The next time you’re in your local bookstore, take a quick stroll through the “Military History” section. Pretty large, right? In there you will find books of every kind and size about every military conflict you can imagine. From ancient battles fought by empires that no longer exist through essays on modern conflicts and on the projected battlefields of tomorrow. From books that detail every great war leader and thinker to tales of the common men who fought, bled and died in those battlefields, just about every angle is discussed. Well, almost.
How many books are there of the after-effects of war? How many tell you what happened after the epic battles are fought and the noble warriors vanquished their opponents? What happens to the battlefields after the treaties are signed, the troops have moved home, and everyone attempts to get back to normal? New York Times reporter Donovan Webster set out to find the answers back in the early 1990s – which he depicts in his book Aftermath – The Remnants of War.
Webster goes to six specific locations – France, Russia, Nevada, Vietnam, Kuwait and Utah – and speaks to the men and women who live, work and try to undo the damages that war left behind. The locations are not chosen at random. They are the places where the 20th Century saw its bloodiest battles, where man’s capacity for death was tested and refined and where the battle rages to undo a century of creative carnage.
In France, he travels with the Departement du Deminage (the Department for Mine Cleaning) whose job it is to clear the forests and farm fields that are still full of thousands of unexploded, deadly, live ordinance launched across the trenches of World War I. As you can imagine, it’s slow work that has to be done carefully given the dangers involved with handling bombs and grenades full of mustard gas or explosives that have been corroding for decades as they worked their way back up to the surface. He also talks to the people who have moved back in and live amongst such deadly items.
From there, Webster travels to Volgograd, Russia – the city once known as Stalingrad and the site of the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought by human beings. How deadly was the Battle of Stalingrad? Estimates range, but according to Wikipeida (fingers crossed), German casualties numbered 841,000 while the Russian casualties went over 1 million (1,129,000). That’s almost 2 million persons dead in a battle that raged through the Russian winter and where soldiers were left out to the mercy of the elements with no food, no shelter, no winter clothing since all of that would denote a delay in victory – a politically unsatisfactory statement for Hitler.
In one of the most iconic moments of the book, Webster travels to the steppes outside Volgograd, into snowy fields as vast and far as the eye can see and uncovers human bones just under his feet. Leg bones, skulls, vertebrae, jawbones, you name it, strewn all over the vast fields, covered by a layer of snow. They are the remains of German and Italian and Romanian soldiers who died from the cold, from starvation and from the shelling – people who never went back home. (Note: in the years since the book was published, the Russian government has apparently put some effort into burying many of the remains that laid outside Volgograd. However, little information is to be found online on the bone fields or what efforts are happening as of today).
Webster also takes us to places where America harnessed its awesome military might – places like the Nevada Test Site inside Nellis Air Force Base, where for 20 years, atomic bombs were detonated and tested by the US military – and details the problems such testing has caused. How do you store and keep radioactive waste that will remain a danger for the next 12,000 years? He also travels to the Tooele Army Depot in Utah, where a new system was being installed to destroy thousands of unused Sarin and VX ordinance – and raises a few questions about the bottom-line nature of the military seeping into work that affects thousands of unsuspecting civilians.
I’ll admit that it’s not an easy book to read. I don’t mean Webster’s prose, which is straightforward and wonderful. Rather, in the very real depiction of the carnage that war leaves behind. It’s tough to read about the clinic in Vietnam that cares for the abandoned toddlers affected by Agent Orange and read about children born without limbs. It’s tough to read about Russian veterans of war as they break down in tears, remembering the horrors of decades past. The mine clearers in France and Kuwait are great companions for Webster, but you can’t help but be awed by people who make a job where even 1 bad day means death and the vast amount of work they will have to do to clear up places of the cheap, modern mines that are made in secret by large corporations.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you’re a history or military buff, it should be on your “Must Read” list.