Sunday, October 23, 2011
Week 43: Aftermath
Aftermath: the Remnants of War, by Donovan Webster
I found this book to be absolutely fascinating, and zoomed through it without putting it down much. Cheerful it is not, but it's very valuable reading. Webster tours several different battlefields of the 20th century, looking at what war has done to the landscape and the people.
The first stop is France. It turns out that France is absolutely stuffed with unexploded ordnance from World War I (as are other spots). Trench warfare meant that armies stayed put for long periods of time, lobbying enormous amounts of ammunition at each other. It was fairly new technology, so a good 25% of the shells were duds. And they just stayed where they fell. Large areas of France are still cordoned off because they're full of the stuff--and dud shells can easily explode. Demining teams collect and destroy hundreds of tons every year, but it will take decades or longer to finish the job. I found an online article about it with some good pictures.
Then Webster goes to the steppes of Russia, outside Volgograd. Volgograd was once Stalingrad, and at the Battle of Stalingrad, an enormous chunk of the German Wehrmacht was wiped out (partly through lack of supplies). Afterwards, no one came to clean it up. Hardly anyone outside of the area even knew it was there until the 90's. That was a fascinating chapter.
After that, it's off to the deserts of Nevada to look at the consequences of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War. The Army was doing a lot of nuclear bomb testing, but they weren't too worried about the side effects, like fallout from test shots or nuclear waste. Now people are trying to figure out what to do with the stuff.
Vietnam is the next stop, especially Hanoi. Webster finds that the Vietnamese people rebuilt quickly--they can't afford to leave land alone--but that there are still plenty of live mines in some areas and that the most devastating effects may be from Agent Orange.
The final chapter is about mine clearance in Kuwait. Like many other theaters of war in recent decades, various forces covered large swathes of Kuwait in land mines. The Kuwaiti government can afford to hire companies to clean things up, and Webster accompanies a team to learn about it. This book was written in 1996, so Desert Storm was still a recent memory.
Webster gives you a lot to think about. It's a book well worth reading, and I can think of several friends who would enjoy it.