QuestionWho cleans up after war?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they're talking about. Today, we ask military experts about who "cleans up" after the devastation and destruction of battles.
War is horrible. It's also messy. War zones leave broken bodies and crumbled cities in their wake. Eventually (sometimes), they resume some semblance of normality. How is war's immediate aftermath reconciled? Who cleans up after war? The way battles are fought and won have transformed over the years, and each military has its own protocol. It's near impossible to answer this question in its entirety. We found a few experts to share their own perspectives (with various levels of enthusiasm) on the on the matter.
Educator at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg, Pensylvania
In the Civil War most often it was the victorious army that ended up burying the dead. Additionally, wounded who were too badly injured to be moved were often left in the care of the enemy. Sometimes burial details would simply dig a shallow trench and throw the bodies in. If the same ground was fought over later in the war (such as at the Wilderness and Cold Harbor during the Civil War) bones could sometimes be seen protruding from or even on top of the ground.
— The environmental impact of war is often overlooked. In 2008, the U.S. military used the same amount of oil in Iraq as 1,210,000 cars on the road that year. Two-thirds of the Army's fuel consumption in the war zones is spent delivering fuel to the battlefield.
Source: Cost of War
Capt Karl Wiest
Chief of Public Affairs at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO) at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware
AFMAO [Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations] is a Field Operating Agency under Headquarters Air Force that has total force support consisting of active duty Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines, as well as Guardsmen, Reservists and civilians. Here at AFMAO it is our mission and our privilege to fulfill our nation's sacred commitment of ensuring dignity, honor and respect to our fallen service members. Ultimately, we provide unsurpassed preparation and care for our nation's fallen. We also provide care, service and support to the families of the fallen.
Once a service member falls and is returned here stateside to Dover AFB, a solemn dignified transfer of remains is conducted upon arrival from the aircraft to a transfer vehicle in order to honor the service member who has given his or her life in the service of our country. The transfer vehicle then moves the fallen to the Port Mortuary at the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs. Once positively identified by the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, also here at Dover AFB, the fallen are prepared by members of our professional AFMAO team for transport to their final destination as determined by their family.
Deaths in wars, armed conflicts and genocides (estimated, in millions)
World War II (worldwide) 1939-1945
Three Kingdoms (China) 184-280
Mongol conquests (Eurasia) 1206-1368
Qing dynasty conquest of the Ming dynasty (China) 1616-1662
Taiping Rebellion (China) 1851-1864
World War I (worldwide) 1914-1918
Rodney Hilton Brown
The answer to your three questions is pragmatic and common sense. To the victor belong the spoils. Previous attempts to enact international standards of conduct on these issues have seldom ever been honored, whether they be the Hague Convention or Geneva Convention, etc. In fact, throughout history the victors usually exact tribute, territory or slave labor from the losers (often all three and maybe their lives as well). In ancient through Medieval times the victors most often took the losers territory and property and then either killed the entire surviving population of men, women, children, pets, etc.—and they got off easy if they were merely enslaved. The very idea that someone might actually be held responsible for recovering the bodies, weapons, and equipment left on a battle field after the battle is over, or being responsible for repairing damaged landscapes or buildings is really an idea of the late 20th century America. I can’t think of any other country in history that had a “Marshall Plan” to feed the losers and rebuild their infrastructure. Before that, as a military historian, I would say that total war really meant total war (civilians included).
— Following an eight month period of heavy bombing of the United Kingdom by Nazi Germany (commonly referred to as The Blitz), 750,000 tons of bomb site rubble from London were carried by 1700 freight trains to East Anglia to make runways on Royal Air Force Bomber Command's airfields. After bomb sites were cleared of rubble, many of them were cultivated to grow vegetables to combat wartime food shortages.
— In Syria, all six World Heritage Sites - listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as being of special physical or cultural significance- have been destroyed in the Syrian Civil War.
John A. Lynn II
Professor Emeritus of military history at the University of Illinois
I would only note that a good deal of immigration into Europe from North Africa and Turkey is explained by the need to clean up and rebuild after WWII. To quote Marc Sageman: "Europe managed to inflict great damage on itself and eradicate large parts of its labor force during World War II. The devastated countries had to look elsewhere for manpower to aid in their reconstruction after the war. They turned to former colonies and allies for help. The French imported labor from Algeria, the British from South Asian countries, and the Germans from Turkey."
— In 2003, early in the US invasion of Iraq, U.S. Marines built a helicopter pad on the ruins of Babylon and turned an archeological gold mine into military base Camp Alpha. Archaeological fragments including ancient pottery and bricks engraved with cuneiform characters were swept up and used to fill sandbags.
ILLUSTRATION: Nikita Treptsov