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