Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mobilizing Nature by Chris Pearson

A review cross posted from Michigan War Studies Review at

26 May 2015
Review by Gregory J. Dehler, Front Range Community College
Mobilizing Nature: The Environmental History of War and Militarization in Modern France
By Chris Pearson
New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 336. ISBN 978–0–7190–8439–3.
Descriptors: Volume 2015, 19th Century, 20th Century, 21st Century Print Version
One does not typically think of the military as an eco-friendly institution. Yet that image may be changing. In November 2014, the Pentagon issued a report that listed global warming as one of the gravest national security threats facing the United States and outlined several important steps that the Department of Defense (DoD) was taking to mitigate its effects.[1] Over the last decade, the branches of the US armed forces have increased their use of alternative energy sources to lessen or eliminate their reliance on fossil fuels. The French military, too, has implemented eco-friendly policies through, for example, a recycling program, pollution mitigation, and making bases safe havens for wildlife. This is not to say that twenty-first century military forces are wings of Greenpeace or even advocates of environmentalism, but a growing interaction of environmental and military historians in academia mirrors the convergence of these two fields in the policy arena.[2]
With his first book, Mobilizing Nature, Chris Pearson (Univ. of Liverpool) has made a most valuable contribution to a burgeoning field of study: "I aim to shed light on the evolving and profoundly historical relationship between war, militarization, and the environment" (1). More specifically, he stakes out militarized environments as distinct spaces, with their own ecology, policy implications, patterns of resource use, social conflicts, and effects on other landscape.
The book opens with the construction of Camp de Châlons in 1857 and progresses through a century and a half of peace and war into the twenty-first century. The author chronicles the conflict between national military and local civilian priorities, the continuous expansion of the militarized environment, the place of animals and hunting regulations, use of resources, and the perceived influences of nature on the physical and mental health of soldiers in training.
Napoleon III's Camp de Châlons was France's first large, permanent military base. Its establishment opened a debate between military authorities and suspicious civilians that echoes still today. Large-scale maneuvers that laid waste to everything in their path angered Second Empire farmers. So, too, in the twenty-first century, the effects of erosion, pollution, and waste have upset local civilian communities. The French people consider militarized landscapes to be ugly sterilizations of the land and attacks on their local, largely rural, way of life. To allay such concerns, the French Army claimed it required only marginal, unproductive lands ill-suited to farming.[3] In the 1950s and 60s, the army moved into the more rugged hinterlands to train for operations in the harsher terrains of colonial wars. While this territory was indeed agriculturally unproductive, its great natural beauty made it attractive for recreational purposes.
After the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), French army camps were charged with rejuvenating a defeated people by dispensing an invigorating dose of nature to young male conscripts. Expansion of military bases in 1897, state propaganda efforts, and showy maneuvers meant to impress the French people with the army's vitality only raised tensions between the government and a skeptical populace. In an interesting examination of postcards, Pearson demonstrates that depictions of army service as a sort of grand manly camping trip were thoroughly discredited by the actual experiences of the soldiers living in dreary, squalid, and unhealthy camps. Military facilities played a similar part in efforts to restore French masculinity and national pride following the Second World War. But, by that time, such a mission was complicated by imperial wars, the presence of NATO, and De Gaullist policies.
Never static, the French militarized environment shifted and grew. Camp de Châlons was overshadowed by late nineteenth-century constructions, which were in turn superseded in World War I by the massive network of trenches stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Instead of seeing the trenches as a "disfigured, transformed, artificial" (91) landscape, as did most contemporaries, Pearson advises historians to evaluate the experiences of the soldiers in light of the unique ecological space they inhabited. After the forest was obliterated, soldiers entrenched to alter the environment to meet an immediate, pressing need—protection from enemy fire.
