Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Taste of War by Lizzie Collingham

Source of book: I own this. This was a gift from my brother-in-law. (See my post on Dharma Bums for more about our mutual love for hiking and literature.)

I have been putting off writing this for a few weeks. First, I went camping, and that kind of got in the way. Then, I had a crazy Symphony week, so there just wasn’t time to sit down and sort out what I was going to say. The problem, in large part, is that this is a really big book, with a fairly broad reach, and that tends to make it hard to focus on a few core ideas. The book is 500ish pages long, plus extensive endnotes. 

Let me see if I can distill this down a bit. Lizzie Collingham tackles the role that food played in World War II, from the role food played in why the Axis powers started a war in the first place, through the difficulties the various players encountered in keeping their own populations - and armies - supplied with food, through the way starvation was used as a weapon, to the way the war changed forever how food was grown, processed, and consumed throughout our modern world. So yes, a huge scope, and far too much information to put in one review. Collingham is British, so she sometimes focuses on the British experience, but she does an excellent job expanding the view to a global one.

As a basic summary, I would say that this book is well researched, marvelously detailed, and sheds a light on World War II that augments and in some cases revises the dominant narratives.

First, while the causes of most wars aren’t exactly singular, there are some common threads. No doubt the economic hardships to Germany after the first World War were a significant trigger. But there was also a political philosophy which went beyond that of the Nazis which led inevitably to the war.

Germany decided that its goal was to become self sufficient when it came to food, rather than import food from elsewhere, like Britain. And not just Germany, but Japan too adopted this ideal.

There was a major problem, however: neither had enough land to be able to support their populations. In Japan’s case, it was at least arguable that had they embraced modern farming techniques, they might have been able to do it, but Germany simply didn’t have enough fertile land or a long enough growing season. Britain, for what it is worth, was even worse off, but chose to embrace a global marketplace and import food in exchange for other goods. Come to think of it, this is what Britain had been doing for the past several hundred years, so it came easily to them.

The solution to the problem? Well, since population shrinkage is rarely a popular suggestion, particularly since someone gets the task of dying, Germany and Japan decided that they needed more land. In Germany’s case, it is clear from internal documents that they always intended to invade Russia, and take part of the Ukraine in addition to Poland for themselves. For Japan, this mean Korea and Manchuria - and an empire in Southeast Asia.

This begs the question, naturally, of what was to happen to the people who already occupied these “new” lands that would would be conquered. Where would they go?

The answer to that is as ugly as it comes. Germany had long considered the Jews to be mere “useless eaters,” and intended for them to starve or flee. In fact, the “final solution” wasn’t really a surprise to many within the regime. If anything, execution was a better death than starvation. But it didn’t stop with the Jews. Not at all. Collingham pieces together documents from the Nazi era that paint a pretty clear picture.

The people occupying the land would be deported and enslaved - around 70 million people. It was fully expected that at least 30-60 million people, primarily those of the “undesirable” Slavic race, would starve to death. And that was fine.

Japan does not seem to have been as realistic. It appears that they expected that somehow they could “merely” enslave the Korean and Chinese populations, feed them less, and still have lots of food left over. In practice, of course, one would have the same result. Those deprived of their food would die of starvation.

One of the most shocking things in this book, though, was that these intended (and partially accomplished) atrocities didn’t just happen out of the blue. In fact, there was a clear blueprint for them which was cited by the Nazis as a great example of how they foresaw the plan unfolding:

The expulsion of the Native Americans from the United States.


Think about it: as we expanded into North America, the native populations were enslaved, deported en masse, and eventually succumbed to starvation and disease. (The numbers are staggering: 20-100 million for the entire new world, and easily 80% of the original populations. Even with the lower number, it comes in at the 7th worst death toll for conflicts in history once adjusted for world population.) The Nazis recognized this as a viable template for genocide.

On a related note, I do not want to create the impression that the evil was all on the side of the Axis powers. With the exception of the United States, no major player could feed itself, so hard decisions had to be made. Even for the US, how much to share and with whom was a question which was not necessarily answered in a just manner.

For England, the decision was made that hunger would be “exported.” That is, the colonies - particularly in India and Africa - would be cut back far more than for the homeland, with the result that starvation became rampant. India was hit the worst, because Africa was both closer to self-sufficient, and better able to conceal foodstuffs from requisitioning by the British authorities.

Although I admire Churchill, I must say I was repulsed by his statements on India. He considered Indians to be subhuman savages, and blamed them for their own starvation. In a sentiment that even now is echoed by the right wing here in America, he claimed that they would have been fine had they not “reproduced like rabbits.” As if reproduction were just a privilege for the wealthy or white.

As Field Marshall Wavell (one of the true heroes in the war) after he was appointed to oversee India (having commanded the forces in North Africa previously) bitterly said, “A very different attitude [exists] towards feeding a starving population when the starvation is in Europe.”

I won’t spend too much time in this review on the extensive discussion of battlefield logistics other than to say that it is fascinating reading. Truly battles may be won on tactics, but wars are often won by logistics. Whatever the contribution in weaponry and soldiers the United States made to the war, it was the logistics of supply that were its forte.

