Donovan Webster. New York: Vintage Books, Random House. 1998, 279 Pages, $19.50
Recently my bookseller, Brian Prince of Hamilton, pressed this into my hands. He felt it was so important that he gave it to me free. "You'll be astonished," he said.
Astonished and upset, indeed. Our shared memories and written histories record the clash and drama of battles and atrocities, but not the aftermath in human pain, social and cultural disintegration, ecological destruction, and weapons left on battlefields to kill for decades after. Donovan Webster forces us to consider mainly the last of these. He does this by a fine-grained look at five former battlefields.
He begins in France, which is still clearing shells and mines from World War I. Sixteen million acres are fenced off from all use. Since de-mining began in 1946, two million acres have now been cleared, with a loss of 650 deminers. Every year scores of farmers and others suffer death or injury from shells that have lain in the earth for 80 years. World War II ordnance added to the problem.
In Vietnam, the author visits a decrepit hospital serving a province. Mine injuries are bought in at the rate of six per day. In a Saigon maternity hospital he is shown evidence of an increased rate of severe congenital defects in babies born to parents exposed to Agent Orange. His tone of sadness deepens as he describes a room of 50 abandoned toddlers, limbless and deformed, scrambling to reach him, presumably deprived of adult interaction. In talking to Vietnamese, with difficulty he elicits a description of "war syndrome," equivalent to post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered by one in five U.S. soldiers exposed to combat in Vietnam. The Vietnamese, he is told, prefer to ignore it. Sufferers are isolated in hospital where it is hoped they will recover.
The author exposes us to a bizarre aftermath of World War II in Russia. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers had died in Hitler's failed siege of Stalingrad. Before the ground froze they were buried in mass graves. After winter came, bodies were left where they lay as the few thousand survivors retreated. There they remained until German reunification in the early '90's, when Russia grudgingly granted permission to begin to bury bones scattered over many acres of land. Farmers piled skeletons at the edges of their fields, still angry at the Germans after 50 years.
Webster visits the "national sacrifice zone the Nevada nuclear test site which will be unusable by humans for thousands of years. Studies are being done on how to signal the danger to people far in the future when current language and iconography may have changed. The U.S. Department of Energy's Environmental Manager, James Werner, seems to have adopted an idea from Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy: some sort of nuclear priesthood, to pass information down across generations. Werner faces the facts that in the U.S. there are at least 10,500 of these sites; there are no acceptable long-term storage plans; and the cost of maintenance will be tens of billions of dollars per year for thousands of years. This, of course, is just the U.S. one of ten nuclear weapons states.
Webster introduces us to the life of deminers in Kuwait and to the development of an allegedly flawed facility for the destruction of chemical weapons near Salt Lake City, Utah.
At the end of the painful experience of reading this book one is left silently screaming. But let us acknowledge the start that has been made on pulling back from the abyss. We have the Landmines Convention, still requiring years of work to halt the making and planting of land-mines. We have a world-wide surge of revulsion against nuclear weapons and a will to abolish them, pitted against eight states' desire to keep them.
Reviewed by Joanna Santa Barbara