Speaking of my new header picture… the “Iron Harvest” continues.
A live World War Two German buzz bomb was just unearthed in London. Apparently lounging around live ordnance is normal in England, these guys look pretty nonchalant. I wouldn’t even want to be the person taking the picture, let alone stand next to the bomb. I have a healthy respect for old unstable munitions. There are still estimated to be hundreds of unexploded World War Two bombs scattered around Britain, mostly in London. And despite all the buzz about the blitz (sorry hehe,) England got comparatively little bombing during the war in contrast with the millions of tons of munitions dropped on Japan and Germany. Makes one wonder how big a problem unexploded munitions are.
Fortunately, one need wonder no more. This is one of the uglier little side aspects of modern war that many people, particularly Americans, are blithely unaware of. So many munitions were tossed around in twentieth century wars that hundreds of people are still killed and maimed annually world wide by explosives from wars that ended years or even decades ago. Here are some of the nastier problem areas still killing today…
France. In France and Belgium farmers still regularly plough up old ordnance, mostly artillery shells from World War One, which raged across Northern France and Belgium for four years. It is estimated that more than a ton of munitions landed on each square metre of land on the front lines, and as many as one shell in three did not detonate. This harvest of old explosives came to be called the Iron Harvest, and by extension the term is sometimes used to describe any old munitions found anywhere. About a hundred Frenchmen, mostly farmers, die every year from old ordnance. More than 600 disposal experts have died since the end of World War Two recovering these devices, which farmers simply leave by the sides of their fields to be picked up.
Germany. About two million tons of bombs were dropped on Germany during World War Two, it is estimated it will take another century at least to clean them all up. While the death toll is much lower than the iron harvest in France and Belgium, people do still die. A highway worker was recently killed while operating machinery during repair work on a autobahn. Not reassuring that there are still live bombs under busy freeways.
Japan. World War Two bombs are still routinely found in Japan, as well as munitions that were hastily hidden in the waning days of the war. I was unable to find any figures on fatalities, but they must happen occasionally. Japan unfortunately still disposes of many such discoveries by dropping them in the sea. This is unfortunate since they are filled with toxic substances, western European nations either explode them or destroy them in industrial furnaces if they are chemical weapons.
Afghanistan. Sigh. About 120 Afghans, many of them children, are killed and wounded every month by ordnance scattered around the country, much of it dating from the Russians in the eighties. An the problem isn’t getting much better as fighting continues and coalition forces use air strikes to attack suspected Taliban positions.
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. Laos in particular was hard hit by the USA during the Vietnam war, and about two hundred people still die there annually some three decades after the war ended. More bombs were dropped by the US in the Vietnam War than were dropped by all of the participants in all of World War Two, so this is one of he worst areas of the world for this sort of horror. And like elsewhere, it’s going to take a century or longer to clean up. And this doesn’t even count the damage still be wrought by the worst chemical weapons atrocity of the twentieth century, the American use of agent orange in Vietnam.
China, Yugoslavia, Russia, America, etc. I could go on, but anywhere there was fighting during the twentieth century, people are still at risk today from unexploded munitions. Hell, even where there was no fighting old munitions are sometimes found. Just cleaning up the unexploded ordinance at training sites in the USA is expected to cost 14 billion dollars, this is not a trivial problem.
Lebanon. Over one hundred Lebanese children have been killed by unexploded munitions, usually cluster bomblets, dropped by Israel during the 2006 Israeli bombing campaign in Lebanon. It’s estimated that there is one unexploded bomb per person still scattering the Lebanese countryside. In other words, unexploded ordnance is not simply an old problem from the world wars of the twentieth century, it is very much still being created today.
On the plus side, and a sign that there may actually be hope for the human race, a new treaty came into force in 2006 requiring that in future wars the countries responsible for unexploded munitions clean them up themselves or pay to have it done. Granted, it doesn’t help with past wars, doesn’t help with land mines, and it is unlikely that the main modern culprits like Russia and the USA will ratify it, but it’s a good start. And at the very least focuses more attention on this nasty little problem. Or in the case of the world’s largest known unexploded “bomb”, a big problem.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit and is central to illustrating the post. Credit: AFP/Getty images.)