Disarming The Wilderness

“The first bomb dropped from an airplane exploded in an oasis outside Tripoli on November 1, 1911. […] It was Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti who leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb — a Danish hand grenade — on the North African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first attack.”

So begins A History of Bombing, by Sven Lindqvist. In this incredibly complicated and interwoven story (Lindqvist himself describes the book as a “labyrinth,” not designed to be read cover to cover but rather as more of a choose your own adventure) Lindqvist traces a history of bombing that cuts right through the human body – literally and figuratively. The book — which I first read in a post-colonial studies course — focuses on the physical, psychological, and historical impact bombing has had on the world, with special attention paid to nationalism, class, race and power.

However, of less concern to Lindqvist is the impact of this history of bombing on the land. A recent article in Orion Magazine prompted me to go back to my bookshelf and dig up my copy of Lindqvist’s book. In “The Forbidden Forest” Johnathan Olley profiles “a small band of démineurs from the Département du Déminage” in France. The démineurs are a team of bomb experts assembled after Wold War II to find, remove and destroy the detritus of two World Wars: thousands of tons of unexploded munitions. Olley reports that “The French Interior Ministry estimates that at least 12 million unexploded shells reside in the hills and forests that rise above Verdun.”

The statistics are staggering.

“British, French, American, and German armies fired approximately 720 million shells and mortar bombs on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918. Military experts estimate that as many as one in five rounds of ammunition fired by either side failed to explode. As a direct result of land contamination by unexploded ordinance, 16 million acres of France were cordoned at the end of 1918, including the 2 million acres around Verdun. Known as the Zone Rouge, they remain forbidden territory to this day. […] At the current rate of clearance it is a conservative estimate that the Département du Déminage will still be finding these weapons nine hundred years from now.”

So far, in the roughly 90 years they have been at work, the Département du Déminage has lost 630 men. That’s seven deaths per year. As if the human and ecological impact of this bombing wasn’t enough, Olley reminds the reader that “Many of the shells fired contained toxic gas, and for the most part it is difficult for even the most experienced démineurs to distinguish which ones.” Sometimes, he writes, if you hold a shell up to your ear you can he the sound of the chemicals flowing back and forth inside.

This article reminded me of another Orion article that I wrote about in the post “Eating Our Bombs” a few years ago. In the article, the author profiles Laotian blacksmiths who recover the shrapnel from American bombs dropped on their country, and turn them into farming equipment. She wrote “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.”

In that blog post, I was exploring the complicated intersections between bombs and food. For example, the same factories that were building bombs for WWII were repurposed after the war to make fertilizer. And in more than one case in recent wars, the yellow casing on US bombs were confused with the emergency food parcels wrapped in yellow plastic also dropped by US planes.

While researching the 16 million acres of forest land in France that have been cordoned off and deemed unsafe because of unexploded munitions I stumbled upon a Discovery Channel episode in their “Ways to Save The Planet Series” – this one was called “Forest Bomb Experiment.” The clip is just a four minute segment from a longer “technology will save us” themed series in which teams try outlandish scientific and technological solutions to save the planet (such as a 16 trillion piece sun shade suspended in space above the earth). The idea behind the forest bomb experiment is to use planes to drop seedlings over deforested areas in hopes of accelerating the re-growth of vital forested areas around the globe, and thus combat global warming.

Watching the clip I was struck again – as the with food/bombs juxtaposition – by how the notion of bombing has so captured our imagination. Whether it is employed for war, ecology or humanitarian aid. Ever since 1911 when Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti completed the first arial bombing, we have been eager to find new reasons to throw things out of planes – even ourselves.

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