"I've Been Meaning to Read That Book About Landmines"

Aftermath: The Remnants of War: From Landmines to Chemical Warfare--The Devastating Effects of Modern Combat (Vintage) - Donovan Webster

I can't remember exactly when I blogged about this - sometime around the New Year I think (yes, I am too lazy atm to use the nice search function, because that's how I usually end up putting off writing posts). The backstory is that sometime in the 1990s I read a fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine about how France has the continuing problem of removing old ordnance from two world wars. The amount of bombs just sitting under the surface dirt (if even that deep) amazed me. So I tracked down the book and eventually gave in and bought it. (Without waiting for a sale, which is how you know I really wanted to read this.)


Book: Aftermath: The Remnants of War

Author: Donovan Webster


It's not just about landmines - any kind of unexploded shell that ends up in the ground is potentially a bomb. Even after decades underground.


It's every bit as fascinating as I remembered, and written in magazine style - which means very much as a narration about a series of interviews with bomb removal team members, with lots of history tossed in. The book itself is about more than just France - it's about how leftover explosives happen in every war, and then that country has to figure out ways to safely find and dispose of the stuff. I'm still on the chapter in France though.


I should add two things here:


1) I'm not usually fascinated by war history alone - there has to be a social or human element in it. I do not enjoy simple tales of battlefield strategy and I need more details than just what the officers were up to.


2) I think the majority of Americans are utterly clueless as to what so many other countries have suffered by having wars fought on their lands. The last war that really impacted the lands and cities of our country was the Civil War, and that didn't have the lasting devastation that something like WWI continues to have. Every year so many French folk die or are injured because they accidentally find a bomb while farming, gardening, hiking, taking a boat ride, etc. etc. etc. There are still areas off limits because the years of shelling has made the land too dangerous. Just from the first two world wars. And the poison gas in the shells from WWI can still kill you.


Americans really could use some thankfulness about things like this. (As it is we don't think much about the chunks of our own land that we've made toxic ourselves via ordnance testing - and that's not just counting nuclear.)


Anyway, having said that - here are some quotes that give you examples of what I'm finding interesting. If you enjoy "spend some time with an expert going about his job" type articles, then the chapter on France demolitions experts is something you'd enjoy. Not to mention facts I'd not known or considered about changing war tactics.


3% in, a section explaining how Nobel's inventions changed architecture, building, and (in so many ways no one foresaw) warfare:

...Nobel's smokeless powder not only had artillery shells and bullets traveling farther when shot, it had a simultaneous effect on battlefield dress as well. Coming from an age when thick clouds of cannon and rifle smoke obscured vision, soldier's uniforms had been designed for visibility. They were red or bright blue - often with white diagonal accents and brass buttons - to be better seen on cloud-draped battlefields. With smokeless powder, the opposition was suddenly visible across a battlefield's reach, making whole armies easy targets for the more efficient weapons, inspiring the drab greens and browns of today's military dress.

5% in, the author is with a team of men whose job it is to find and collect the bombs/shells and take them away to safely dispose of them.

 ...Belot is six feet tall and sturdy, with big hands and feet. He is forty-six years old, which makes him the oldest demineur in this squad by fifteen years. He has a large, expressive face and a crew cut. He laughs a lot, and his professional title - with protestations - is Chief of Deminers; Metz Division, France. ...Beyond question, though, he is special. In a young man's job - an occupation where one-fifth of the workers are killed or injured in explosions every year - Belot has survived more than two decades.

6% in, the author has found a shell

...Belot tells me a little about the shell. The paint on the outside has been corroded off, so it is impossible to know whether it contains cordite, explosive powder, or toxic chemicals. "If a toxic shell is exploded in this forest," he says, smiling, "the poison gas becomes hard to control." Belot tells me that even if the shell is the standard variety the caustic explosive inside has spent the past half-century melding with the shell's iron skin, a circumstance that makes it far more volatile than normal. "You scratch this one with a shovel," he says, "and maybe boom."

7% in, an idea of that facts interspersed in this:

The French Interior Ministry estimates that, more than seventy-five years after the close of World War I, 12 million un-exploded shells from that conflict still sleep in the soil near Verdun.  ...Millions of undiscovered shells from World War II remain embedded in the beaches of Normandy and Brittany. As do long-forgotten sea mines in the waters surrounding France.  ...Everywhere in France - in potato fields and orchards, under town squares and back porches - the fallout from two world wars has turned the soil into an enormous booby trap.


After World War I, France was so nationally decimated it could conjure no workers to clear its land, so the unexploded weapons and artillery shells simply lay where they had fallen. It was not until after the close of World War II, in 1946, that the nation was strong enough to establish its Department du Deminage. Since that time more than 630 demineurs have died in the line of duty, and the department has collected and destroyed more than 18 million artillery shells, 10 million grenades, 600,000 bombs dropped from aircraft, and 600,000 underwater mines. ...because not all explosives are found during the ground-clearing process, even places considered safe may spit up unexploded ordinance. Thirty-six farmers died in 1991 alone when their machinery hit unexploded shells.


7% in, before going to lunch:

Belot changed out of his coveralls while we were back in the forest, explaining to me in shouts from behind a tree that the Department du Deminage wishes not to alarm citizens, so demineurs always wear casual clothes in public. "It is unwise to imply we're working so close to civilian homes," he said. "It makes people nervous to know so many explosives are nearby."


I'm sure I won't be able to resist more quotes - that's just where I'm stopping at the moment because I have stuff to go do. (sigh) I can't wait to see if the rest of the book holds up after this chapter though, because that seems a tall order.