Eating Our Bombs

Bread bombs pinWhen I was growing up I had a fairly substantial button collection. Many spent the long arc of their life in a box, collector’s items only. However, there were a few that I wore constantly – lapel declarations – pinned to jackets or backpacks. They changed over time, charting out my moral development in pin pricks and political slogans, but there was one that I still have today. It was a small white button with roses on it that read “Bread not Bombs.” It was aged and must have been passed down from my parents. The simple juxtaposition of bread and bombs seemed to epitomize my idea of justice back then. Bread or bombs. Creation or destruction. Life or death.

While my understanding of justice has deepened and grown much more complicated since then, I still find something profoundly moving in that simple statement. Recently a number of things have reminded me of that pin. Each of these reminders has reasserted the simple, yet powerful choice that button suggested, while also serving to complicate my ideas about both bread and bombs.

Old Weapons, New Tools

A few years ago I read a brief essay by Karen Coates about Laotian craftsmen who are literally turning modern day swords into plowshares. They are recovering the remainders of the long American bombing campaign in their country and repurposing them to work their fields.

“An American bomb detonates on Laotian soil; 30 years later, a villager exhumes the pieces. He delivers them to a scrap-metal yard. There they sit in a heap until one day, a Hmong man named Lee Moua plunks down a little money for a mangled chunk of that bomb,” writes Coates. “He takes the metal to his homespun blacksmith shop in a parched backyard among pineapples and sugarcane. He fires a bed of coals, working beneath a rusty roof on a bamboo frame. His bellows are made from a parachute flare canister – more war scrap; his anvil, an artillery shell driven into a stump. Lee Moua heats and pounds his bomb fragment into shape, toiling most of a sweltering afternoon. And when he’s done, we have a garden hoe… he hands us the silvery object, straight from a blistering fire. Its blade is wicked-sharp, capable of practical things. The transformation has taken about three hours — from a sorry piece of bomb scrap to a useful new tool.”

Coates reports in her piece that “Between 1964 and 1973, the United States pummeled Laos with bombs: 4 billion pounds of bombs, 580,000 sorties, one raid every eight minutes for nine years.” She continues, “And 30 years on, people still die every week. Up to 30 percent of those bombs never detonated, and they remain embedded in Laotian soil. Every week, farmers die while plowing their fields. Women die while tending their yards. Children die while playing with little objects they pluck from the ground…”

This story still, even after so many readings, leaves me breathless and haunted. The story comes from Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War. Visit Coates’ website (http://redcoates.net) to read more and see the stunning pictures of the land and people in Cambodia today.

Eating Our Bombs

Michael Pollan’s book Omnivores’s Dilemma and a series of articles based on the book which he published in the New York Times, had a lot to do with Erica and I starting this blog. In the first chapter of his book, Pollan describes the fundamental shift that occurred in American agriculture, and thus to the American landscape, when commercial fertilizer was invented and became widely available.

Pollan introduces the reader to Fritz Haber, the inventor of modern pesticides, and through him explains the “dubious links between modern warfare and industrial agriculture.” Haber created synthetic nitrogen, a key ingredient in making bombs (and fertilizer), so that even when the British cut off the supply of nitrogen to German, the Germans were still able to develop explosives. Haber, who grew up Jewish but converted to Christianity, later developed the poison gas used in Nazi concentration camps (which was essentially pesticide). Pollan describes the terrible duality of Haber’s life: “Haber brought a vital new source of fertility and an awful new weapon into the world.”

Pollan tells a similar story about American munitions factories which, after the end of World War II found themselves with a “tremendous surplus of ammonium nitrate, the principle ingredient in the making of explosives.” Pollan continues, “Ammonium nitrate also happens to be an excellent source of nitrogen for plants.” The Department of Agriculture initially considered spraying the excess chemical over America’s forestlands, but instead decided to spread the ammonium nitrate over crops. Thus, suggests Pollan, the chemical fertilizer and pesticide industry was born and the American landscape was changed forever. On this point Pollan quotes Indian activist and farmer Vandana Shiva who says, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.”

Battle/Ground

In his introduction to the stunning book Disarming the Prairie Tony Hiss describes the “militarization of our landscape” as “one of twentieth-century America’s most problematic and least discussed legacies.” Hiss describes a twenty-year span when the military went from using a mere 3 million acres of American land to encompassing more than 30 million acres as “military sprawl.”

Disarming the Prairie is primarily a book of photographs by Terry Evans that documents the state of the abandoned Joliet Army Arsenal outside of Chicago. At the height of its production the munitions factory located here produced the equivalent of 290 atomic bombs each week. The wide expanse of land had been radically reconfigured around the purpose of creating, protecting, and storing weapons. Huge berms encircled buildings, massive cement bunkers covered in sod and plants, created a humped landscape, like terrestrial ripples spreading outward.

