Eating Our Bombs, Revisited

This is a revised version of a post I wrote a few years ago. 

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

In the first chapter of his book, Omnivores’s DilemmaMichael 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.

Through Pollan I was introduced to Fritz Haber, the inventor of modern pesticides, and through Haber I learned about 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 Germany, 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 also 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. On this point Pollan quotes Indian activist and farmer Vandana Shiva who says, “We’re still eating the leftovers of World War II.” Thus, suggests Pollan, the chemical fertilizer and pesticide industry was born and the American landscape was changed forever.

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.

Fighting Hunger

The duality of food and violence is even embedded in the language we use to describe food-aid: fighting hunger, combating poverty. 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, arial bombing, causing unbelievable damage around the world, also allows us to fight hunger in places we never would have otherwise. At times this duality was exhibited even on the same plane such as the 100th bomb group, a British air battalion in World War II. A website dedicated to their history notes, “They flew 306 missions including six food drops to the Netherlands in May, 1945. They were credited with 8630 sorties; they dropped 19,257.1 tons of bombs plus 435.1 tons of food on mercy missions.”

The 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.

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