War and Nature

War has been a part of human experience since the beginning of recorded history, but the effects of war on the natural world have not been studied as extensively as one might think. That needs to change.

The increased threats from terrorist use of many kinds of weapon systems place local, regional, and global environments in greater jeopardy than ever before. Nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, land mines, and aerial/naval bombardment each have a particular set of environmental threats that have been only partly measured, let alone understood. We know something of the threats: for example, we suspect that land mines contribute to and accelerate environmental damage in a number of ways, including fear of mines forcing people to abandon whole tracts of arable land, and explosions disrupting soil and water processes. A considerable fraction of Libya's land mass is considered contaminated by land mines left from World War II. The countryside of Kosovo was laced with land mines by all sides in the recent conflicts there, and hundreds of minefields remain. We need to study the effects further, and distribute the information needed to create values and knowledge about the effects of war on nature.

Attempts to damage the environment as a tactic of war have been described throughout history. However, the descriptions need to give way to systematic data gathering. The effects of the use of defoliants during the war in Southeast Asia from 1965 to 1971 have not been extensively studied; data on the destruction of coral reefs during the war in the Pacific and changes in desert terrain in North Africa during World War II are not complete; we saw the clouds of smoke created when Iraq set Kuwaiti oil fields on fire in 1991. We suspect that these fragile environments take a long while to recover from war, but we have not confirmed all the environmental effects of war at these and other sites.

We need not only study the direct effects of war on the environment; we need to explore the indirect effects as well. Edmund Russell theorizes that war and our attempts to control nature have a strong, if not fully explored, link. "War and the control of nature coevolved. The control of nature expands the scale of war, and war expanded the scale on which people controlled nature." War increased the demand for agricultural and industrial products, which increased the transformation of nature into those products. Some of those products of war, like chemical weapons, were adapted to agriculture, because the same chemical was used to kill people and insects: hydrogen cyanide. More recently, anthrax, a natural soil bacteria, has become "weaponized" by the war industry, and terrorizes us.

Out of these swords there are some plowshares, some symbols of hope. The demilitarized zone between North and South Korea has become one of the most bountiful natural preserves in Asia. The U.S. Army has turned over pieces of Illinois prairie, Maine woods, California beaches, and northern Virginia meadows to other agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage as refuges and parks; over 100,000 acres have been transferred. The greatest symbol of hope is the continuing discussion over whether existing law to limit the environmental effects of war is sufficient, or whether new laws and regulations are needed. Setting up more environmental data gathering, surveillance, and enforcement mechanisms will help diminish the effects of war on our environment. There are fewer more important issues today.


Leaning, Jennifer. 2000. "Environment and Health: Impact of War," Canadian Medical Association Journal, October 31, pp.1157-1161.

Russell, Edmund. 2001. War and Nature. Cambridge University Press.