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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Aftermath of War

Air Date: Week of

In tribute to Armistice Day, Steve Curwood talks with author Donovan Webster about his new book titled Aftermath, in which Mr. Webster traveled the world documenting the death toll and destruction of twentieth century wars.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, four years after it began, World War I came to an end. Here in the US, the day is called Armistice Day, although few of us can recall why. North Americans have largely forgotten about this war that killed more than 5 million military personnel, injured nearly 13 million more, and left an estimated 8 million civilians dead. But the nations in which World War I was fought have very real reminders. Shells from the so-called "war to end all wars" still accidentally explode and kill people to this day. In his book Aftermath, writer Donovan Webster traveled the world documenting the damage that all of this century's major wars have done to the landscape and its people. His tour began in France, where artillery shells left over from World War I are a common sight and a small corps of men called demineurs have the job of cleaning up this military pollution.

WEBSTER: We were driving along the Chemin de Dam which is the site of 2 large battles, and we were trying to get to this little town called Chevre Rival, and it took us a while to get there because we were having to keep stopping to pick up shells that were just incidentally laid along the roadside. We would drive down the road a little farther and a farmer named Corvitz, we have to go see. And he comes charging out of his house. He's got his boots on, he's been waiting for us all morning, he's waving his fists in the air and he's like, "I've got some shells and grenades over here!" So we go over across the road to his barn, and up against his barn is a pile of rags. And he lifts this, some of the rags off this pile and there are a couple of shells and a couple grenades and they lift them up. We start taking them to the car and he says, "Look, I've got an orchard in here, do you want to go collect there, too? I hate it because I've got to mow up there and I'm always afraid children are going to be playing in the pile I have of shells and, you know, dud shells, they're unexploded artillery shells. And that they may have moved one, my mower will hit it and I'll blow up. And we said well sure, we're here. We drive up into his orchard and he stops and he points. And it looked like a refuse pile at a construction site. I mean, he's got a mound as high as your thighs of unexploded shells. These guys are just, they're just shaking their heads, they're like... and we finally, Remy Delouse, who's the co-leader of this group, turns to me and says, "Now, you see what I'm talking about?"

CURWOOD: Now, on the cover of your book, there's a man, he's got thick rubber gloves and he has, looks like old shells just covered with dirt and barnacles and slime. There's no face on this person. But he's holding these, this unexploded ordnance almost lovingly.

WEBSTER: Yeah, it's remarkably low tech. They go out in the mud and they pick them up and they carry them back to a truck and then they put them in the back of the truck and they take them to a depot, and then one week out of every month they blow up what they've collected. They dig a pit so that all the blast is directed upward, and then they blow them up. So they know they're all gone, for good.

CURWOOD: Now it's been -- what, 50 years since there last was a battle fought in France? It's been, what -- 80 years since the end of World War I. Now, how many people die from leftover munitions from those wars?

WEBSTER: Roughly 90 people a year, on average, are killed or injured by these, and this is just in France. This isn't in Holland or, you know, Denmark or anything like that. But France had the biggest problem because they really had the static war. I mean, they had 2 armies just throwing shells at each other for 4 years.

CURWOOD: So 90 people a year you figure in France, that's probably more people than are killed, say, in aircraft every year there.

WEBSTER: Likely, yeah. I mean, that's as many people as -- Americans killed in the Gulf War, you know.

CURWOOD: From which war do they get most of their stuff?

WEBSTER: Oh, by far, 80%, 90% from the first World War. There were just that many more shells fired. The detonators didn't work as well. There was 15% detonator failure, they estimate. And there were days when they'd shoot 11 million shells, in a day, from one place.

CURWOOD: Eleven million shells?

WEBSTER: At the Chemin de Dam. You know, they're littering the soil there, and that's why they've had to close off those forests. But World War I by far has the most shells. I mean, they clean 800, 900 tons of shells a year. They could clean a lot more. And that's a number that never changes.

CURWOOD: And the government has what? 100, 125 people doing this.

WEBSTER: Their hiring practices are sort of quiet. It's not an equal opportunity kind of a thing. You get tapped to come in by people who do it. And so, yeah, the year I was there, there were 123.

CURWOOD: And how many die each year?

WEBSTER: Average 18.

CURWOOD: So, in other words, 5 years is a long time to keep this job alive.

WEBSTER: It's a young man's job. The guy who I interviewed at the beginning is, was in late 40s when I interviewed him. And that year we're sitting at lunch and he says, "This has been a really good year." It's the end of September. "We've only lost 11 men." Three weeks later he lifted up an artillery shell that appeared to have some poison gas in it. He put on his gas mask, he put on his gloves. He lifted it up. Gas escaped, got under his mask, and gravely wounded him. He's back at work now, finally, you know, 3 years later, and he still -- it's, you know, he's not fully at work.

