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text 2015-05-09 23:30
When Something You're Reading About Pops Up in the News...

Something in news I was glancing through today reminded me of the Aftermath: Remanants of War book. And typical me, I forgot to add it to the post and am now lazy and about to log off - so here you go, link and quote time:


One-Ton Bomb from WWII Temporarily Closing Osaka's Geek Street

Brian Ashcraft, Kotaku, 5/8/2015 

"...This past March, construction workers discovered the one-ton bomb in Nipponbashi, Osaka’s geek district also known as “Den-Den Town.” According to NHK, the bomb was American-made and dates from World War II. Bombs that didn’t go off are still found all over Japan." 


Oddly this is not at all the type of news site I'd look to for coverage of unexploded ordnance. ...Er, then again, who does bother to report on this? That's why I keep going on about that book - you don't hear or read about this sort of thing since it's not discussed/written about much.

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text 2015-05-09 22:59
Reading in Progress: Aftermath: The Remnants of War
Aftermath: The Remnants of War: From Landmines to Chemical Warfare--The Devastating Effects of Modern Combat (Vintage) - Donovan Webster

In two previous posts (here and here) I shared quotes from the chapter on France, and I expressed worry that the rest of the book couldn't live up to the descriptions and the shock of learning how much explosive stuff was still left in France after two world wars. Turns out I was wrong to be concerned. Mainly because all of the history I've read about World War II has been written by westerners. I have a feeling if I'd read about how Russians still think about Stalingrad (not that that link tells about the starvation, hardships, etc. on both sides) - and the way the country is still effected by that war - I'd have known what I was going into. Specifically hundreds of thousands of skeletons.


40% in, the first part is about how bodies were left or partially buried everywhere and some farmers just plowed whatever was or had made it above ground back into their fields and planted crops there. The author had previously asked why he wasn't seeing any skulls. Skulls weather and break up quickly, but the rest of the bones are found literally everywhere. Only in recent years has there been an attempt to identify German, Austrian, and Italian soldiers - identification tags can often still be found near the bodies.

"In another few minutes of driving the back roads - after passing an enormous field where a German graveyard was plowed to chaos before the bodies could be identified - we arrive at a pond fed by a small, iced-over creek, the River Rossoshka. Beyond it, a long, flat farmer's field recedes into the distance. This, Shtrykov tells me, was the Pitomnik airbase. "The airstrip was there," he says, pointing to the field. "But what you want is this way."


Ahead of us, littering fields that are blown with snow, the rounded shapes of skulls and the pickets of arm and leg bones are everywhere. There are tens of thousands of bones spreading away from us in every direction. Shtrykov bends forward and lifts a pair of round, white skulls from the earth. Each of Shtrykov's hands cradles one in the air. "Because of the balki, there has been no plowing here," Shtrykov says. "The skulls have not been broken up." He puts the skulls back down, walks two or three steps and grabs up two more skulls, lifting them to show me. "These men all died defending Pitomnik, an airfield where supply planes had stopped landing," he says, putting the skulls back down.


I walk away, looking at the endless skulls. On some of them, I can see only the paleness of their smoothly rounded backs. On others, the ovalesque holes where the spinal columns once attached are pointed toward the sky. Some show eye sockets or the blade-shaped triangles where noses once were, or they show rows of upper teeth and the dark seams of the nasal palates, or the corrugated junctions where two cranial plates have split, leaving the skull cracked wide open so snow has sifted inside. And there are not just tens of these skulls - or even hundreds. There are thousands."

(Balki are ravines. Annoyingly I can't find a quick link for that, but it's referred to earlier in the text.)


The reason it was particularly sad that the soldiers guarding that airfield died - that was where the planes bringing in food, etc. were supposed to land. And the soldiers knew not to expect any more. Planes weren't able to get in, yet Hitler refused to let the men surrender or retreat (a morale thing for the rest of the forces, among other reasons). Not that those who did surrender had things much better - the locals didn't have much food themselves thanks to the destruction of the war. 


So far the book continues to be an excellent combination of historical summary of the battles interspersed with the author's current day travel/interviews with locals who show him the areas and explain what it was and is like for people to live and work on the land. 


This is one book I don't think I have to explain away my slowness in reading. It hasn't depressed me as much as it has made me realize how inadequate my history reading has been for learning how local people still feel about wars many decades in the past. I feel I've really neglected this area - sort of the social history of wars past - but at the same time it's not one that many history books look to discuss. I also realize how completely westernized my view of these wars are - I feel I need to read more of this history written by people who lived in these countries. Because for me reading how the locals describe the war and the dead is one of the best parts of this book. Or maybe the worst - because those descriptions are pretty bleak.

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text 2015-04-24 00:48
Just One More Quote...
Aftermath: The Remnants of War: From Landmines to Chemical Warfare--The Devastating Effects of Modern Combat (Vintage) - Donovan Webster

...Which I'm sharing because this one made me stop after reading it, just thinking how amazing it was that no one else found these particular explosives in any more dramatic way.


17% in, the author is being shown a storage facility for some of the explosives - as well as a testing site for current French weaponry. (He's the first journalist that's ever been allowed there.)

On the ground near the steel door is a sea mine, round and metal, bigger than a large beach ball. "Let's start here," Teller says, pointing. "This is a magnetic German water mine from the Second World War. Two years ago [this book was published in 1996], we found 220 of these anchored in the Atlantic. They were a minimum of twelve feet under water, off the coast of Bordeaux, chained to the sea floor. Our divers had to deactivate them under water. It is amazing that, in all the years since World War II, no one ran a deep-draft ship through the mine field. A miracle."


Teller lifts his hands in the air as if holding an invisible softball. "Here's how these work," he says. "Inside each mine is a thick lining of explosive, like TNT. At the center of the ball, a magnetic detonator sits on a small trampoline. If a boat strikes a mine, or the metal of a ship's hull gets close enough to attract the detonator's magnetic charge, the detonator is thrown against the explosive - kaboom!" Teller smiles. "It's a very simple idea. And since these mines are generally deep beneath the sea, there's no worry about waves - sea action - jostling the detonator. These mines stay hidden and are very effective."


Again, explosives from WWII. Just hanging around waiting to be jostled - or anything metal to pass nearby - and then they explode. As was planned decades ago when they were placed there.

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text 2015-04-23 19:54
"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.

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