The French military expanded into new areas both domestically and globally after the Great War. At home this was visible in the construction of the Maginot Line, memorials to the fallen, and battlefield cemeteries. Globally it meant tighter management of resources in the colonies. This expansion beyond the borders of France continued during the Second World War, through German extraction of natural resources, and during the Cold War, through colonial conflicts and nuclear testing in overseas possessions.
Forestry dominates Pearson's discussion of resource usage. French military planners cut back or added forests to suit their strategic needs. They were almost always at loggerheads with civilian foresters about the health of the land. After all, forests grew irrespective of convenient fields of fire from fortified pillboxes. Both the Germans and NATO considered the French forests a valuable resource. Pearson lumps the German occupation with NATO dominance into a single chapter, "Occupied Territories," on the period 1940–67. Although the Germans had militarized France in several ways, including building coastal fortifications and large-scale defensive flooding, they did the worst damage by aggressively harvesting timber with a total disregard for sustainability.
Some considerable postwar tension between France and its NATO allies stemmed from disagreements over the emotionally significant Fontainebleau forest. Even the French exit from NATO did not solve the conflict over the woods. From the 1960s on, an emerging French environmental movement coalesced around resistance to the militarizing of forests. As Pearson points out, this was not an expression of Deep Ecology, intended to preserve the trees for nature's sake; it was an effort to save and protect a pleasant recreation space. Pressure from civilians in the last thirty years has led the French Army to implement a recycling program, permit multiple uses of its bases, and provide wildlife, especially endangered species, with sanctuaries.
Finally, Pearson tracks the role of animals, both wild and domestic, in the history of French militarization of the environment. Thousands of animals—their care, shelter, transport, waste, and remains—had an important impact in both peace and war. The First World War trenches provided a favorable environment for invasive pests like fleas, lice, and rats, species ubiquitous in the literature of soldiers on both sides. However, the men were not insensitive to the rare examples of natural beauty around them: a lone tree, a colorful flower, a stray songbird might be noticed and cherished more than they would be in peacetime.
Fond recollections of birdsong pepper veterans' accounts of trench life as symbols of hope and solace. Against the odds, birds had adapted to the militarized environment of the Western Front, feeding on the insects that thrived in the trenches and nesting in remains of trees. Waterfowl also gathered on water-logged shell holes and starlings mimicked the whistle blasts used to warn of enemy planes. Birdsong provided reassurance for soldiers of different nationalities … a reminder that life survived within the brutal environment of the trenches. (100)
In the 1970s, sheep became a point of controversy when the army sought to extend Camp Larzac into traditional grazing lands. A national anti-extension campaign forced the French Army to abandon plans to annex the land. Two decades later, military authorities argued that their bases served as quasi-nature preserves that protected endangered birds and butterflies. Hunting[4] regulations were now another bone of contention. As Pearson observes, before the Revolution the French people had no right to hunt, which was restricted to aristocrats and royals. Whether German armies of occupation or the French military itself sought to restrain local hunting, civilians resented any curtailing of this very symbolic right to nature.
Mobilizing Nature is well written and firmly grounded in both primary sources and the secondary literature on militarized environments. Pearson does not compare in any detail the French experience to that of its neighbors. Strictly speaking, this is beyond the scope of the book, but French military planners certainly kept an eye on developments across the English Channel. The building of a central military installation on marginal land followed the British model of Aldershot. Likewise, packaging military installations as nature preserves had British precedents.[5]
[1] DoD, "2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap."
[2] See, esp., Richard P. Tucker and Edmund Russell, eds., Natural Enemy, Natural Ally: Toward an Environmental History of Warfare (Corvallis: Oregon State U Pr, 2004).
[3] This argument played a role in the creation of the US national parks. See Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: U Nebraska Pr, 1979).
[4] Of mushrooms as well as animals.
[5] These matters are touched on without elaboration on pages 19, 275–76.
Purchase Mobilizing Nature

