“Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration”

April 3, 2019


“Bombs Away: Militarization, Conservation, and Ecological Restoration”

By David G. Havlick
University of Chicago Press, $35.00

Reviewed by Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan

David Havlick’s treatise on the status quo of militarized landscapes is one of those rare part-academic/part-pop science books that grabs you and does not let go until you find yourself sharing the author’s philosophy.

In my case, soon after I was done with the book’s first two chapters, I couldn’t help but stop midway in my walk to check the plaque in a nearby park, to find clues as to whether the site was an Army greening effort.

Don’t expect this book to be a dramatic page turner; rather, expect a realistic page-by-page ride from the Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana to once-militarized regions in Japan.

You will find yourself immersed in this geography teacher’s train of thoughts on the history, ethics and politics of militarized landscapes such as barracks, proving grounds and air bases — a ride fueled by his travel and research experience.


Erasure of public memory?

Havlick tells stories like a nerdy traveler. He also slows down often to explain in a jovial teacher’s tone the theories of ecological restoration or the stats, policies and the apparent Army greening efforts of government departments.

In the United States, that means the respective roles of the Department of Defense and Fish and Wildlife Services, Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission, or BRAC, to name a few.

Why would eco-unfriendly military installations be converted into ecological preserves? “I specifically question the implications of embracing ecological militarization as a model for land management, social change, environmental ethics, or conservation,” he writes.

Havlick based his findings on government documents, interviews with officials, observations from traveling on bike along the Iron Curtain Trail in Europe and more.

Wherever he went, he found a common denominator: Politics impact the military, and, in turn,  justifies the need for military as a benefit — for human security, nature or in re-contextualizing the now largely defunct military zones into something positive, which Havlick puts into perspective as erasure of public memory of history.

Take, for instance, Fort Ord on Monterey Bay in California’s Pacific Coast and its legacy as the nature reserve to conserve endangered Smith’s blue butterfly, Contra Costa goldfields and California tiger salamander. Because Fort Ord has now become more scenic and attracts tourists as a national monument, have people forgotten its historical connection to the world wars?

Apparently, these sorts of tricks with the public’s collective memory have happened in Japan, as Havlick recounts during his visit there.

“What I discovered, once I arrived in Japan, is that the impacts of warfare affected many parts of the country so broadly and so disastrously that they have become hard to identify today,” he notes, adding: “This sounds counterintuitive, but points to a curious irony of warfare: that the more devastating and widespread the effect, the more difficult it may be to commemorate and keep visible what happened.”


Wildlife refuges may undermine complex relationships

Havlick argues that militarized landscapes remembered as art forms or memorials — such as the former Buchenwald concentration camp in Weimar, Germany — will not erase our history or correct our history textbooks.


Restoring militarized landscapes and

putting them under simplified definitions

of wildlife refuges may undermine

the complex relationship between

nature and culture — and also our history.


Rather, restoring those sites and putting them under simplified definitions of wildlife refuges may undermine the complex relationship between nature and culture — and also our history.

“A merger of militarism and environmentalism also jeopardizes cultural preservation, in some cases, and can undermine efforts at social reform and achieving a more democratic environmental politics,” he argues.

Havlick’s deep dive into military environmentalism is an important chapter in environmental history.

As a passionate researcher, Havlick tries his best to be objective about his thesis in this highly readable book, which is based on his observations and research supported by statistics.

But he also does not fail to ponder why he is so much into studying militarized landscapes, for he often edges into issues that have ecological relevance but are largely commended by politics, such as war vs. pacifism and walls vs. immigration.

“How we allow ourselves to experience and interpret [militarized landscapes] will shape their meaning as we encounter the past; how this translates to policy and action will, in turn, affect the way we live today and in the future,” he concludes.

Journalist Vijay Shankar Balakrishnan, a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, is based in Germany and covers science, environment, health, development and books for various international outlets.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 14. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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