During times of conflict, the human desire to generate knowledge increases at an unprecedented rate. War is a contradiction; lives are sacrificed daily, yet human progress increases as our drive to expand our scientific and technical frontiers feeds on our fear of death. We learn, discover, and create during times of war. However, sometimes our fear of an impending end causes us to lose sight of the potential horrors that our creations may commit in the process of attempting to save us.
The use of mustard gas during World War I, the development of the nuclear bomb during World War II, and the deployment of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War are just a few examples of how modern warfare has taken the lives of civilians and military personnel in the most heinous manner. However, in addition to troops and innocent bystanders, there is a third victim who does not receive the same level of attention and compensation — the environment.
Unlike cities, which can be rebuilt, and political alliances, which may be rekindled, the horrors of war engrave themselves onto Mother Nature for all eternity.
Mustard gas – along with chlorine and phosgene – was first used as a chemical weapon and large-scale lethal tool by the Germans in World War I. It is believed that gas exposure killed roughly 30% of all combat deaths, with mustard gas killing more than 80% of British losses. However, in addition to the human fatalities, this chemical also contaminated our oceans, air, and land with putrefied poison.
Between 1917 and 1918, mustard gas caused widespread environmental devastation. It cut through the DNA and cells of other animals with the same ease with which it pierced the bone marrow of troops in the war zone; it is believed that between 1916 and 1918, roughly 3,000 horses were hospitalized for gas exposure, and thousands of dogs and cattle were left blinded and immobile. It also affected a large portion of Europe's flora. Research on the effect of mustard gas on soil revealed in 2007 that the substance affects the development, reproduction, and morphological aspects of soil, and 10 years later, researchers discovered evidence of mustard agents in groundwater in France, Germany, and the Baltic Sea. As a result, breeding grounds for marine species have been destroyed, fish gills have become blocked, lakes and ponds have become obstructed, and insects, larvae, and fish have suffocated.
The use of the nuclear bomb in World War II paints an even darker picture. The bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki serve as a reminder of the human and environmental cost of the deadliest war in history. The use of atomic warfare took the lives of 214,000 people and it also released the most catastrophic levels of energy and radioactive particles in history. In the impacted area, the temperatures reached about 3980 °C, incinerating all the flora and fauna in a two-mile radius, while the radioactive particles slowly consumed bodies of water and the air currents caused by increased surface temperature turned trees to ash. Only 170 trees survived, forced to grow isolated for years in a once-blooming landscape turned into a fallout graveyard.
After the effect of the atomic bombs, the vast generation of nitric oxides 'decreased the ozone levels in the Northern Hemisphere,' causing permanent changes to the Earth's climate. Similarly, nuclear fallout particles traveled to agricultural areas, causing long-term health consequences on animals and people when ingested. As a result, animals born and/or raised near Hiroshima and Nagasaki now have cataracts and smaller brains. Beyond that, little is known; no substantial attempts were made to examine the impact of flora and animals following the bombings.
With increased technology and hyper advanced weaponry, more recent wars like the Cold War have posed a greater threat to our environment. The truth is that even after both World Wars and the establishment of international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Wildlife Foundation, politicians have consistently ignored the environmental implications of warfare and sacrificed biodiversity in the name of war.
We tend to reduce the Cold War to a chess battle between two big powers, treating minor countries as game pieces and systematically taking them out. However, the fact is that in the proxy wars that occurred, notably during the Vietnam War, we not only lost millions of lives, but we also put in jeopardy our planet's biodiversity to fulfill our ambition for power.
During the Vietnam War, exposure to the 90 million gallons of Agent Orange dumped over the country's jungles, marshes, and croplands, killed 400,000 people. This potent herbicide decimated the country's vegetation, exposing almost 4 million civilians to infection by consumption. Unlike past military weapons such as mustard gas and nuclear bombs, the long-term consequences of Agent Orange were imprinted on people and the environment for generations.
Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease, and alterations in gene expression that are handed down to offspring are now among the long-term health implications of exposure to Agent Orange. Unfortunately, the chemical’s ecological imprint in Vietnam was just as long-lasting. From 1961 to 1971, about 10% of South Vietnam – and 20% of Vietnam's total forested land – was sprayed with the toxin, and, unlike Hiroshima, much of the flora was completely wiped off all the way down to the root. Today, reforestation efforts continue to fail due to significant erosion and invasive plants such as bamboo and cogon grass that now grow in the region. Similarly, Harvard University research discovered that forests sprayed with Agent Orange now have one-sixth the number of bird species and one-eleventh the number of animal species as an unsprayed forest. This is attributed to increased bioconcentration and biomagnification in the area, as well as changed food webs.
If we are to think that we can evolve as a civilization, I believe we must abandon the notion that limitless violence is an inherent human inclination. While I think that no species, much alone humans, can escape the drive for violent confrontation, I do consider that we may alter the channels and boundaries through which we express such aggression.
After all, the monuments, artwork, literature, and other man-made creations that have survived years of violent warfare have done so because it has been in our best interests to conserve them. We have demonstrated that even during times of conflict, when our minds are clouded by power-hungry agendas and brutal aggressive urges, we can still rely on one another to safeguard what we value as a society. If we approach nature with the same care that we do cultural and intellectual legacies during times of conflict, we might be able to alleviate some of the ecological trauma caused by war.
I do not want to downplay the cost of human life during wartime; rather, I want to spark a discussion about the environmental implications of warfare, which are often ignored because they are concealed underneath the human expenses of war. Our handling of Mother Nature continues to emphasize the most damaging weaknesses of the institutions we have constructed and the mentalities we have cultivated, such as the notion that it is acceptable to sacrifice the environment for geopolitical legitimacy and political dominance. It is time to proactively recognize that like civilian casualties, a great part of our biodiversity has lost its life to satisfy strategic agendas put in place by men hiding behind Resolute desks.
About the author:
I am opposed to the concept of absolute truth and write to question what I see, hear, and learn. I am a traveler, a bookworm, and a political junkie driven by social responsibility and a deep respect for nature.