I recently came across an article titled “Why Did World War I Just End?” and it stated that Germany finally paid the last installment on the reparations and loans it incurred during the War to End all Wars. (It took the Reparations Committee two years to assess the damage — $768 billion in today’s currency — and it was later reduced to about half of that.)
I would contend that modern wars do not end with the payment of reparations and debts. I might also add that it is also true that Adolf Hitler’s refusal to pay anything toward these debts extended this issue for decades.
After WWII, in 1953, Germany stated that it would begin to pay on their WWI debt, but they would not pay it all until Germany was reunified. In 1995 Germany was no longer divided and it began to repay the remainder of its debt. On Oct. 3, 2010, some 92 years after the Paris Peace Conference (the Treaty of Versailles), Germany’s last payment of $94 million was made.
Conventional wisdom seems to accept the above explanation that these payments ended WWI, but there is more to the story! How about the physical aftermath of a war that continues to the present to effect populations?
In the case of WWI, what of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that remains in fields and cities? In a 2016 article titled “Lethal relics from WWI are still emerging”, the author says, “Nearly 100 years have passed since the end of the WWI, but its legacy lingers. In the former battlefields of the Western Front farmers are still at risk from millions of unexploded munitions that remain buried within the soil.” The article goes on to describe a team of Belgian soldiers whose daily task is to pick up UXOs along roads where farmers have placed them. In one case there were 12-foot long shells encased in mud, eight were British and four were German. Three contained mustard gas or other chemical agents, but none of them appeared to be leaking.
Interestingly, some of the UXO are picked up by tourists and others cleaned by locals and sold at local markets for souvenirs.
It is estimated that opposing sides fired some 1.45 billion shells at each other, of which ca. 66 million contained mustard gas or other toxic chemicals. In order to avoid exploding these, farmers almost always plow in the same direction.
“The government of Belgium has paid out nearly 140,000 (pounds) in compensation over the past three years for damages caused to tractors, ploughs and combine harvesters by WWI munitions.” The French Department of Mine Clearance recovers about 900 tons of UXO every year and reports that 630 French clearers have died in the process of disposing of them – and the search continues.
I am certain that it is safe to say that this war was the beginning of wars that continue for decades and longer to kill on a massive scale. But there are so many examples of the continuing aftermath of war.
Consider the use of Agent Orange (dioxin) by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. There are questions about some of the numbers, but it is clear that millions have been effected, mostly Vietnamese and Cambodians, but also US personnel. A report issued by the Aspen Institute says that “Dioxin even in tiny amounts is associated with severe health damage that can shorten the lives of people exposed to it, and potentially that of their offspring and future generations.”
After many years the U.S. Veterans Administration stated that veterans serving in Vietnam between Jan. 9, 1962 and May 7, 1976, including brief visits ashore or service abroad a ship that operated on the inland waterways, were eligible for disability compensation due to agent orange.
Just one more example – the planting of mines, both anti-personnel and anti-tank. One article lists the top 10 countries where these mines exist. First is Egypt and in this case it is not just one conflict, but several over many years – WWII and the Egypt-Israel wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973 which have contributed to this situation. Egypt claims that there are 23 million landmines buried in their country and these have hampered economic development and killed and injured thousands of civilians. About 10 million have been cleared in the past 15 years.
Iran has, according to this article, 16 million mines or UXO which are primarily due to the 1980-1988 war. It is estimated that a million people were killed during this war, but the mines remain and continue to kill and maim.
The International Campaign to Ban Landmines has sought to prohibit the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of such products. This has resulted in what is known as the Ottawa Treaty, a UN effort to stop such utilization. The UN estimates that at the current efforts to clear all the mines in the world it will take nearly 1,100 years. There are serious efforts to utilize dogs and rats in this effort, but more solutions are essential.
Just five years ago a book by a well-informed author titled Wining the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide was published. His focus was on wars between states (or countries), but the conflict we now see are those of terrorists hidden in our midst – post modern wars — perpetuated by non-state actors such as ISIS. It is little comfort to those in the West who are subject to such potential attacks that wars between states have diminished — we simply have wars in a different form.
The words of John F. Kennedy are as true today as they were in 1961: “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.