Thursday, February 22, 2018

A World at War

The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food by Lizzie Collingham contains the most horrifying collection of statistics and historical details that I can recall. In the following few paragraphs, I'm reviewing the most memorable facts about the global horror of nearly world-wide hunger and death from starvation that I read in her book. Understanding the vast range of disruptions and disasters of the war is complicated, but Collingham's presentation makes it almost comprehensible.

Year by year, country by country, Collingham documents mass starvation throughout Europe, China, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, South Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, and both North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. She delves into the Nazi policies of intentional starvation of Russians, Slavs, Jews, and others, and the unintended consequences of acts of war and devastation in Poland and Russia. She shows how a motive of the Wansee Conference that ordered creation of Nazi Death Camps was to do away quickly with the Jews, labeled as "useless eaters" -- kill them immediately, don't just starve them to death. Starvation was the fate of many others that the Nazis deemed surplus human beings, especially Russians in the besieged cities and occupied territories during the Nazi invasion of their country.

Collingham explains how British policy protected the residents of Britain from starvation, but victimized their colonies. A major famine in Bengal was the most extreme. Before the war, people in Britain and British colonies, Germany, Japan, and many other countries had come to depend on foods imported to their countries. Prioritization of feeding large armies, consequences of blockades and attacks on commercial shipping and land transport, and other acts of war all disrupted supplies or cut them off entirely, leaving many people throughout the world without the foods they depended on.

Agriculture in countries at war was disrupted by direct battlefield activity or bombings, by transfer of needed labor away from farming to industry, and by wartime conscription. The military required heavy equipment of the same type as farm equipment, as well as drawing on the same fuel supplies used for tractors etc. Further, essential nitrates for fertilizer were required instead as components of explosives needed for war, thus reducing farm productivity. Coordination and well-planned policies were not always adequate.

During the early years of the war, the Nazis were able to improve German food production despite the multiple demands on labor and equipment. They also maintained a policy to loot the food from conquered lands. Decent nutrition was thus available for their own people. However, as the war turned in favor of the allies, these practices failed and starvation also affected the formerly privileged German people. The "hunger winter" at the end of the war resulted in yet more mass starvation, when a combination of bad harvests, cruel policies, and the aftermath of bombing and destruction occurred in Holland and other parts of Europe.

Much detail about the Japanese treatment of their own troops illustrates that even their soldiers often starved to death. Why? Because Japan's official policy was that troops should live off the land, but no actual study was done to see it this was possible -- the troops were just dropped off on one remote Pacific island or another with a few days' worth of rations. The Japanese didn't put supply lines into place the way that other military regimes did, it was every man for himself and blame the victims. Both intentional policies and also errors contributed to starvation of both their own troops, their own civilians, the people they conquered, and enemy troops. Japanese victims included people in China, the rest of Asia, and the South Pacific. Their prisoners of war also starved, including of course many American troops.

Long and detailed analyses and statistics about food supplies and production show just what happened. In many chapters, Collingham develops much more comprehensive information than the few sentences I have written. Most people who have read about the war at all are aware of some of the events and consequences Collingham describes, but I doubt if most people have squarely faced the incredible numbers of people who died of starvation: far more than on the battlefield. I doubt if most people ever think about the suffering of a human being starving to death -- even just one human being, much less millions. I found it really tough to read the many chapters in this book!

In contrast, Collingham also describes the impact of the war on agriculture and the food supply in the US. Once the US declared war, we were committed to try to feed the allies as well as to avoid hunger at home. We had to increase agricultural production and develop the means to deliver food to the allies, as well as to offer troops and military supplies. The US government quickly and effectively mobilized to do so. American manufacturing expanded to enable both military and agricultural equipment production. With new equipment and support for farmers, output of grain, meat, and other agricultural products increased and became more efficient. Despite rationing of some scarce resources, Americans were able to obtain an ample and fully nutritious diet, and American troops were fed vastly better and larger rations than any other armies. Among other things, Collingham describes the favored status of the Coca-Cola company, which received special sugar rations to supply Coke to all American troops. Statistics for all of this are included, along with some of the negative response that American superiority inspired.

The Taste of War is an amazing book; also overwhelming. The specter of millions of starving people, the memory of the millions who died from hunger, and the suffering that spread throughout so much of what was thought to be the civilized world is nearly unbearable. I've only presented the elements of the book that most stick in my mind.

One of the questions that the book suggests is this: What were Americans fighting for? I want to end this depressing summary of the impact of the war with the mention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's January, 1941, State of the Union Address. His vision of a better world was often considered important in understanding the commitment of Americans during the war. He said:

"In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms."

Norman Rockwell's famous depiction of the Four Freedoms for the War Bond Campaign motivated Americans in World War II. (Wikipedia)
UPDATE: This book was the subject of a very interesting Culinary Reading Group discussion on September 19, 2018.


Unknown said...

Food situation in Russia was seriously (and intentionally) FUBAR way before the war. The Great Famine in Ukraine, for example.

Mae Travels said...

Actually, Collingham's book has very complete reviews of the food situation in the main nations involved in the war. Obviously, trying to summarize what I learned from 600 pages in a few paragraphs left out quite a lot!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I thought this book was excellent and provided a unique perspective on the war not often addressed in other books more interested in weapons and battles. The racism in it was also very depressing!

Mae Travels said...

@rhapsodyinbooks -- Yes, the book called out racism in many forms. I think that's what you are getting at. Everyone knows about Nazi racism, which was the most virulent (probably the most virulent in all history) but there were many more benign examples that also had terrible consequences. As I said, my review tries to go over a 600 page book in a few paragraphs, so that part didn't make it.