In this author’s previous article, ajjmackenzie.co.uk explored the relationship that natural disasters and environmental change has had on warfare in history. In comparison, there have been a number of wars which have changed the environment in disastrous ways. Purposeful destruction of environmental resources, modifying the environment itself and policies exerting far-reaching, climatic changes have all been a consequence of warfare in history. In the case of the following conflicts, there were irrevocable effects placed upon the environment, to the detriment of those peoples living within them and the ecology as a whole.
Flooding of Babylon, c. 689 BCE
Following their thoroughly violent conquest of political enemies, the Assyrians would march their soldiers into the cities of the vanquished, burning and levelling them. Finally, for total effect, the Euphrates River was subsequently dammed in order to divert the river to cover the ruins, flooding the remains. Indeed, one such example was that of 612 BCE in which an alliance of Persian, Egyptian and Babylonian forces destroyed the city of Nineveh by purposefully flooding the area, diverting the River Khosr.
Mongolian efforts against irrigation, c. 13th century CE
In the previous article, there were documented cases of ecological policy orchestrated by the Mongolian administration, designed to check environmental change. However, in preparation for the invasion of its enemies, Mongolian forces destroyed the qanat irrigation systems in the Persian area. These complex, millennia old waterway systems built for locating groundwater were destroyed senselessly, turning extensive tracts of Persian land into desert pitted with the occasional oasis.
General Sherman’s March, c. 1864-1865 CE
During the American Civil War, Union forces under the leadership of General William Tecumseh Sherman brought about whole scale environmental destruction across entire lengths of the United States. With 65,000 Union soldiers, General Sherman burned Atlanta in November 1864 and then spread a rolling barrage across a 60 mile wide front that traversed across the state of Georgia, laying waste to 15,000 square miles of territory, capturing 25,000 animals and inflicting $100 million worth of damage, equivalent to $1.4 billion in the present day.
Yellow River Floods, c. 1938 CE
Before the onset of the Second World War proper, preceding scorched earth policies reminiscent on the Eastern Front, the Nationalist government of China resorted to extreme measures to thwart the aggressive ambitions of Imperial Japan. Dynamiting the levees lining the Yellow River, the ensuing flood waters cascaded across thousands of square miles in the provinces of Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu with some 800,000 Chinese citizens drowning.
Dam-buster raids, c. 1943 CE
In similar fashion to the Chinese Nationalists, Allied forces devised a strategy designed to literally wash away German industry, preventing further military armament production. On 16-17 May 1943, armed with specially produced ‘bouncing bombs’, the Royal Air Force deployed a sortie of bombers to attack and breach two major dams producing hydroelectric power for the Ruhr region. In addition to cutting electrical power, the ensuing flood waters took with it thousands of square miles of farmland, high power industries and killed 1,700 people in the process. Such was the environmental devastation wrought upon this German region that there was agricultural recovery until ten years after the cessation of hostilities.
Flooding the Pontine Marshes, c. 1944 CE
Again, in similar fashion, the Germans resorted to similar tactics in Italy when faced with a joint British and American military force. Following Mussolini’s ‘Battle for the Marshes’, a project designed to reclaim marshland for agricultural development, the Pontine Marshes were drained and devoid of water saturation. The Germans reasoned that by re-flooding these marshes would help impede the Allied advance, making them unsuitable for amphibious landing. In 1944 the equipment designed to drain the marshes was destroyed, covering 40 square miles of land in marsh water. The effect was catastrophic, not so much in terms of military strategy (it only delayed the advance on Rome temporarily), but in terms of the environmental effect it had on the Italian population; infecting many with malaria as a result of an influx of mosquitoes in the newly created marshes.
Chemical weapons dumping post-war, c. 1945-1947 CE
With the end of World War Two nigh, and the ending of hostilities in Germany, there was left an enormous stockpile of unused and potentially disastrous chemical weapons. Designed, produced and stockpiled, German chemical armaments were created for the war effort but never deployed in anger owing to the potential for Allied reprisals. For the Allies, deposing of copious amounts of yperite, lewisite, adamsite, phosgas, diphosgene and chloracetophenol would be an enormously difficult task. Instead of disposing them properly, however, the Allies opted to storing the weapons inside of decommissioned ships, towed them out to sea and scuttled them, sending both the vessel and their dangerous cargos to the bottom of the sea. Approximately 35,000 tons of chemical weapons were ‘disposed of’ by the Soviet Union in the Baltic Sea and 215,000 tons were dumped in seas off the coasts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, polluting the marine environments they settled in.
Agent Orange, c. 1961-1971 CE
During the disastrous military campaign in Vietnam and the surrounding South East Asian countries, the United States embarked upon a virulent, environmentally destructive war against the spread of communism. Between 1961 and 1971, US forces deployed 20 million gallons of color-coded herbicides, particularly Agent Orange, in an effort to defoliate Vietcong territory, including peasant agriculture, in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In total, 6,542 herbicidal sorties were carried out, blanketing 12% of South Vietnam, destroying five million acres of forestry and 10 million hectares of agricultural land. This also caused numerous birth defects and cancer in people, resulting in approximately 500,000 birth defects in Vietnam alone.
Kuwait Oil Well Fires, c. 1990-1991 CE
Following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saddam Hussein was faced with a US-backed international coalition. With his occupational forces retreating back behind Iraqi lines, Hussein retorted with environmental terrorist tactics, opening Kuwait oil wells and igniting them into geysers of fire. Over 700 wells were torched in this way, burning for ten months between February and November 1991 and consuming over 67.3 million barrels of oil per day. At that point in time, world consumption was approximately 16.8 million barrels a day. In addition to the billions of dollar losses, the Kuwaiti government spent $1.5 billion fighting the fires. As can be expected, the environmental consequences of these actions are yet to be determined.
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