War and Nature

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Edmund Russell. War and Nature: Fighting Humans and Insects with Chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. New York: The Cambridge University Press, 2001. xvii plus 235 pp. $ 27.00 , ISBN 0-521-79937

Summary

The book War and Nature argues: “… that war and control of nature coevolved: the control of nature expanded the scale of war, and war expanded the scale on which people controlled nature.” (2) Author Edmund Russell asserts throughout his work that this co-evolution of chemical warfare and insecticide production became mutually re-enforcing. The war time culture and chemical industry created an ideological imagery which linked the racial inferiority of enemies, notably Asians in World War Two, to the need to eradicate lesser creatures, insects. Russell asserts that this had two effects that were beneficial to both the chemical warfare branch and chemical industry. First it kept a World War One vintage military organization, the Chemical Warfare Service, alive through the interwar period, World War Two and the Cold War, through the application of chemical weapon derivatives in consumer pesticides. Thus a military organization that had largely lost its relevance was able to reinvent itself. Secondly, chemical industries were able to continue production of chemical weapons knowing that they could be used in the consumer market, saving face in the hunt for war profiteers during the interwar years and limiting capital investment losses due to obsolescence of chemical weapons. The end result of these effects was the creation of linkages between the military and chemical industries that became an early prototypical example of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex and an assault on nature.

A significant theme in Russell’s work is the use of a language that was reflective of a war mentality, even in the absence of war. Using terms such as annihilation and control, chemical weapons and pesticides became mutually re-enforcing. The author states that pest control terminology was used extensively during World War One as it conjoined the “…struggle against insects to the European War.” (21) This further evolved during the interwar years as a war of annihilation upon insect pests, thus showing the relevance and importance of the Chemical Warfare Service upon modern life. (65) Russell uses the attempt to eradicate the boll weevil and attending favorable publicity as illustrative of this marriage between the military and industry. Also, the use of the lexicon of war further cemented this linkage. To Russell, it was a lexicon that further evolved on the eve of and during World War Two that incorporated a racist view of the Japanese enemy with efforts toward insect eradication. Russell’s best example of this is seen in the work in the statement that European Axis leadership were viewed as ‘monsters’ however the Japanese were viewed as a ‘nameless mass of vermin’ (98). Conversely, opportunistic insects took on anthropomorphic racial characteristics of the Japanese. In Russell’s narrative, the result of this lexicon was the same; eradication of human beings was synonymous with the eradication of insects in wartime America. Following the surrender of Japan and the beginning of the Cold War, this terminology morphed into the need to control communists and insects. As the nature of the enemy’s threat had changed, so had the terminology.

The American love affair with the promise of technology is a theme that is explored in War and Nature. Russell uses DDT as an example of a product developed by the military-industrial complex that was warmly embraced by American society in the late 1940s and 1950s as a miracle pesticide. The author asserts that wartime success of DDT in the European and Pacific theaters translated into a wholesale adoption of this insecticide by post war consumer society. However, by the 1960s and 70s, it deleterious effects were widely disseminated, notably by the canonical environmental work Silent Spring and its use was discontinued. To Russell, this example is illustrative of the military-industrial complex placing profits before the ethical considerations of widespread use of a dangerous product.

Commentary

Scott Abeel Spring 2011

War and Nature should be seen as a micro history case study of the rise of the military-industrial complex and how it interacted with American society. As such, Russell provides a very illustrative argument of how the chemical industry intertwined with the Chemical Warfare Service. Also the work is an exposé of the double-edged nature of technology, especially technology that has not undergone vigorous testing so its potential deleterious effects are unknown.

The work could have been strengthened by the inclusion of the benefits of the usage of the insect control programs of the federal government; increased crop yields, containment of malaria and yellow fever in the continental United States. This is not to give a hall pass to the whole- sale environmental destruction that use of these chemicals created; however, structurally, the inclusion of this counter argument would have helped in the framing of ethical debate concerning use of chemical weapons on both insects and humans.

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