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island

Ronald Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered America.

With the Immigration Act of 1891 the federal government established a measure of control and order to immigration policy. The act replaced the aging Castle Garden facility in New York with the brand new Ellis Island, which was completed in 1892. This transition coincided with the shift in immigration from the traditional points of departures in northern Europe such as England, Germany, and Ireland to new sources in the eastern and southern parts of the continent, including Greece, Italy, Poland, and Russia. These “New Immigrants” included Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox who spoke indecipherable languages with strange alphabets. Although Bayor does not make any effort to tie the 1891 Immigration Act to the Long Progressive Era, it seems that one could attempt such an argument.

Much as recent headlines tell heartbreaking stories of immigrants who are taken advantage of, those of a century ago likewise experienced con artists out to rip them off. In one horrible example that Bayor recounts on page 25, a crooked captain dumped a boatload of Jewish Russian immigrants in Scotland. They thought they had landed in America. In other cases, immigrants who actually arrived in New York City were subjected to more routine scams and price-gouging fees connected with housing, job finding, and transportation.

Bayor describes both the inspection process and the services provided to immigrants at Ellis Island. Doctors provided mental and physical tests. Failure could lead to detention or deportation. This threatened to divide families, which could lead to very difficult decisions. There was an appeal process, but the agenda of the commissioner could significantly affect the zeal to which these policies were implemented. Detainees were provided food and living quarters, but these tended to be of a poor quality.  From the descriptions provided, the food sounded most unappetizing. The Red Cross operated education facilities for immigrant children that put an emphasis on Americanization and English language instruction. Medical services were also provided. The hospital averaged 242 patients a day in 1906 (p. 99) to give one benchmark. Some recreational facilities, including a movie house and game rooms, were available to detainees.

Encountering Ellis Island chronicles the effect that changes in immigration law had for new arrivals. Bayor argues that the literacy test established in 1917 was poor policy that inadvertently gave preference to criminals who were literate, but excluded the workers that America needed at the time. 

Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era will find Encountering Ellis Island a useful source on the immigrant experience. Genealogists will also find it valuable for the same reason. For those working on name changes, Bayor asserts that this did not happen at Ellis Island, a common myth in many a family lore. Name changes occurred either before leaving the old country or after departing Ellis Island in the new.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Review of Shulze, The Degenerate Muse

[This review appeared in the January 2015 issue of Environmental History.]

The Degenerate Muse: American Nature, Modernist Poetry, and the Problem of Cultural Hygiene. By Robin G. Schulze. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 309 pp. Illustration, notes, bibliography, and index. Cloth $65.00.

Published in 1895, Max Simon Nordaus Degeneration argued that over-civilization, progress, and wealth were destroying Western culture. He found examples of such decadence in the work of western artists, correlating what he perceived to be a decay of their vigor with mental illness. In the early years of the twentieth century, fears of such dangers inherent in industrialization triggered a back-to-nature movement in the United States that many historians have attributed to a rejection of the artificial, modern world of smoke-belching factories, undesirable immigrants, and stultifying cities that left their inhabitants feeling detached from any meaningful interaction with the real natural world. Through a careful analysis of the published and unpublished works and correspondence of modernist poets Harriet Monroe, Marianne Moore, and Ezra Pound, Robin Schulze argues an alternative interpretation of the back-to-nature movement in The Degenerate Muse. Her three main subjects were not romantic pastoralists who hoped to educate or inspire their readers with rousing literary vistas of natural wonders. Instead, as Schulze concludes, they argued for a hard-boiled back-to-nature aesthetic that embraced not rejected modernity by using the natural world as an antidote to degeneration. They appreciated the benefits that industrialization bestowed on society, but sought to mitigate its negative cultural and racial effects with an invigorating dose of nature. There was no need, in their eyes, to throw out the progressive, prosperous, modernist baby with the degenerative bathwater.

The trio may have shared a broad understanding of how nature could invigorate art and solve Nordaus dilemma, but Schulze skillfully delineates the considerable nuances and diversity among them. For example, each of the three arrived at the conclusion that nature could solve the predicament of degeneration from very different points. Monroes epiphany occurred as the result of trips to Europe in 1897 and Arizona in 1899. Following a path charted earlier by Thomas Jefferson, she concluded that the raw nature of America could save it from the advanced cultural decay evident in Europe. Pound, who made, it seems, almost no personal attempt to commune directly with the outdoors, understood the importance of nature after he witnessed degeneration occurring in London before his own eyes. He viewed the heart of the British Empire as an artificial place that turned its inhabitants into mindless automatons. Moore was influenced by Charles Darwin and how evolution drew humans into the animal kingdom. This newfound brotherhood with other species inspired her appreciation of the natural world. Pound focused more on racial decline and hygiene, the ugly underside of theory of degeneration, than the other two poets, a perspective that led him to praise Italian dictator Benito Mussolinis policies in the 1930s. Moore, on the other hand, appreciated the importance of diversity and individuality, which put corporate concepts like race beyond her ken. It is interesting to note that they did not always see each other as allies in a common cause. For example, Monroe, the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, never believed that she and Moore occupied any common ground, an assumption that Pound attempted unsuccessfully to disabuse her of.  Whatever their differences, their effort, Schulze concludes in the final sentence of The Degenerate Muse, made nature modern. (p. 239)

