Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Victims of Wars Long Ago

Next Sunday will mark the 99th anniversary of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, an event that prompted, in quick succession, Russian mobilization for war, the German invasion of Belgium, and French and British declarations of war against Germany. Preparations for the Great War were years in the making; nonetheless, its onset somehow seemed improvised, spontaneous, even accidental.

The last veterans of World War I have all died--the last one on February 4, 2012--but the weapons of that war survive in large numbers in the fields of Belgium and western France. From time to time, they are unearthed and claim new victims. A recent story in the Telegraph describes the work of Dirk Vanparys, a member of the Belgian army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company. On a recent, all-too-normal day, Vanparys and his team collected 73 unexploded shells and 57 grenades and fuses that had been found by farmers. Many of the shells that are recovered on a regular basis contain mustard gas, chlorine gas, or phosgene--agents that killed and disabled hundreds of thousands of troops along the Western Front during the many spasms of chemical warfare in World War I. Four months ago, seven people were hospitalized after a German shell containing gas exploded as a trench was being dug to lay cable south of Ypres.

Weapons used in World War I will continue to kill and maim completely innocent people for years to come. In 2012, Belgian and French authorities collected 185 tons of munitions left from World War I; the total collected in 2011 was 274 tons. Such totals are possible because nearly one and a half billion shells were fired during the war.

In preparation for the Battle of the Somme, an assault by British troops on German trenches that began on July 1, 1916, British artillery fired 1.5 million shells over five days. Tunnels dug under the German lines were packed with explosives—as much as thirty tons of explosives in a single mine—and set off as the assault began. The final artillery barrage—224,221 shells in a span of 65 minutes—created a rumble that, Adam Hochschild writes, “could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath in London,” almost 200 miles away. In spite of this extraordinary effort to “soften” German defenses, the first day of the Battle of the Somme cost the British Army over 57,000 casualties, including almost 20,000 killed.

A story posted yesterday by the McClatchy News Service describes another unending war. Forty years after the end of U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam War (or, to the Vietnamese, the American War), there are still cases of children being born with severe birth defects caused by Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant used by the United States in Vietnam from 1961 to 1971. The Vietnamese Red Cross estimates that Agent Orange has affected 3,000,000 people in Vietnam, including 150,000 children born with birth defects since the fall of Saigon in 1975.  While the United States has, since 1991, extended disability benefits for any of fifteen diseases linked to Agent Orange to U.S. military personnel who served in Vietnam, it has provided little assistance to the Vietnamese and has avoided acknowledging any responsibility for health problems caused by the use of the chemical. There is a U.S.-funded effort underway to clean up chemical contamination near the Da Nang International Airport, which was used by the U.S. Air Force during the war, but this site is just one of many Agent Orange “hot spots” in Vietnam.

There is some evidence that humankind is getting better at calculating the costs of war and that, as a result, we have become more successful at avoiding it than we have been in the past. What World War I is teaching us now, and what the Vietnam War seems destined to echo, is this: the costs of a war should be calculated out to a century (or more) beyond its conclusion.