Ecocidal Wars

By John Bacher | 1989-06-01 12:00:00

Since the weapons of the stone age were replaced by the heavy metal spears and chariots of the iron age, war has been ruining the environment. The Great Punic Wars ended when Rome defeated Carthage and prevented it from reviving by strewing its fields with salt.

The destructiveness of the ancients, however, pales in comparison with that of the Twentieth Century. Today, unexploded shells still lie in Flanders Fields, and the effects of the Vietnam War still afflict its victims, both human and environmental ones.

Innovating in Vietnam

In the 1920s, military strategists had invented the bombing of cities, but this was superseded in Vietnam by an even crazier idea - the destruction of the whole countryside that sustained guerrillas. There were three major actions to create environmental havoc in Vietnam - "Operation Sherwood Forest," "Operation Hot Tip," and "Operation Pink Rose." The U.S. sprayed with herbicides, which by burning leaves created kindling for fires that blazed 20,000 acres at a time. Besides starting forest fires, the bombing left craters; about 500,000 acres in Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea are now marked by 250 million craters. These craters disrupt farming and have become breeding areas for malarial mosquitoes. Some 45 million trees were killed, 5 percent of South Vietnam's forest destroyed, and 45 percent damaged.

The herbicides, Agents Orange, Blue and White, are known for their later impact on U.S. servicemen. These chemicals were also used to poison enemy crops. Unlike other areas that have recovered, the 370,650 acres of sprayed mangrove have disappeared, devastating fish and other marine animals that require mangroves to breed.

The most effective means of ecocide in Vietnam was land clearing. Huge ploughs scraped every tree and shrub off the land. By 1973, two percent of South Vietnam had been bulldozed in this way, mainly around Saigon.

Imitating in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian government has been resettling people in its warfare against national minorities within the country. The lowland areas to which the Ethiopian highlanders are being resettled are inhabited by the tribal Anuks, who live in the country's largest remaining intact forest. This forest is being cleared for agriculture and the Anuk are forced to assist in their own displacement.

Anuk huts were bulldozed to build housing for Soviet specialists working on a dam. Government troops plowed up their crops to starve the Anuks and force them onto state farms. Twenty years ago, 16 percent of Ethiopia was forested. By 1982 this had been reduced to 3.1 percent. When Ethiopia's resettlement is finished, 62 percent of its remaining forests will have been cleared.


Another victim of its own ecocidal war is Guatemala. In the highland region, largely populated by Indians, a "scorched earth" policy is pursued. The Guatemalan army's strategy resembles that of the U.S. in Vietnam; the environment is destroyed to force the people into strategic villages controlled by the army. Since 1978 one million people have been displaced by the Guatemala army by murdering at least 30,000 Indians and burning crops. Under such pressure, the strategic hamlet becomes an inviting option for those who dare not cross the "free-fire" zone to become refugees in Mexico. In the strategic hamlets Indian culture is disrupted by conversion to Protestantism and the production of crops for the international market instead of subsistence use.

In Guatemala the forest has become a refuge and hence is subjected to bombing and napalm. Even streams are deliberately poisoned so refugees from army terror cannot survive by fishing.

East Timor

A strategy of ecocide and genocide similar to that in Guatemala is used by Indonesia in its war against East Timor, where 300,000 of a population of 700,000 have been killed.

Except for the approximately 100 villages behind the lines of the FRETLIN, the political party that governed East Timor before the invasion, the entire population is confined to strategic hamlets, where they can be shot if they are found outside the reservations allotted for them to grow food. The migration to these hamlets was forced by the bombing of villages and crops.

In a brilliant essay, "Exterminism, the Highest Stage of Civilization," E.P. Thompson suggests that a future astronaut-archaeologist from another planet may view the missile silos that destroyed humanity and conclude that we had been in the grip of a suicidal death cult. Ecocidal wars prove our need to learn the reverence for life so common among its victims, tribal cultures.



Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989

Peace Magazine Jun-Jul 1989, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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