The environmental horrors of war are often overshadowed by the awful human costs. But that ecological damage can be horrid in its own right. Even the American Civil War had its environmental costs, particularly on agricultural resources. Stories are legion of large swaths of cropland being trampled or farms being pillaged by scavenging troops. Sherman's March was the worst, but not the only, case of widespread incineration that destroyed many communities. The sorts of destruction that had been associated with war prior to the 20th Century could be devastating in the short term. But cropland recovered, forests regenerated and towns were rebuilt. The advent of chemical weapons, the by-products of weapon use and toxic chemicals meant that problems were magnified.
Prior to the Vietnam War, the overwhelming majority of environmental degradation from war was collateral damage. The United States introduced intentional "ecocide" during the Vietnam War, using the powerful leaf defoliant Agent Orange to get the leaves off the dense jungle vegetation. What seemed like a good idea to expose the troop movements of the Viet Cong, ended up being an environmental and health disaster.
Agent Orange, manufactured by Monsanto and Dow Chemical, was made up of two herbicides (2-4-5 -T and 2-4-D), two toxic chemicals in their own right. But it was also contaminated with a chemical in the very toxic Dioxin family that was an incidental by-product of the manufacturing process. The death and serious health problems of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people and birth defects of a half million infants were blamed on exposure to the defoliant. Nearly 40,000 American Vietnam veterans made claims to the government for health problems connected with Agent. (Less than 500 claims were ever paid because the vets were unable to prove a direct connection to exposure.)
War-inflicted environmental problems arise from other unexpected places. Kuwait's meager groundwater resources were badly contaminated and sensitive desert vegetation seriously damaged during the first Gulf War in the early nineties. One major aquifer that holds more than a third of Kuwait's freshwater reserve is still badly contaminated today. Biological weapons have, unfortunately, been in the news over these last few months. The horrible atrocities in Syria are a stark reminder of the awful effects of those weapons.
Though biological weapons of various sorts date back several thousand years, modern germ warfare has taken the despicable practice to a more dreadful extreme. Though the United States recognized the Hague Declaration of 1899 and the subsequent Geneva Protocols in 1925 and reframed from using the weapons, the US continued to experiment with and produce the agents into the eighties.
Fortunately, the conventions, good judgment and fear of retaliation have kept the use of such weapons to a minimum around the world. The final challenge with biological weapons is getting rid of them. Even after a quarter century, the United States is still reportedly working to destroy their massive stockpile. It is sure to be more challenging in a place like Syria. Despite those challenges, let's hope that the safe and complete destruction of the chemicals in Syria bring us a step closer to chemical weapon-free world.