limiting peasants’ political options for accessing land in the postwar era.  Peasants who have lived in the Maya Biosphere Reserve for decades, or even longer, continue to be evicted for the sake of protecting wildlife and “virgin” forest from “invaders” who threaten to repeat the mistakes of the ancient Maya and poach archaeological artifacts for cash.


National Geographic’s flashy announcement called for stricter conservation enforcement to protect the Maya forest and the ruins beneath it.  Paradoxically, the knowledge that the ancient Maya were so numerous and sophisticated now justifies the exclusion of their descendants from their own homeland—making demography another weapon in an unending counterinsurgent war.

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.

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.

As we move deeper into the centennial years of World War I, environmental historians have begun to make important contributions to our understanding of the costs and legacies of the Great War.  Conference panels and workshops in 2014 (see our Conferences page for a listing) have featured dimensions of the war’s environmental dynamics that had hardly been articulated until now.  Working together, we have expanded the geographical reach of the First? World(wide) War to regions far beyond Europe and the Middle East.  For just a few examples, Jack Hayes is demonstrating how Japan used the war years to spread its claims on East Asia’s natural resources, with fateful consequences thereafter.  Roy MacLeod, Corey Ross and others are analyzing the rapid rise of Great Powers competition for strategic mineral resources, petroleum and timber.  Tait Keller is surveying global energy and food flows during the war, and Thaddeus Sunseri has shown the environmental and social significance of the fighting between German and British colonial forces in East Africa.  Through analyses of food and agriculture during and immediately after the war, we are enriching our understanding of the war’s tragic significance around the Middle East and beyond, as well as in Europe.  Even wildlife and wildlands are within our collective frame of reference now, as revealed in Anna-Katharina Wöbse’s study of the international conservation movement’s troubles during the war years.

But as our military history colleagues are reminding us, we have been placing less attention on the main regions of the war (beyond the horrors of the trenches).  We need to turn additional attention to the urban and rural environmental damage that France, the Low Countries and Germany suffered, as well as the poorly understood Eastern Front beyond Germany.   Eco-region by eco-region, we can use the many military/political/economic narratives now in print to add an additional, fundamental dimension to our collective awareness as environmental historians.  I welcome comments and proposals on what is missing from the coverage of our evolving discussion, what existing work we should recognize, and how we can shape further research agendas.

February 2015 (Read the latest State of the Art)

We have begun posting blogs on the state of the art in the environmental history of warfare and militarization. These first examples are meant to encourage responses on any of these topics – and initiatives on others — to enrich our cooperative understanding of where we stand now, and define agendas for further work. In this way we hope to accelerate the pace and breadth of our work.

As a general structure, we hope to focus each topic post on one issue central to the current trends and progress of our collective works; a moderator will post a description of the topic (see examples in the following posts), along with their summary of recent work related to the topic, upcoming conferences and workshops where the topic can be beneficial to planned discussions, and areas where further work on this topic is needed. We then encourage our community to respond to and comment on these posts, for a richer conversation on our current state of the art. This is a method of discussion that we hope to experiment, and is by no means set in stone, so please feel free to make your own topic contributions and suggest your own initiatives.

– Richard Tucker