By expanding the scope of the back-to-nature movement beyond the physical and educational experiences found in bird days, camping, hunting, and primitive crafts, and into artistic intellectual expression, Schulze has demonstrated how profoundly deep the concerns about the growing gap between urban life and nature were in the first two decades of the twentieth century.  The Degenerate Muse is well argued and the main points are clear and convincing. In keeping with an academic work published by a scholarly press, it contains lengthy end notes, complete with historiographical comments and dialogues on the works of others. However, a few illustrations would have been a nice addition. Cultural, intellectual, and environmental historians with a strong interest in the literature and poetry of period will find this book useful. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement

This review of mine was published in the July issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography:

Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement.  By Susan Rimby. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012. 224 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $64.95.)

The women of the conservation movement are beginning to earn their due attention from biographers and historians. To the work of Jack Davis, Dyana Furmansky, Tina Gianquitto, Nancy Unger, and others, we can add Susan Rimbys admirable biography of Pennsylvanian Mira Lloyd Dock.
            Rimby argues that Dock played a pivotal role in the Progressive Era conservation movement by serving as a bridge between the male professional conservationists and the largely female urban reformers who implemented many of the experts policies on a local level throughout Pennsylvania. As a university trained botanist, Dock enjoyed gravitas with the professionals. She carried on an extensive correspondence with many of the leading conservation figures of her day, and was particularly close to fellow Pennsylvanian Gifford Pinchot. Her appointment to the Pennsylvania Forest Commission in 1901 affirmed her standing. Dock was not mere window dressing. She conducted intensive outreach to amateur groups, and made significant contributions to the success of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy. As a circuit lecturer and influential force in the General Federation of Womens Clubs, Dock translated the concepts of the professional conservationists into the concrete reform objectives implemented throughout Pennsylvania in the early decades of the twentieth century. Her work in her home city of Harrisburg served as an inspiration in both the Keystone State and the nation.
            Despite impressive credentials, gender defined Docks life and career, a consideration that Rimby gives ample attention. The early death of her mother thrust Dock, the eldest child, into the maternal role for her siblings, a position she did not relinquish to pursue her own interests until she was forty-two years old. She possessed a hardboiled utilitarian view of natural resource management and was on constant guard against being perceived of as sentimental, a somewhat derogatory code word at the time that implied overly emotional feminine sensibilities. Dock did not always resist gender stereotypes, however, and Rimby argues that although her subject was a suffragist, she was not exactly what we would describe today as a feminist. For example, Dock subscribed to gender defined professional roles, and believed that only men could be foresters. While she broke a glass ceiling in obtaining appointment to the Pennsylvania Forest Commission (perhaps the first woman in the world to hold such a position), she was deprived a seat on many other boards and commissions, including the Harrisburg Park Commission, simply because she was a woman.

            This is a solid work of primary research based on Docks papers in the Library of Congress, various collections from the rich holdings of historical societies scattered throughout Pennsylvania, and other manuscript collections. It is firmly grounded in the current historiography of both the Progressive Era conservation movement and women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Any historian studying these areas would improve their understanding the era by reading Susan Rimbys Mira Lloyd Dock and the Progressive Era Conservation Movement

Monday, January 12, 2015

Chuck Todd and President Barack Obama

Chuck Todd, host of Meet the Press, was recently interviewed on C-SPAN's After Words about his new book The Stranger, an attempt at what he calls a "second draft" history of the Obama presidency. I will probably not read this book, which is a reflection of my available reading time, not on the quality of Todd's book. Todd made two statements in the interview that I think require an historian's response.