Likewise, the sections on how the various countries managed their own supplies through rationing and other means is worth reading. Any economist would recognize the problems caused by black markets and unfair apportionment of resources.

I do want to focus a bit, though, on some of the interesting points the author makes about malnutrition. There are plenty of tales of people dying in the streets of starvation. (Google the Siege of Leningrad, if you have a strong stomach.) It wasn’t pretty.

But I hadn’t realized the severe secondary tolls taken by malnutrition. It’s one thing to die from lack of calories - it’s ugly. But for far more, they died from the effects of insufficient nutrition. Diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and cholera are far more deadly for the malnourished. Likewise, one of the early signs of malnutrition is an elevated maternal and infant death rate. Thus, even as millions starved, even more millions died of disease as a direct result of malnutrition, and more mothers and babies died as well.

Before and during the war, scientific research turned to the requirements of nutrition. Many of our current standards derive from this era and the research which was done. The war itself served as a research study on a grand scale. Because of rationing and subsidies, for the first time in recorded history, some poor populations actually had enough to eat - and nutritious food.

The result of this research has been revolutionary. It turns out that, as the author put it, “It was clear that ill-health among the poor was directly related to deficient family income. The poor quite simply could not afford to buy enough good-quality food.” All it took to reduce maternal death rates, and rates of many diseases was to ensure that women got sufficient and good quality food. Who knew? Well, this was revolutionary in its time.

There were other interesting findings. Often the poor would consume enough calories, but they lacked other nutrients. Due to the gulf in income, the wealthy were able to afford meat, fish, dairy products, and fresh vegetables which were out of the reach of the poor.

Furthermore, the research identified three causes which still today are at the heart of the malnutrition problem: lack of proper kitchen facilities to prepare food, a lack of time to cook from scratch, and insufficient income to afford the more expensive but more nutritious foods.

Prior to this research, there was a general sentiment that malnutrition was the fault of the poor. They weren’t frugal enough, they were ignorant of nutrition, they were lazy and didn’t want to cook. Oh wait. That’s still how we talk about the poor. My bad.

This is still an issue today. A great example of how this plays out can be seen in McDonalds’ attempt to show that one can live on the current minimum wage. It has been pointed out - and indeed, it is completely obvious to anyone who can live on budget - that the plan for living on minimum wage has serious flaws. First, it assumes that the person receives government health care and food stamps to pay pretty much all of their food needs. Second, it requires a 70 hour work week. Third, the amount allocated for rent wouldn’t actually allow a person to afford real housing - at least in California. So, one could see all three factors: lack of total income for needs, probably no kitchen facilities, and a work schedule that leaves insufficient time to prepare nutritious food.

This research had a secondary effect. Because rationing and nutrition subsidies had a positive effect, leading many to experience a lack of hunger and malnutrition, a fundamental shift occurred. Maternal and infant death rates declined in England and the United States. Malnutrition related deaths of all kinds dropped. And people noticed.

Throughout the western world, the wartime introduction of planned economies, which accepted responsibility for the health and welfare of all a nation’s citizens, marked a decisive break with the past. In post-war Britain it would no longer be possible for a government, whether Conservative or Labour, to turn away from abject misery, declaring that it was the result of ignorance and, by implication, beyond the means of the government to rectify.

Perhaps the only movement in the western world that hasn’t accepted this is the current version of the right wing in the United States. (Even the Right, when I was a kid in the Reagan years, didn’t see the dismantling of the New Deal and the safety net to be a goal. But now, it appears that Ayn Rand economics has become the cause celebre - one of several reasons I left the GOP.)

The problem is this: prior to these programs, people really did starve, and people really did die of malnutrition-related diseases, and things got better once government stepped in and did some redistribution. For those who wish to reverse that, I have to wonder, “what is your plan to keep the gains?” Or do you, deep down, hope to return to the days of malnutrition for those who “don’t deserve it”? Just asking…

One final bit that I found interesting - and a bit humorous. Hitler was well known to eat an austere diet that would faze even some paleolithic sorts today. Not so for some of his underlings. This book tells of a feud between Goebbels, who wished to see the leaders embrace austerity in the name of victory, and Goering, who was legendary in his extravagance. His love for Horcher’s, a luxury restaurant infuriated Goebbels enough that he arranged for a mob to attack the restaurant. Goering, naturally, dispatched soldiers from the Luftwaffe to guard his favorite dinner spot. Ah, the politics of food…

This is an intriguing book on many levels. It isn’t an easy or light book, but it is well worth the read. Doubly so for anyone interested in history, warfare, economics, nutrition, or politics.
But I think what will stick with me the most is this: we still act in accordance with the worst of our human nature all too often. We can be generous only until our own luxury and privilege is threatened, and then we are all too eager to export hunger and poverty and turn a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow humans. World War II was ugly on so many levels, but we should not forget that much of its evil wasn’t unique. It existed before the war, and remains afterward.

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