Evans’ photographs document a place “between.” The Army had abandoned the land, but nothing had yet been done with the tens of thousands of acres. In the years since Evans published Disarming the Prairie much of the arsenal has been turned into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The name “Midewin” was used with permission from the local Potawatomi tribe, and means “healing.”

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie reminds us of the duality of creation and destruction, fertility and weaponry. Because the prairie had been fenced off for so long, protecting weapons of mass destruction, the land inside the Joliet Army Arsenal boasts an array of species and habitats found in few other places. It protected the bombs but also the birds. Hiss notes that while prairie land was “once the most abundant landscape on the continent” it is now “one of the most fragmented and imperiled.” The intersection of human and natural history here are a dramatic reminder of the complicated history we have created in our fields, both farms and battlegrounds.

Food Not Bombs

When I taught college writing I had my students spend the last unit of every semester writing a non-fiction essay on food. The goal of the unit was to challenge students to see food in new ways, to apply a critical eye to some aspect of our food culture. From this assignment I got a range of essays from students reflecting on their grandmother’s cookie recipe to research papers on the impact of fair-trade programs on college campuses. One student in my last semester teaching introduced me to an entirely new form of activism that took the slogan on my old pin and put it in action.

The student’s essay detailed his experience working with a group called Food Not Bombs. He wrote with the fresh awe of a young person just discovering not only a passion, but a way to act on that passion. Finding an alignment between deed and creed. The writing was not spectacular but the sentiment was inspiring.

He described climbing into the dumpsters of local natural food stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joes and scavenging a broad array of unopened products. He and his comrades then used the food to prepare organic meals which they served from a rickety table on the main drag of town and in the center of campus. They were meticulously careful with the food they used, being sure it was all safe to eat, and every dish was served with a healthy dose of propaganda.

“Food Not Bombs is not a charity,” says the Food Not Bombs website. “For over 25 years the movement has worked to end hunger and has supported actions to stop the globalization of the economy, restrictions to the movements of people, end exploitation and the destruction of the earth… Food Not Bombs is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to nonviolent social change… Food is a right, not a privilege.”

Fighting Hunger

The idea that food is a right has guided many of the aid programs that have sought to combat hunger. The duality of food and violence is even embedded in the language we use to describe food-aid: fighting hunger, combating poverty. According to the BBC hunger kills more than 3 million children each year. One of the most enduring images of aid efforts is a pallet of food being air-dropped into some remote area. The same innovation that moved warfare from the land to the air, causing unbelievable damage around the world, also allows us to fight hunger in places we never would have otherwise. This duality becomes hauntingly clear in one account of the 100th bomb group, a British air battalion in World War II. “They flew 306 missions including six food drops to the Netherlands in May, 1945,” reports the website. “They were credited with 8630 sorties; they dropped 19,257.1 tons of bombs plus 435.1 tons of food on mercy missions.”

The terrible overlap between air-raids and air-drops is not merely a historical artifact of World War II. In her article “Food or Cluster Bomb?” Laura Flanders reports about America’s bombing of Afghanistan in the weeks following 9/11. Quoting a BBC report, Flanders writes, “The United States is seeking to avert further criticism over the use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan by warning the Afghan people not to confuse unexploded bombs with food drops.” It turns out that the yellow casing on the bombs that U.S. forces dropped on Afghanistan were “hard to distinguish from the emergency food parcels wrapped in yellow plastic that U.S. planes have been dropping over the last few weeks.” Rather than change the color of either the bombs or the food, the U.S. broadcasted a message essentially telling local Afghan farmers to be careful in their own fields.

Food itself can be as much a weapon as any bomb. Those who have starved through U.S. sanctions against countries like Cuba and Iraq know this better than anyone. The U.S. has a long history of embargoing food products to effect social change (the exact opposite strategy of Food Not Bombs). “What parent has not, with at least some success, withheld candy until Jack cleaned up his room or Jill took out the trash?” asks Stanley Weiss. “But modifying the behavior of a preadolescent is a far cry from changing the course of a country.”

Bread as bombs, bread or bombs, bread not bombs. In international relations as in our individual life, we have a choice to make. We can feed hatred by withholding food, or we can feed hunger by breaking bread. These are not simple matters. I woke up early yesterday and started the day by making two loaves of bread. Standing at the counter quietly kneading the warm dough on a wooden cutting board as the kitchen filled with the smell of flour, yeast and honey, I thought about the power of this small act. I thought about the choices we make, and the duality of our decisions. I remembered a pin I used to wear, before I really understood what it meant.

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