He and the host (Dan Balz of the Washington Post, I believe) discussed the president's record getting legislation through the Democratic Party controlled Congress. The Affordable Care Act took up a lot of time. In hindsight, they wonder, would it have been better to have sent more legislation to Congress? They referred to this as "overloading the system." Then Todd remarked that the lessons of the most recent presidents might be that future chief executives should be more ambitious in sending bills to the legislature. Their power and influence, after all, is most effective in the first two years of their term. Interesting point, but I would also call attention to the lesson Ronald Reagan's chief of staff James Baker drew from Jimmy Carter's experience doing just that. Carter choked a Congress controlled by his own party. Baker, instead, focused Reagan's legislative agenda on three things, economic recovery, economic recovery, and economic recovery, i.e.the tax cut. It seems to me that instead of drawing s single overriding principle on this, it is more instructive to look at each individual case, the times, the issues, and the like. Moreover, we cannot ignore the Congress in this equation.

On Afghanistan, the host asked Todd what he thought about the president's surge in Afghanistan. Todd's answer seems sound. The president is not anti-war, but Obama also believed he was elected to wind down military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military commanders pressed him hard to increase troops in Afghanistan. He gave them some of what he wanted. In his analysis, Todd suggests that the president knew on one hand that every military commander ever has always wanted more troops (Abe Lincoln can tell him tales of woe on this subject), but, on the other, there were not a lot of alternatives. I would only add that I think Obama was trapped by his own campaign talk of the good war and bad war. If he gives up on the war he himself called good, what does that say about his national security policy. Personally, I think he used these terms to show he was not philosophically opposed to war as an instrument of foreign policy, but still felt the United States needed to be wise in using such force, and this was a clever way of doing that.  Facing a declining situation in Afghanistan, he had no choice to save the good war and add more troops. I would only add, as an historical reference, that Kennedy had a similar problem in Vietnam. Throughout the 1960 campaign Kennedy was critical to the Eisenhower Administration's one-size-fits-all strategy of Massive Retaliation. As an alternative policy, Kennedy promoted General Maxwell Taylor's Flexible Response. The name says it all, and it called for different responses to fit different situations. When tested, he could not just walk away and say the situation is lost. He had to do something, especially after the Bays of Pigs fiasco and the Vienna Summit had him backpedalling on foreign policy. Dangerous things happen when presidents are considered weak by the rest of the world. This is not to say that had Kennedy lived he would have done exactly what Lyndon Johnson did do in Vietnam. I think that the most likely outcome is that Kennedy would have escalated in Vietnam in some ways, but would likely have fought a different kind of war. Perhaps, he would have placed less reliance on troops and more on air power.  Either way, what a candidate says during a campaign will be used as measuring stick during their term in office.  I think President Obama knew this.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Suggestion for young scholars and bibliophiles

Don't overlook the used book sections of thrift stores. Seriously! In the past year I have found some great books in good condition. And they were really cheap.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A Thought on FDR's Polio

Still plugging away at Ken Burns's The Roosevelts.  Doris Kearns Goodwin pushed the idea
that polio made FDR more sympathetic to the troubles and concerns of other people, and hence more liberal. By extension, this line suggests that FDR's polio made the New Deal. She is not the first person to suggest this, of course, but I have always been a little suspicious of this assertion. Obviously, such a monumental event in an individual's life will affect their outlook. There is no doubt that FDR was a changed man, and that he shed some of the haughty arrogance that many detected in the younger FDR. It was humbling for athletic FDR to rely on others to help him in the toilet, to get dressed, and to move. He dragged himself across his bedroom floor. Yet, parts of his outlook did not change. He remained ebullient and optimistic, and hid his fears and negative feelings very deep.

On a political level, polio might have made him feel greater genuine empathy and sympathy for the problems of common people. However, he was very much a progressive before polio deprived him the use of his legs. As a politician, he craved popularity and the New Deal was nothing if not very popular with voters, as is clearly evident in his four elections. If anything moved FDR left it was public opinion and the desire to win votes. Social Security is a great case in point. FDR wanted to draw the support Dr. Townsend was building around his proposal. The Social Security Act that FDR signed was different in many ways from what we now know as Social Security. It covered far fewer people and was setup as a self funding program (demonstrating a fiscal conservatives that lurked in FDR). It is hard for me to see how the New Deal would have been very different, or that FDR would have not adopted old age insurance, if had not been afflicted by polio.