CURWOOD: How much land have the French cleared of their unexploded munitions, do you think?

WEBSTER: They estimate 2 million acres, although it's not really clear. You know, we would drive through places that have been okayed for farming again, and every mile or 2 there's still a shell that the farmer's found in his field and drags to the side of the road.

CURWOOD: Let me try to get this right. How long would it take for France to get rid of all these unexploded munitions on their territory at the present rate they're going?

WEBSTER: They wouldn't tell me. They have no -- I expect they have no idea. They estimate, still, though, there are 10 million unexploded and buried shells around Verdun alone.

CURWOOD: You mean you talked about how a -- what, how many tons of ordinance would fall on one square meter?


CURWOOD: And -- I mean, how do they even find bodies after something like that?

WEBSTER: Perhaps -- early on the thing that affected me the most was at Verdun, where more than a million men were lost in that siege. And only 290,000 identifiable bodies remained. And these were just -- I mean, these were bodies they could tell were bodies. The 710,000 others were, you know, rough and change, they wrote off. They said well, explosions took them, the mud swallowed them. Of the 290,000 bodies they recovered, they could only identify 130,000 -- or 160,000 of them; the other 130 were merely parts. And they took those parts and put them in a big building that is just as sobering as any place on earth. I mean, 130,000 men, and they've got -- it's really rough, it's amazing.

CURWOOD: Go ahead.

WEBSTER: You just, you go there and it's a very, it looks like a piece of French bread, sort of. And it's maybe a quarter mile long. It's just a block house but it's beautifully done. They've got little windows in the bottom. They originally took the bodies, they put them all in a provisional warehouse and then forgot about them. I mean, all the places I went pretty much part of it is about active forgetting. You know, no one wants to really remember these places. Ultimately, they had to clean up the landscape and everybody from the Red Cross to the Boy Scouts helped them clean it up. Just they felt out of respect both to the dead and to the war, they had to do this, not to mention to clean up France. Well, they finally built this amazing building through international funds and the French spent a lot of money on it and the Church spent a lot of money, the Catholic Church. And along the bottom, base, they put all these men in there. Along the base of the building where you can see inside, where they put them in, it's just bones as far as you can see.



CURWOOD: Now, what about the rest of the world? If 90 people a year die in France from this, how many people die around the world from the stuff that's left over from wars?

WEBSTER: There's never been a number calculated for that. I mean, our State Department generates that 26 to 28,000 people a year are killed by land mines alone.

CURWOOD: Twenty-six to twenty-eight thousand people.

WEBSTER: Yes, and that's down from a high of -- have killed or injured as many as 100,000. That's just 3 years ago. So it's, the situation is stabilizing.

CURWOOD: And that's just from land mines? Or that's from --


CURWOOD: Just from land mines.

WEBSTER: Yeah. And there are between, depending on who you ask, 85 million and 300 million of these in the ground. Forty percent of the people who are killed by them after the war ends are civilians: women, children, collecting wood, going to get the water, you know, especially in the African nations where, you know, fighting for civil wars and things. They use them to ring water holes. They use them to turn civilian populations into refugee populations. It's -- it's chilling.

CURWOOD: Is there anything positive that comes out of this detritus of war?

WEBSTER: Yes. You go to a place like Vietnam, and you fly into Noy Vey Airport, Hanoi, which was once a huge airfield in the war. And as you fly in you see bomb craters as far as you can see that are still in the ground, you know, have been left there for 25 years. The Vietnamese have taken these craters, they've knit them together with dikes. They are always at want for protein as a nation, and they're fish farming in them. And you know, the idea that they have pulled life, you know, turned war inside out and pulled life out of it, that's one of the things I want to do in this book is have people stare at the reality of this and say okay, how can we make it, turn this around? And the Vietnamese have done it all over, you know. In the DMZ, this is one of their favorite stories, they collect all the scrap. They grade it, you know, different grades of scrap metal, steel. They send it to a series of 10 different rolling mills, steel mills, in which case they may turn it into I-beams or wiring conduit. You know, they're building skyscrapers really like crazy now, or else they turn it into ingots, sell it to the Japanese, the Japanese turn it into cars which they sell back to us, and the Vietnamese think that is the funniest thing in the world.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

WEBSTER: It's been my pleasure. Thank you very much, I love the show.

CURWOOD: Donovan Webster's book is called Aftermath: The Remnants of War. Thank you, sir.

WEBSTER: Thank you.



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